Bob’s office is not as magnificent as you might expect especially if you had recently left a ‘big four’ management consultancy or had seen the office of the previous CEO of SpendItNow. Bob’s simple but efficient desk supports a neat laptop with a landing pad to which the screen, network, Phone, GPS and assorted other cables are connected.
He has a USB coffee cup warmer.
That Bob is a bit of a gadget freak comes as a surprise to Jason. There is a piled-high in-tray labelled ‘IN’ and a thinner tray of reports and other papers labelled ‘OUT’. The third tray is mysteriously and perhaps musically labelled in equally firm letters ‘SHAKE IT ALL ABOUT’. Bob’s desk sports one executive toy – a model excavator - to remind him of his humble start at the muddy end of the world of commerce.
Bob had asked Jason to get to know the senior management team and find out what projects are actually going on. After his first few days in the business Jason manages at last to grab a few minutes of Bob’s time.
It is very much Bob’s style to have a small lounge area where two two-seater couches form an L shape containing a low coffee table.
Bob and Jason now sit on these settees sipping coffee delivered by Bob’s healthy and physically fit looking personal assistant, Andrew. Jason is reminded of his Aunt Anthea’s views of young female workers in the office environment. Anthea Sherunkle much prefers female employees likely to spend any significant amount of time near her husband to be old, ugly and happily married to a sumo wrestler.
Jason outlines his concern that the more people in the company he meets the more he turns up odd projects and bits of work going on.
He complains to Bob: ‘Not only are there loads of odd projects going on but many of them seem to have some bizarre objectives. I found a group of people in IT working on maintenance for a system that had not been in use for nearly a year! I found another group who were spending money on a facelift for a warehouse in Pontefract and another group planning to replace the building altogether.
‘We seem to be spending a lot of money and devoting a great deal of people’s valuable time to activities that could not, under virtually any circumstances, deliver any benefit to the company.
‘Of course some of these are recognised as projects but many are just sort of happening. The only differences are that they are not seen as projects and no one seems to be accounting for the time being sent. In fact I don’t think anyone accounts for the time they spend on anything at all.’
Bob gets the picture and it does not surprise him much. The mental picture he gets is of a faceless group of people stuffing ten pound notes into a drain in a gutter in a street that seems to have hundreds of drains stretching out into the middle distance each of which is also surrounded by a group of faceless people bending over the drains with money-sized pieces of paper in their fists.
He turns his mind back to Jason’s presentation. Half his mind notes that Jason hardly ever talks, he always seems to present. ‘…..and I think we need to devote some time to finding out what projects are going on and what are coming up and grab the horns of the bull on this one.’
‘I agree completely’, says Bob, ‘I’ll organise another away-day and get everyone to send you details of any projects they’re doing at the moment. I’ll mention what you have found in general terms without listing any specific project. That way they’ll be forced to mention everything in case you, or another director, already knows about it’
Jason, just for a moment, gets a glimpse of the yawning gap between management consultancy and management but quickly shakes this off as too disturbing by half. He is however delighted to have got Bob’s commitment to this process.
Bob gazes out of the window for a moment. Uninspiring is a very polite word for the view of next-door’s factory that is available from Bob’s window. But inspiring it must be for Bob comes up with one of those two plus two moments that mark great managers and executives.
‘Our HR people have asked me to write something for the next house newsletter so perhaps something about the way we do projects might start a pincer movement on unnecessary projects. If we get everyone thinking about projects and why we are doing them as well as getting all the managers to report to this event you’re planning we could get some….. err……weeding done right now.’
‘There you go’, says Jason in a way that, being a little condescending, slightly tests their family and business relationship, ‘what will you say?’
Now it is not every day that a house magazine of a large organisation carries a photograph of its CEO in the bath, however modestly this is arranged. Photos of senior people standing on a staircase or sitting behind a desk and certainly wearing a suit are much more normal. This issue of the house magazine is a complete change from the norm and gets everyone talking in the canteen, corridors and smoking areas in the company car park where it breaks up talk of the new Lotus sports car.
Cautiously at first but with increasing vigour the editor, having read the article written by Bob, has talked him into posing for a side-on picture of in his favourite Sunday haunt. Fortunately for all concerned only his head and a bit of shoulder is visible above the side of the bath.
This is the article that appeared a few days later in the house journal below the instantly famous picture.
Bath Tub Projects By Bob Sherunkle, CEO.
I’ve been thinking about the many projects we run at SpendItNow.
Somewhere, I thought, there must be a cornucopia from which brilliant ideas for projects flow. But my search recently ended in the bathroom when I realised I was asking the wrong question.
Let me explain.
In most organisations many, probably most, projects start off life in the mind of a senior manager taking a bath on a Sunday morning.
On Monday, now fully dressed, said senior manager rushes into the office with a head full of the new initiative. By Tuesday afternoon a team will be working on a feasibility study and by the following month the company will have committed to the project.
The bathed manager focuses on the excitement, pleasure and sense of achievement the project should deliver. He is forced to come up with a few reasons to ‘justify’ the project. But, let’s face it, the very partial originator of a project is about the worst person to justify their own ideas. Life would be simpler if an independent group evaluated each project.
It is a bit like setting off for a drive in the country: there is no specific objective other than to have the fun of driving the car and maybe keeping the kids quiet for a bit. If the car passes a pleasant pub serving tasty food the travellers might stop, eat and say ‘that was a lucky find’. The drive ends when they get back home.
Like many projects, at journey’s end, some money has been spent, some people have had a good time but they are all back where they started. This is fine for countryside excursions but not a great way to start projects.
This organisation will soon be starting down a route that will lead to a very different way of thinking about projects.
In this new world, we will first set our own overall, corporate objectives in a strategy document. This will try to describe the kind of organisation we intend to be in the future. We will aim to define the differences between our current and future states therefore defining the organisation’s ambitions. We will bring as many people as possible into this process – everyone will have their say about where the company should head and about how it should get there.
When we have outlined our ambitions for the future we will have a vision to work towards – the state we hope to be in – a destination for our journey.
To get from our current state to the future is the journey the company will set out upon. Business change is a journey with a start point and a destination; projects are the vehicles we choose to use.
Instead of starting off talking about projects, we’ll start by talking about the improvement and the benefits we would like to bring about and aim to deliver.
Then we will try to find projects that will deliver those required changes and those benefits, all of which align with the overall strategy, all of which lead towards the organisation’s vision.
Here is a simple example from another organisation – one of our competitors. They aimed to improve customer relations and carried out a survey showing the percentage of customers that come back to shop in the stores regularly. In an attempt to raise this from 10% to 20% over two years they decided to run some customer care training and introduce a loyalty card scheme.
The loyalty card scheme involved three projects: An IT support system, a marketing launch and the setting up of a new team to run the card services. They combined a customer care training workshop with an introduction to the loyalty card for the staff. Two years later a second survey showed that their repeat business was up to 18%. Not quite the 20% they aimed for but pretty close.
It is the way of thinking that attracts me – they knew what they wanted to achieve and established projects to achieve it.
You will find your managers are being encouraged to think firstly about benefits, change and improvement and then about instituting projects to bring about the desired change. They will monitor each initiative throughout its life from concept to the harvesting of the benefits.
We can all still enjoy our projects (and our Sunday morning baths) but in the new world the destination will define the journey and the journey will define the route we take.
Thanks to Geoff Reiss for contributing this book