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Bruce Holland

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Ambushing the time bandits

Time starvation - arguably it's the most insidious threat to managers in the 21st century.

Much has been reported on its causes from the daunting challenges of rapid change to opportunities that seemingly are here today and gone tomorrow. For all the benefits of this communications age, there's a risk of having incomplete information or its stifling opposite, overload. Ironically, as task work has become more streamlined, knowledge work has become more cluttered and confusing. The impact of a world that's perpetually gaining heat on managers has encouraged the common habit of dousing the spot fires, coping with the urgent only, and procrastinating with the truly important.

Bruce Holland of New Zealand?s Virtual Group Business Consultants, regularly sees the dilemma among his clients. "Just like a short-sighted person, if organisations spend their time focussed on what's immediately in front of them, they'll fail to see what's in the future," he says. "They may have the best databases and information systems, wonderful people full of wisdom and happy to share knowledge but still they stumble."

Holland has discovered the cruel truth is that often everything an organisation needs to make significant leaps forward is already in place. "If the managers don't know what to look for or if they are snowed by detail then confusion will continue and progress will be slow." He says organisations confronting this issue typically have weaknesses in strategy and alignment.

In the course of his work, Holland has identified six key strategic areas to help organisations better focus on what counts.

1. Creating an organisation to meet the environment

At its most basic level, this is about developing a perspective on the environment in all its aspects " demographic, social, economic, competitive, political, technical and environmental " and the waves of change that run through each. An organisation needs to be prepared to meet these, argues Holland who recalls the words of a world champion ice hockey player: "The secret of ice hockey is not to skate to where the puck is but to where it will be." Becoming pro-active, rather than reactive in management brings distinct advantages, at times allowing businesses to reshape their competitive environments, rather than simply respond, points out Dr Shayne Gary, a senior lecturer in strategy at the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM). As most organisations are working in uncertain environments and customers are becoming more powerful, the managerial culture will need to shift from rational and structured to the more entrepreneurial and team oriented. Managers need to evolve from being drivers and administrators by adopting a more visionary, coaching style and the focus for customer service may upgrade from simply delivering quality towards creating expectations and relationship building. (Poss. Diagram here.) Changes will not always be coming from the outside either, cautions Chris Dionne, CEO of business coaching firm Shirlaws, specialists in small-medium enterprises (SMEs). Managers must deal with internal shifts, understanding the subtleties of better communication with employees and peers in pressurised times. "For example, frantic people require a lot of detail," Dionne says.

2. Determining a point of uniqueness

The heart of strategic thinking is to be strongest at the decisive point. Find out what matters - what makes your organisation stand apart - and then put your energy behind it. In Holland's view, there are usually three possibilities: operational excellence; product leaders; or, customer intimacy. "You need to play to an organisation's strengths and minimise its weaknesses," concurs Gary. "It's tough to be unique in today's competitive environment." When South-West Airlines in the US found it could not gain access to the landing slots at major airports it countered the dominance of big established carriers by making a virtue of flying into smaller airports. This model that has been repeated to great success by Virgin Blue and REX in Australia, reshaping the competitive environment and creating positions of strategic strength. Once your positioning is determined, adds Dione it is important that every part of an organisation delivers the message to the consumer.

3. Going with the flow

Many of the trends that will affect an organisation are already established. For instance, demographics are most often predictable. Good strategists take time to identify and plan for the shifts as often the changes needed to meet the new challenges take a long time to implement. "At the same time, we are part of an ever-changing, interlocking, non-linear, kaleidoscope world and as such planning can involve as much imagination as prediction," says Holland. "Keep as many options open as possible. Aim to see the connections, sense the flows of change and to surf with the waves, not against them." "Uncontrollables" will come also from within, and in smaller businesses are often found "clumped" in particular areas. Dionne says a common case is the too-busy manager who does not have time to address human resource issues causing all kinds of fallout. The admission that there may be someone better to manage a task is tough, but ultimately makes strategic sense.

4. The importance of living systems

Organisations are systems within systems and they are living, although managers tend to believe they are mechanical, drawn with boxes and lines and formalised silos of power. The mechanical ones aim to control and limit risk, but are fundamentally unstable. In a law firm where he previously worked, Dionne saw first-hand one of the greatest risks with the silo approach was not only in the wasteful duplication of tasks, but in the likelihood of delivering products or services of variable standards. Living systems are about nurturing, growing, challenging and releasing human energy, and they are much more stable because they are constantly learning, flexible, flat, fast and highly collaborative. A body of scientific research around living systems has emerged in the past decade that is now being applied by large companies, such as Visa and Unix, with results that lampoon some of management's most prized assumptions about control, workflow and top-down decision-making. As the trend grows, Holland sees managers increasingly thinking about the organisations as part of an ecosystem of partnerships, alliances and linkages (PALs) all dedicated to adding value to the customer. Inevitably, he says, the next big advance in strategic thought prompts the question: "What should we work with others to deliver and what do we want to own ourselves?"

5. The clear vision

Good visions are challenging, big, bold and ugly. They need to excite the youngest recruit, reflect passion, kindle a fire of pride and have the ?wow? factor. Even though no one may know how to achieve it yet, the rich picture of where an organisation will be in five or 10 years time is important. "It is crucial that all stakeholders in an organisation have a clear idea of where it is going and buy into that mission. It is the people who determine the long-term future of an organisation and they need to feel confident about their direction," says Gary. Creating a vision is more than writing down the words and hanging them on the wall. A double-pronged approach, developing separate commercial and cultural visions, is increasingly popular, looking both at where you want to be in the marketplace, and at what sort of an organisation you want to build. According to Dionne, when the cultural part is right, then commercial outcomes almost inevitably follow. Holland uses key questions to help in shaping a vision involve conversations around: What will be our mission? What will make us stand out? What will be our core business? How will we add value? What legacy will we leave to the broader community? What will our customers say about us? What are the values in our business culture, including relationships with employees, shareholders and suppliers? What else will be different?

6. Adjusting the focus

Writing a vision will seem like a major achievement, but it is just the start. What must follow is a refinement of the strategies to achieve the vision, deciding which three or four will really make a significant difference. The employees need to buy into the vision wholeheartedly for all parts of the organisation to be aligned with the new strategies, and considerable energy to be put behind their implementation. "Pacing the rate of change is vital," Gary warns. "Too much change at once will create chaos, disrupting managers and employees' working routines." In the process of reviewing strategic plans, Holland has noticed the common pitfall in organisations biting off more than they can chew. "If you build your business around achieving a few right strategies first, then there will be time for all the other things that have to happen."

Bruce Holland is the founder and major shareholder in Virtual Group Business Consultants. He helps large organisations to be focussed, fast and flexible. For more information see

Bruce Holland

Helps large organisations be focussed, fast and flexible. Places where people have more meaning, depth and connection.

Expert in Strategy, Structure, Culture and Leadership Development.

One of NZ's most experienced change agents.

Liberating the Human Spirit at Work

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