Mark Robinson is the Co-Founder of Kimble Applications.
When the pandemic hit, many business leaders had to throttle back, shifting down a gear and taking stock of what the road ahead looked like and what they could expect to happen. They had to make quick but informed decisions that would impact how their businesses would stay on track.
But when they come around that dangerous corner, they still want to be in the pole position, ready to ease off on the brakes and speed up again.
Why can some businesses moderate their speed to the conditions, slow down as they approach the zig-zag lines that mean “danger ahead,” and then speed up again, while others can’t? Why are some leaders more in control of the business? Is it because they are using better technology?
I don’t think so. This is where technology meets the real world. The fastest car in the garage won’t be much good if the driver doesn’t have any idea when the battery will go flat or how far it is to the next fueling point.
I would argue that a vital basis for steering across difficult terrain is business predictability. Predictability requires building reliability and responsiveness into every aspect of the business. To do that, you need three things to work together: technology, processes and people.
Of course, technology is hugely important in business today. The range of powerful tools available is vast and growing. Using augmented intelligence and automation, it is possible to do many things more reliably than in the past.
For example, computer programs that diagnose cancer from scans are much more accurate than the human eye. Once the computer has been taught to recognize certain patterns, it’s unlikely to make mistakes.
In a nutshell, people don’t make very good robots. Tasks like this that involve applying certain principles to a data set are much better automated. Using technology to manage data, to surface patterns and to highlight particular issues reduces errors, increases visibility and improves predictability.
But technology is not a magic wand. Sometimes business leaders reach for a new piece of technology but that’s all they do — they simply try to add it on top of the way things currently work. But no matter how powerful, a new piece of kit won’t help if business processes are not redesigned in a way that allows that potential to be realized.
If business processes become unwieldy and obstructive, then they won’t help to achieve predictability. Processes should be designed to show where the business is right now and what needs to be done to adjust swiftly to what is coming down the road. But they don’t always work like that.
For example, I have come across businesses, which to this day, retain a habit of postponing important decisions to the board meeting once a month. That made sense when the information was shared physically, by messengers pushing trolleys full of cardboard boxes containing files around the office. It just wasn’t available until the end of the month. But nowadays it doesn’t make sense to wait a month to fix an issue that you can literally watch turning into a problem.
Sometimes, people simply layer new information-gathering processes on top of the old ones as a way of trying to optimize them. The risk is that this creates a vast data slick, which obscures insight as much as honing it. Too much data can leave people as ill-informed as too little.
One organization I came across was measuring 250 key performance indicators on a very complicated spreadsheet. Steering this business was like trying to drive a car on a winding road with a vast array of gauges on the dashboard, red lights coming on for things like, “it’s time to wash the car mats!”
It doesn’t matter what tech tools business leaders buy. They won’t be able to get the benefit unless they can change and adapt the way they work.
The most important element in getting the benefit of technology is people. Leaders have a big role to play in keeping everyone in the loop. If they all understand what the organization’s objectives are, how the organization is performing against them and what their individual contribution is, it will be easier for them to succeed in their role.
Frontline employees can see in a way nobody else does, as they know what is happening in customer interactions as they unfold. They can see right away where the plans made in the boardroom are losing traction. Technology and processes should support people throughout the organization to share their news and views — both good and bad — and to make appropriate decisions.
In some organizations, people get blamed for things that we should instead blame on bad processes. Instead of asking how we can do things better in the future, leaders look for the culprit when something goes wrong. But that means the opportunity to learn from what didn’t work and to create predictable performance is missed.
In contrast, in an organization with a good team culture, people across the business share information, make swift decisions and support each other to get a great result. If someone in the road crew drops the spanner, someone else will pick it up immediately.
I’m sure you’ve watched those videos of the pit crews of motor racing teams changing a set of tires in a matter of seconds. That’s an example of technology, people and processes working together. They are focused on using the best tools available to get the driver back out on the track as quickly as possible, and they can deliver that result time and again.
It’s consistency, that ability to see what needs to be done and then work together to make it happen, that allows a great team to really deliver on the promise of technology. That’s what drives the business predictability and makes all the difference in unpredictable times.
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