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The spirit of high-performance: delighting clients

There’s nothing like going really fast, with a lot of enthusiasm and energy and excitement, in the wrong direction.

I’ve seen a lot of teams and organizations like that: driving really fast and with a lot of conviction, right into the cliff.

In some ways the most difficult and the most important part of getting change right, and sustaining high-performance teams, is: what direction do you go in? If you’re heading in the wrong direction, it hardly matters what else you’re doing right: everything you do takes you further from your goal.

How do you make sure that the change idea is right and your high-performance team is heading in the right direction? It's no use asking people: if it's a big, bold idea for doing things differently, there is a good chance that hardly anybody else shares your enthusiasm, at least initially.

A change idea you believe in
In change efforts, people have often determined the change themselves. They think: “I’ve got a great idea. And I’m going to persuade the world to adopt my idea.” They might be trying to persuade an organization to change. Or they might be trying to persuade the world to adopt a new product or service.

And if it really is a good idea, then that works really well. For instance:

  • In 1996, I set out to persuade the World Bank, this big, notoriously change-resistant organization, to start sharing its knowledge with the all the people who make decisions about poverty. I thought it was a great idea. I still do. And many people have agreed with me. There have been, and still are, arguments about how to implement the idea. But the soundness of the basic idea is not really questioned any more.

  • In 2000, I set out to persuade the world that storytelling was a powerful leadership tool, that all business leaders should master. At the time, this was seen as a pretty weird idea. There is now a great deal of acceptance of it all around the world.

  • Now in 2009, I have set out to persuade the world that managing with high-performance teams is simply a better way to manage, and that all organizations should, if they can, get into this mode. For many traditional managers, this is very strange. I was talking to some people in a high-end knowledge firm recently, and they were telling me: this is so countercultural, it would be a revolution. It would be unthinkable for that to happen around here. To which, I replied: “Precisely!” They couldn’t imagine people in their firm acting in the way that I am talking about, even though they could also see that implementing it would be more productive and better suited to delighting clients.

These are examples of a self-driven change idea. I didn’t ask people initially whether they agreed with my idea. If I had, most people would have told me, “Steve, you must be nuts.” I didn’t mind. I thought I had a better idea. I believed intensely in it.

That’s what happens when you have a really bold new idea. If you ask people whether they want it, they will say, “No, thanks.”

This can be a lonely place to be in. You have this intense belief in the idea, and a lot of the people you are talking to think you’re nuts. You can see it. And they can’t.

The problem at the top
Of course, if you’re at the very top of the organization—the CEO of the firm, or the president of a country—you might have the power to impose your idea on others, even if it’s not a good one.

  • We see a lot of CEOs drive their company into the ground, because they are pursuing a bad idea. We have seen quite a lot of that in the recent financial crisis.

  • And in politics, we see heads of countries pursue fundamentally bad ideas, e.g. the current leaders of Iran.

If you are not right at the top of the organization—and in fact most bold new ideas come not from the top but from the upper middle management—you have the challenge of trying to persuade others that the change idea you are pursuing is right and worth turning the world upside down to implement. You also need to assure yourself: am I really on the right track? How do you do that?

Inevitable in retrospect--impossible in prospect
When you’re successful, looking back, change always seems inevitable. There are three well-known stages. First, people say the change is unthinkable. Then they say it is not very interesting because it’s an old idea and anyway it’s already happening, so it’s no big deal. Finally, when the change idea is widely triumphant, they say that they supported the idea all along. So looking back, when you’re successful, it seems inevitable.

But looking forward, it’s the opposite: it seems impossible. It seems almost inconceivable that these massive organizations, apparently so solid and so wealthy and so powerful and so set in their ways, with these people so convinced that change isn’t feasible, could possibly undergo a revolution and do things fundamentally differently.

How do you figure whether you are right or not? How do you figure out whether you are heading in the right direction? Is there some way of verifying whether you have a good idea, or whether you really are proposing to drive the organization into a cliff.

Three views of the purpose of a firm
The way to resolve this issue is to make fundamental shift in the way we think about work and its purpose, the way we think about organizations and their purposes. This is a shift that is already happening in some organizations and it needs to happen more widely.

It’s a shift from aiming to “produce things”, versus aiming to “delight people”.

1911: The goal of a firm is to produce goods and services

You see many management books, such as Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management by Johanna Rothman, a book published as recently as 2007, saying that the object of a project is to create goods or services. Create them in a timely fashion at the right cost, and so on, but the basic goal is to produce goods and services.

This is an idea that goes back at least to 1911 and Frederick Taylor and his book entitled Scientific Management, which became the Bible of 20th Century management, where the basic assumption is that an organization is a system for generating goods and services in the most efficient fashion. The assumption is that the sales department, somehow or other, will manage to sell whatever stuff we manage to produce. The question of whether we are producing the right stuff didn’t arise. And so it was for quite some time.

1974: The goal of a firm it to create a client

By 1974, Peter Drucker, at least, had started to say, “That’s not good enough: an organization is something that creates a client.” A firm does something different, it innovates and creates someone who wants the goods or services that the firm is producing and so is willing to pay for them. So we need to do something that would make people want to buy what we are producing. It’s a shift towards thinking about people, rather than things.

And thus the whole school of marketing grew up. We have marketing departments busy trying to find out what goods and services people might want if we produced them, and be willing to pay for and support what we do. The goal of the firm becomes one, not of producing things—goods or services—but rather satisfying people. This was an important shift from things to people which was a positive step.

Today: The goal of a firm is to delight clients and stakeholders

What’s happened more recently is the recognition that satisfying people isn’t good enough. If you’re only satisfying people, they unlikely to be loyal clients. They can easily be picked off by some other firm that comes along and makes a slightly better offer. Moreover, merely satisfied clients don’t tell anyone else about it. People who are merely satisfied keep it to themselves. Merely satisfying clients will not provide the energy that a firm needs from its clients and stakeholders.

What you need is something more than satisfying clients: you need to delight clients. You need to generate strong positive emotion, that gives energy and drives the client to talk about the firm, to promote it with colleagues and friends, to be loyal to it through thick and thin, to be fans, even raving fans. It’s this higher level of energy and emotional commitment that firms need to be looking for from their clients and stakeholders if they want to prosper as organizations.

If you’re not delighting your clients, they are likely to migrate somewhere else. They will not be generating the support that you need in the marketplace, telling their friends and colleagues, “I have this fabulous experience with so-and-so. It was wonderful! Let me tell you about it!”

Delighted clients become information radiators—they radiate positive information about the firm and its activities.

This happens in the opposite sense with disgruntled clients who become radiators of negative information about the firm: “Let me tell you about this awful experience that I had with such and such airline last night. It was horrible! I’ll never fly with that airline again!”

Delighting people is about getting this positive emotional response, a kind of nuclear fission energy that spreads from one person to another, in all directions.

Using this insight to decide: are we on the right track?
Once we buy into the idea that the purpose of a firm or a project or an activity is to delight a client, we can use this insight to determine systematically: am I crazy to be pursuing this change idea? How do I know that I am on the right track?

If the purpose of a firm is to delight a client, the first step is to find out who are the clients that I am trying to delight with this change? Are they, or could they be, delighted by what I am proposing? Is there something that would delight them more? Or sooner? Those questions become the key to determining whether you are on the right track or not.

And it’s an iterative process. For instance, the goal can be changed or fine-tuned as you get into implementation

  • For instance, in the example of knowledge sharing at the World Bank, it’s fair to say that our initial thinking in 1996 about how we would share knowledge with the world was that it would be mainly electronic, using the Web as the knowledge sharing highway, and building knowledge collections. As we got into implementation, by mid-1997, we had discovered that, for a whole variety of reasons, electronic transfer wasn’t delighting the eventual users nearly as much as connecting people who needed to know something with people who already knew about that. Connections turned out to be more of a “delighter” than collections, and so we shifted direction to put much more emphasis on connection over collection.

So this is not a one-time examination. It’s an ongoing iterative process of continuously asking: how am I intending to delight the clients and stakeholders? Are they being delighted? If not, why not? How can I change that? How can I create more opportunities to delight them? How can I delight them faster?

The tricky aspect of this is something that marketing departments have found out. Clients don’t know what they want until you give it to them and then they discover that it’s not exactly what they want: they didn’t realize the implications of what they had asked for, and in any event, the situation has changed, so they now want something different. So if you simply take direction from what people say they want, or what they think they want, you are going to end up making some bad mistakes.

The primacy of delighting clients
In subsequent postings on this site, and in the upcoming Masterclass on July 30-31, 2009 I will lay out a whole set of tools that you can use to pursue those questions systematically and in depth. Here I simply lay out the architecture of the issue, and make sure that you are at least asking the right questions:

    • Who are my clients and stakeholder?

    • How am I intending to delight the clients and stakeholders?

    • Are they actually being delighted?

    • If not, why not? How can I change that?

    • How can I create more opportunities to delight them?

    • How can I delight them faster?

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