Anatomy of a Turnaround
During my career, I have had the opportunity to turn around several products and businesses. It is always an exciting challenge, and has the feel of a blank slate, even though I am dealing with an existing situation that has its own history and skeletons.
Or, at least, it should feel like a blank slate. The first step to solving any problem should be to get yourself outside the problem. Years ago, in one of my first startups, we held a corporate retreat in Wales, and the coach we had hired for the weekend lined all of us in the team up into a particular pattern. He then asked us to re-arrange ourselves within that pattern, but we could only move according to certain strict rules. We all discussed it (while standing in our spots), debated various ideas, and even tried a few moves out. But we soon realized we were quagmired. After a while, the coach made us all leave our spots, come to the side, and look back at the pattern. When we did that, we quickly realized the simple moves we needed to make to solve the puzzle, got back into our spots, and executed those moves. Taking ourselves out from the inside of the problem and looking back at it from a distanced perspective was all that was needed. Doing this is the first prerequisite to solving a problem. And this is exactly why firms use management consultants and hire in new management to tackle difficult turnarounds. The people inside are just too inside the problem. But, if you can appropriately step back from the problem, and look at it dispassionately, with a willingness to approach things from a fresh perspective and push the boundaries of what you thought was possible — or thought would be accepted by the organization — you can accomplish dramatic changes without necessarily involving fresh sets of eyes.
To get anything done, I believe you need to have both vision and execution. Vision is the first priority. You won’t go anywhere good if you don’t know where you are going. Not only do you need to choose the right direction, but perhaps even more importantly, you need to give everyone in the organization a united direction to go in. Big things get done in companies by harnessing the power of the whole organization, by getting everyone to act in coordination towards the same goal. That can only happen if everyone is clear about what the goal is and if the goal is compelling enough to motivate the team. Another important aspect of developing a vision — and this aligns with the idea above that you need to separate your perspective from the problem — is that you should develop a vision without regard to where you are today. Don’t let your thinking get hemmed in by thoughts of “we can’t do that, we have never done that, it’s not in our DNA, but this is what we have today”, etc. Think about your vision in the abstract and where you want to go, regardless of your existing situation. Once you have a clear view of where you’d like to get to, in an absolute sense, then you can go back and figure out how you get from here to there. Leverage all the lessons you have learned in the past, but don’t let the present curtail the future. You can always adjust your vision to account better for feasibility (cost, time, etc) if you need to. And if you find your vision is “impossible”, you can focus your next efforts on figuring out how to make the impossible possible. But these are two distinct steps that are important to keep distinct.
When approaching execution, I use a simple pattern of people, process, and product, in that order. Often, the thing that you see needs to change is your product, your offering to the market. But you can’t hope to change that if you keep doing things the same way. I am a huge believer in the power of talent, so the first priority is to make sure you have the right people in the right roles. With a good team all pulling in the same direction, you can overcome all kinds of obstacles.
With a good team, you want to give them a good way of working. This is what I mean by process, and it includes the organizational culture and values you want/need to have, the way you manage people and review performance, the systems you implement to organize and track work, the tools you use to get things done. Once you have a great team, you want to set them up for success. A good process, coupled with a clear and compelling vision, does just that. It is important that your process be transparent and consistent. People can work together effectively only if they share the same goals, the same values, and the same systems. Getting a fragmented culture or set of systems unified, I argue, is more important than choosing the “best” process.
Once you have have the engine room operating at full capacity with the right people and the right process, you can tackle your product challenges. My experience is that you can accomplish the first two far faster than you might think possible. And if your vision is compelling, your best people will welcome the changes and a fast pace of change.
If you are in a turn-around situation, you are probably dealing with a disheartened team that feels frustrated and is losing faith. Once you show them a path that they buy into and they see quick progress down that path, their engagement, their confidence, their optimism, and their energy will all grow.
Another key thing to keep in mind while tackling a turn-around situation: remember the Art of the Minimum. Do what you have to to get the job done, but no more. Don’t set out to boil oceans — those missions are doomed to failure. Take things one step at a time, stay agile, get some early victories that demonstrate the path you are on and your ability to make tangible progress, and be sure to communicate those victories, in a humble way, to the team and all your stakeholders. Remember that great things are accomplished by the organization, not by you alone, so make sure everyone participates in the progress, has a realistic yet optimistic view of where things stand, remains keenly aware of the goal, and feel the pride that comes with accomplishment.
We all have moments in our careers where we face a daunting challenge, where we have a big turn-around on our hands. But in today’s world, the pace of change is becoming so accelerated that all businesses need to maintain a perspective of rapid evolution and think of themselves in a state of continual turn-around.
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.