By BRIAN BABCOCK
First published in the Globe and Mail, April 18, 2003
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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
- 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?
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.
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.
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.
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?"
it work? Here's what happened when I took this challenge to my Ontario-based
school bus company.
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.
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.
was interesting was that employees' views of the critical issues were
parallel to my view of the fundamentals of a great business.
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.
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
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.
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."
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:
you developed strong, clear-sighted humanitarian leaders? If not,
how can you start?
you learned your customers' problems and lifestyle needs? Are you
you created the operating standards and rewards that help construct
a robust corporate climate? Does that climate support a productive
you fostered enthusiastically innovative teams and rewarded their
you been listening for valuable feedback from customers and employees?
Have you acted on the feedback?
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?
you resolved to continue the process so you never have to ask this
question "in real life?"
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.
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