What to do in uncertain times

“Life moves on. And so should we.”
Spencer Johnson, Who Moved My Cheese?

Three things successful companies do differently

In times of change, instinct says: retreat into your shell. Cut costs, put off decisions, slow down, stick to what you know.

But companies that are successful in the midst of uncertainty do something quite different: they look for opportunities.

Not just any opportunities. The companies we see succeeding focus on three important areas:

  • Investing in efficiency
  • Silo-busting initiatives
  • Rapid innovation

It makes sense: when times change, you need to change, too. Quickly.

Investing in efficiency

Companies look to simplify what they do, and shift effort to the channels that are most efficient. We saw a lot of this in the last financial crisis. The retail sector became truly adept at online sales, and government realised that the public sector needed to deliver ‘digital services so good that people prefer to use them’.

Efficiency has a double payoff. It cuts overheads in the short term, and it sets up organisations for long-term growth.

But here’s a warning. If you make things more efficient for the organisation, yet less convenient for the customer you will kill off business.

In other words, this is different from short term cost cutting or ‘making do’. There’s no point in cutting costs if you also cut quality, output, and sales.

Real efficiency is not just about minimising the effort the company puts in. What’s valuable is minimising the total effort (company plus customer).

So shifting customers onto digital channels with (lower cost of ownership) only delivers benefit if you’re doing the work to make those channels simple to use.

Involving customers in the change is a way to safeguard success. (For an example, see how Bristol City Council transformed its service delivery.)

Silo-busting initiatives

Every large organisation divides itself into silos. Marketing, operations, compliance, finance, and so on. It’s easy, it’s logical. But sure as night follows day, communication and cooperation between silos is hard.

Friction between silos leads to confusion over what’s important, disagreements over who does what, and delay over getting things done. That’s bad for business at the best of times. At the worst, those things mean paralysis and stagnation.

In The Advantage, management expert Patrick Lencioni describes how he tried to find examples of organisations that operated without silos. He couldn’t find any. But surprisingly, he did find organisations where silos didn’t matter.

Lencioni discovered that organisations like the fire service or the Marines which had a clear, urgent goal were highly effective at collaborating across silos.

One of the most remarkable things we see in business, is the astonishing power of customer centricity to create that clear, urgent goal for any organisation. To do that, we invite stakeholders together to watch their customers use their product or service.

When they enter the room, their body language makes it clear that they work in separate silos. But when they see customers struggling with pain points, they sit up and take notice. Personal agendas vanish. The mission is clear once more: we all need to fix this.

With clarity of mission, the organisation is suddenly focussing its energy on a single goal.

(Example: how Cigna focussed the organisation on meaningful change.)

Rapid innovation

The most successful innovators are not the ones with the biggest R&D budgets, they’re the ones that focus their innovation in two ways. First, they seek to deliver value (to the customer and the organisation). Then, once they’ve identified that value, they act to deliver it to their customers urgently.

Innovation sprints are a highly effective tool for this. A small team moves from identifying opportunities to getting ideas in front of customers at lightning speed.

At every step, we involve customers. While that sounds like it will slow down delivery, our experience shows that it speeds things up. Decisions are quicker, it’s suddenly obvious what works and what doesn’t. By getting ideas in front of customers, teams get away from opinion and guesswork, and focus on what works in the real world.

The best companies focus on solving customer problems and getting something live quickly (we recommend six to 12 weeks).

(Example: how Coop in Switzerland designed an innovative shopping experience by making a website do less.)

What’s the alternative?

If that sounds too good to be true, then think about the alternative.

Most companies focus on efficiency without regard to customers (so they cut costs in ways that damage customer experience); they don’t find ways to break down silos (so colleagues are constantly wasting energy pulling in different directions); they try to innovate without talking to customers (and come up with new ideas that don’t catch on).

That is a recipe for confused customers and demoralised staff. And that is the difference between the best performers and the rest.

One of our most recent successes brought all those elements together.

Our client was struggling with an online sales process that performed erratically. They’d work to improve it and suddenly performance would dip. Achieving their targets was a constant drain on management and operations. Different parts of the organisation couldn’t agree on what needed to be done, so found themselves pulling in different directions. But there was a looming deadline: they needed to change the process due to a change in the law.

We brought their customers into the mix. We identified the ideal user journey by talking to customers and finding the efficiency sweet spot. We worked with their teams to listen to customers, helping people at all levels take decisions quickly and with a common purpose. And we focused the change on achieving a result for their customers within the new regulations.

The result was a sales process that delivered increased performance, and increased consistency. Sales went up, cost of operating went down.

The message is clear. While many organisations see change and uncertainty as reasons for paralysis and delay, the very best double down on listening to their customers and act quickly to unlock new opportunities. Which do you want to be?

If you have a business challenge you want to chat through, we can help. Email us on hello@cxpartners.co.uk or call us +44 (0) 207 062 7081 (London) +44 (0) 117 930 3530 (Bristol)

Giles founded cxpartners with Richard Caddick in 2004. He's author of 'Simple and usable' and an invited speaker at design conferences around the world.