First published in the Globe and Mail, April 18, 2003

Tell a Colleague About This Article

If you did a postmortem on your company in five years, what would you find?

This is not an exercise of the degenerative and morbid mind. Harvard Business School professor Bob Simons introduced this "what if the patient dies" process to help executives clarify innovative strategy issues and improve performance.

It isn't easy. But if you can survive the question, chances are you'll never need to carry out the real thing.

Are you ready to take the risk and find out just what kind of company you're running?

Then plan brainstorming sessions with representatives from all areas of your company and ask them:

  • What issues are critical to our long-term success?
  • What kinds of functions will support those critical issues?
  • What parts of your job affect these functions?
  • How would you like those job elements measured and rewarded?

Be aware that managers could feel threatened by the result of this forward-looking analysis. They may resist the process for fear of losing their autonomy and authority. You'll have to reassure them that they have a distinct and valuable role to play in implementing the plan. You'll need to construct the double-win, where managers feel secure as they help clarify employee ideas that flow from this kind of exercise.

The first thing you'll learn is what level of trust exists among your people. If it's less than excellent, you have work to do. Trust is the crucial ingredient to the success of this process.

One of the cornerstones of building trust is to establish the fundamentals of a model business:

  • Identify the characteristics of a great leader and develop people with these attributes.
  • Unearth customer problems and lifestyle needs, then translate them into solutions offered by your company.
  • Create a climate (defined as your behavior and the corporation's reward system) where a positive and productive employee culture thrives.
  • Find ways to foster innovation.
  • Develop a balanced financial plan to sustain your growth.
  • Listen to the feedback, then act on the relevant information.

When your company's fundamental building blocks are in place and held together with trust, you're ready to say: "Let's pretend it's five years from now and we're bankrupt. What went wrong? How do the people who depend on our success know that we can prevent this gloomy outlook? Together, can we solve this problem?"

Does it work? Here's what happened when I took this challenge to my Ontario-based school bus company.

My people -- from drivers to mechanics, office personnel to managers -- saw critical success issues as identification of the customer's central problem and then creation of an environment where employees are secure to innovate and produce results. They wanted to resolve customer dilemmas.

They also wanted the company to be mindful of matters related to budget and control. This would allow us to defend a stable and reasonable price. They felt we had to create value and, after all, value is where service and price intersect.

What was interesting was that employees' views of the critical issues were parallel to my view of the fundamentals of a great business.

So with the critical issues identified, employees looked at the functions that support them: continuous quality improvement, visionary scripts, effective communication processes (especially listening), planning models and processes, continuous learning opportunities, and feedback systems that heightened awareness of any useful innovative technique.

Each group then identified four to seven key elements of their jobs that affected these functions. As an example, while the function "visioning" might not be everyone's responsibility, effective communication and careful listening is. So we asked what was specific to their jobs that positively affected the function of communications? (Four to seven job specifics can be easily remembered and alleviate the need for exhaustive checklists.)

As one employee noted, we created an image of concentric circles of importance, each interrelated: Critical success issues were surrounded by functions, encircled by job specifics, and so on.

Finally, the group designed the process of job measurement and reward. In other words, they suggested how they would like to be recognized. This self-directed measurement also looked at who should measure them, when and where it should be done, and even what job components should be included. Employees' suggestions included everything from simple praise to formal and financial rewards. They were refreshingly unselfish and non-competitive. But remember, trust was the cement holding the blocks together and a lot of time had been spent building the "fundamentals."

The following questions, if asked sincerely, will help give you confidence to redirect your corporate operating strategy. You can move toward the essentials of a great business and the prevention of a disaster:

  • Have you developed strong, clear-sighted humanitarian leaders? If not, how can you start?
  • Have you learned your customers' problems and lifestyle needs? Are you addressing them?
  • Have you created the operating standards and rewards that help construct a robust corporate climate? Does that climate support a productive employee culture?
  • Have you fostered enthusiastically innovative teams and rewarded their success?
  • Have you been listening for valuable feedback from customers and employees? Have you acted on the feedback?
  • Have you built and cemented these foundation blocks securely enough to ask: Can we conduct an imaginary postmortem in our current business? Is everyone involved in the analysis?
  • Have you resolved to continue the process so you never have to ask this question "in real life?"

When you can answer these questions honestly and positively, it's probable that, in five years time, you'll be a healthy, vibrant business. There'll be no need for an autopsy.

Tell a Colleague About This Article