Real Improvement: It’s Just a Game!
Everyone wants to improve. However, most people tend to think of improvement in terms that are “too local” and “too transactional”. By “too local”, most people narrow the problems they face down to what they can control and tend to shrug off anything outside their control as someone else’s problem. By “too transactional”, most people think in terms of applying the fix to the problem and arriving at success. In order to survive, leaders have to take the broadest possible view of business, customers, and competition and apply a multi-level, multi-player game strategy approach to driving improvement.
A multi-level, multi-player game is typically too big and too complex for those playing the game to totally comprehend and control. With ever-faster technology change, increasingly innovative competition, and customers who always want more for less, charting a strategy that is guaranteed to win is difficult – particularly if one is looking for a “one step fix”. The best strategy to win the prize in a multi-level, multi-player game is to learn as much as you can, get started with the best approach you know, measure how you are doing, and be willing to evolve your strategy and tactics as you learn more.
In order to be guaranteed to succeed at business, one would have to have perfect knowledge of their evolving business (e.g.customers, stakeholders, employees, competitors, technology, global economy) and be able to react instantly to any changes. Rather than feeling like they have such “perfect knowledge”, most leaders I know are so busy dealing with what is on their plate right now that they have no time to learn about what might be happening “out there” that might impact. No one person can possibly know enough to succeed today – one has to develop a “fast learning, fast acting” culture.
A “fast learning, fast acting” culture is most analogous to a “team on combat patrol”. Someone has to take point and lead the way. Someone must scout the area the team will cross for danger. Everyone on the team has to know their role and be both willing and able to do it well. Everyone has to know the plan and be able to adapt in real time when the plan has to change. Most importantly, everyone has to be willing to put team success ahead of personal success. A team without these factors is much less likely to safely achieve their objectives.
In a multi-level, multi-player game, it’s not possible to know all the (seemingly random) factors that will impact your fate. The best one can do is to know your starting point, know your desired goal, know your team, and start off in the right direction. The key to the desired “fast learning, fast acting” culture key to success is frequent performance measurements relative to the goal, fast diagnosis of reasons for any widening gaps, and immediate corrective action to close those gaps and move closer to the goal. This rapid, iterative learning process can’t just take place in the CEO’s office or even just in HQ – it has to be an integral part of the culture of the whole company – everyone has to learn and fix as fast as possible.
The only way to lead a team into a “fast learning, fast acting” culture that can navigate its way through the maze of today’s multi-level, multi-player business game is to listen, learn, and listen some more. As the leader, one must put the “act, measure, diagnose, correct” iterative learning process into practice and show the team how it’s done. As others “get it”, task them with “spreading the gospel” by asking them to make improvement projects happen. This kind of change has to start at the top, find its way to the front lines, and then permeate the company from the ground up (which will only happen if leaders model and expect this behaviour relentlessly until it is second nature to everyone in the company).