How to organise insights gleaned from years of experience to give you a competitive edge.

Business methods such as Blue Ocean and Six Sigma are often touted as “The Way” to turn under-performing companies into champions. Many Asian CEOs adopt these methods with gusto. Some even attempt to apply these approaches one after another, leading to confusion. Like building a house, without a master plan, these useful strategies will end up as a jumble of poorly executed ideas which are then swiftly discarded. Instead of jumping onto the next consulting fad, companies should look within and identify their own unique way of creating value.

“If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive,” Lew Platt, former Hewlett-Packard CEO

It’s a pity that many Asian CEOs underestimate how much they can learn from their own organisations. Our work with them has shown that most do not dedicate time and resources to review work processes to identify useful ideas or approaches. We rarely find companies that are keen to learn from within or believe that people in the company have the skills to coach others. The absence of internal coaching is often a reliable indicator to see if a company is headed towards mediocrity or greatness.

Before discovering how you create value, review the state of your organisation

Companies cannot simply adopt any business approach, because every working culture and approach is different. To avoid installing a wrong application onto the wrong operating system, so to speak, you must first identify the ‘system’ on which your company runs on. Consider the following:

Leadership style. What are the backgrounds and personal approaches of management and how they affect work?
Nature of work. Is it primed towards an emphasis on fulfilment or creation?
Talent Management. What are the unspoken rules within the existing process of development?
Organisational dynamics. How do people communicate and collaborate?
Quality of talent. How long have they been in the company? How do they pass on knowledge?
Roadmap. Where is the company headed in terms of growth and development?

Together, these factors give us a good view of the company’s operating system. We apply this framework whenever we review an organisation during our research phase. We look for the leadership traits and thinking capacity that exists within the organisation, so that we can identify building blocks and prepare the ground for unique and effective ideas to take root. Certain organisational patterns quickly emerge; how people are valued within the company and how are they expected to generate value. It may not have been written down, but a unique approach exists in every company that we have served.

There is nothing unique about what we do

Dismissing that you have a unique approach in your business is like saying that football is just football and we play it like any other team. The rules may be the same, the pitches and goal posts may be of the same size, but how well a team score depends on the type of training, team composition and how well the coach understand the dynamics in the team before deploying a unique strategy to win.

Similarly, how much time you spend to learn about the value of your output, what processes you have, in order to profit from know-how and how you draw the best from your team matters. Consider the following to develop your own method for success:

1. Identify the right mix

Organise your company based on a deeper understanding on how staff create value collectively. This approach is similar to how football coaches spend time observing their players before determining the team’s formation. Unfortunately in many companies, human resource management is a rather static process and tend to focus on the individual. When management does not take an interest in reviewing the team and leave it to the HR department, inertia builds up and the organisation becomes more risk-adverse, less collaborative, thus less profitable.

This situation is similar to a football team with too many defenders and insufficient people to set up the play and score goals. In our organisational research, we have found that there are four types of staff:

Defenders. They pay attention to details and work best when given specific instructions. They don’t mind playing the support role and tend to avoid risk-taking. They could be in administrative roles or involved in quality assurance. You will need them in every department to make sure that things get done properly.

Mid-fielders. They are good at organising work, are sensitive to the people around them and understand organisational dynamics. They provide useful insights into workflows and give good advice on who needs to work with whom. You will need them as managers, planners or coordinators, so that they can help the organisation scale up.

Strikers. They are the restless few who thrive in challenging projects. They give unique insights and love to take shortcuts or blaze new paths. They dislike bureaucracy and can be opportunistic. You need them to take risks, push boundaries and create growth. This type of staff are good for new development, but you will need to know how to manage their career development to retain them.

Coaches. These are the real deal, the leaders who will make a big impact on their underlings future and the company. They see the big picture and understand the rules of the game. They have the authority to take risks based on what they have observed. When they spend time coaching staff, they will maximise their effect of shaping the organisation for success.

Every company is different, and organising a company based on its unique composition makes a difference to how it creates value.

2. Find a cause to fight for

The next step in developing your method for success is to identify your purpose. Many Asian companies tend to promote a task-oriented approach, but we have found that companies perform better when individuals understand the impact of their work. In identifying a meaningful purpose, you need to do the following:

Get a value-based statement. A purpose statement suggests a formula that is meant to guide the creation of business value. One of our clients, Fast Flow has the purpose statement “Seek and imagine new ways to solve tomorrow’s drainage challenges” which acts as a reminder of how they approach drainage challenges through innovation.”

Make sure it is meant to last. Don’t limit a purpose statement to a period or a milestone. It is meant to act as a consistent compass to direct all your energies toward solving a problem or fulfilling a need.

Assess constantly. Once you have the purpose statement set up, you need to develop internal mechanisms on how to spot and highlight positive behaviour and case studies that reflect this thinking. The CEO has to take up the responsibility of ensuring that the organisation follows through. Identify behaviors, rituals and processes to encourage practice. Reward emerging leaders who are able to create value with this thinking in mind.

3. “Stay hungry. Stay Foolish”

No method remains relevant forever. You need to constantly observe, learn from your actions and keep tweaking.

One of the last acts of Steve Jobs as CEO was to set up an internal institute called Apple University. Led by Joel Podolny, the formal dean of Yale School of Management, the uniquely designed programme reviews past experiences of Apple for insights, offers customized programmes according to the careers and development of the individuals. It is an ambitious endeavour similar to another renown corporate academy, Crotonville Management Campus of General Electric.

Apple managed to thrive in industries where their competitors believed that phones were simply phones and an operating system should remain as it is. But Apple succeeded in disruption largely by not taking anything for granted, hunting for loopholes, identify what others have failed to deliver, to define what value and difference it can make. Above all, it deeply understood the capabilities and the potential of the dynamics of the team within the company before it makes any move.

Likewise, leaders in every company must nurture a culture that supports learning to develop a unique set of tools to maximise success. Keeping a healthy balance between learning and application is the best guarantee to building companies that will continue to shape the world.