How to build a business that can spin on a sixpence

Collective intelligence

6 min read

Writing from Board Intelligence’s head office in the City of London, I can see the legacy of the Roman Empire all around me. From fast food and plumbing to the Julian calendar and roads, the Romans had a lasting impact on many aspects of modern life.

But, when it comes to running a business, there’s one valuable Roman lesson that hasn’t stuck: the power of aligning a team to deliver more than the sum of its parts and unleash its collective intelligence.

The Romans excelled at this. Their ability to get everyone pulling in the same direction gave them a vital edge during their rise to power. As the Roman historian Vegetius observed:

“The Romans were less prolific than the Gauls, shorter than the Germans, weaker than the Spanish, not as rich or astute as the Africans, inferior to the Greeks in technology and in reason applied to human affairs. What they had was the ability to get organised.”

This sense of unity ran through everything the Romans did — from their civic and administrative structures to their prototype postal system — but it was particularly powerful on the battlefield. When Roman legionaries advanced under fire, they adopted a formation called the testudo, or turtle. They closed ranks and locked their shields together, forming a near impenetrable wall. It meant that they could pass largely unscathed through the ‘kill zone’ on their way to the front line.

What Vegetius observed, and the Romans exploited to such dramatic effect, was the power of alignment — of getting everyone marching to the same beat. Businesses today, desperate for any sort of advantage in an increasingly crowded landscape, know it too.

The problem is, they’re not very good at making it happen.

What’s so difficult about aligning a team?

Modern communications should, in theory, make it easier for business leaders to command and control; you don’t need to be physically present to set the tone. But they’re finding it harder to align their teams than the theory would suggest.

Studies have shown that between two-thirds and three-quarters of large organisations struggle to implement their strategies — plans that should gather momentum gather dust. And in a recent survey by Board Intelligence, 92% of business leaders admitted that they often lose sight of big picture goals in the cut and thrust of the day-to-day.

Distractions come from all angles. But whatever the cause, it’s clear we need to get better at focusing on what matters.

At the same time, to thrive in a rapidly changing world, we need the ability to shift that focus. Focus can easily turn into tunnel vision, and if your flag is planted on the wrong hill, you’ll end up in the wrong place.

Just look at Nokia. In 2000, the Finnish giant dominated the mobile market, yet already its CEO Jorma Ollila recognised the need to change.

“In ten years’ time I would like Nokia to be dubbed as the company that brought mobility and the internet together,” he told The Economist. Throughout the early 2000s, Ollila reiterated the importance of software, services, data and the internet to Nokia’s continued success.

When the iPhone came out in 2007, bringing mobility and the internet together as Ollila had hoped to do, Nokia had only just stopped making 3310s. Its market share fell from 49% that year to just 3% in 2013, one of the most remarkable falls from grace in business history.

The story is usually told as one of strategic myopia, but that isn’t true. Nokia’s leadership had been trying, unsuccessfully, to shift direction for years.

Perhaps Nokia’s size and bureaucratic inertia got in the way. Or its previous success was to blame, keeping employees focused on what had worked before — right up to the point that those things stopped working, which was of course too late.

Either way, the CEO repeatedly telling them to change was not enough to make them take their eyes off the old prize.

If that’s not enough, what is?

When Dame Carolyn McCall took the helm at low-cost airline easyJet in 2010, she had her work cut out. The price of oil had spiked, consumer confidence was low, and a volcanic ash cloud had grounded flights all over Europe. What’s more, easyJet’s USP had been eroded by competitors entering the space. And, because the previous management had responded to these challenges by doubling down on cost-cutting, there wasn’t any fat left for McCall to trim.

As she walked the office floors and aircraft aisles, McCall heard one problem loud and clear: everyone was unhappy. Passengers because of poor service; crew because of poor management. Employee morale was dead on the ground and customer satisfaction was right along with it.

She saw clearly that the two problems were connected. To make easyJet an airline that people wanted to fly with and work for, she needed to change the narrative. If she could lift her team’s spirits, everything else would follow.

So, McCall switched easyJet’s priorities, from Profit-Customers-People to People-Customers-Profit. But she didn’t do this by simply telling people to change. She changed the focus by changing the questions that everyone in the business was asking.

Over the next few months, Board Intelligence worked with McCall to hone and then embed one question into all board papers, KPI dashboards and management decks: “How do our people feel, and what can we do better to support and enable them?” This made it a priority for the executive team, who then made it a priority for their direct reports and so on.

Team, customer, and shareholder satisfaction were all transformed during her tenure. And why? Because she got her people marching towards a new destination. Her approach made it crystal clear what she cared about, and it made it easy for those reporting to her to focus on it too.

How do you get everyone to focus with you?

In the same way that teaching elephants to dance requires more than a charismatic choreographer to demonstrate the moves, building a focused and flexible organisation requires the CEO to do more than shout their goals from the rooftop. They need to change the questions they’re asking too.

The questions McCall put front and centre for her team at easyJet were not a PR exercise. They directly determined the metrics, targets, and incentives that drove the business.

By baking them into reports and meetings, she made them part of the rituals of everyday business life, which in turn made it difficult for her executives, and their teams, not to focus on easyJet’s new priorities.

And that’s exactly what Lucia, our board and management reporting tool, is designed to do — to help leaders bake the questions that matter into their team’s everyday routines.

Lucia’s smart templating system ensures that every report is structured around a tried and tested framework of questions, called a Question Driven Insight play (or QDI play for short). Over the past 15 years, we’ve designed bespoke frameworks to tackle commonly requested papers such as business cases, management reports, and finance reports. These QDI plays make sure management are thinking critically about the topic at hand, covering all the bases, tackling the tough questions, and charging their report with insight.

But you can also customise these QDI plays — changing the questions or adding new ones to make sure management’s thinking aligns with the organisation’s goals, and to channel that thinking in a different direction when required.

For example, if you were asking ‘How can we cut costs?’ and now you want to ask ‘How can we delight our customers?’, you could insert that question into your QDI plays to make it a priority for management, who would then make it a priority for their teams and so on.

What’s more, Lucia’s Framing tool helps to remind those who are writing reports, as well as those reading them, why it all matters. The tool walks management through a simple process to call out, very clearly, how the information, proposal or plan supports the delivery of the business’ mission, vision and strategic initiatives.

Want to start turning focus into a competitive advantage today?

If you want to start building focus and alignment in your team today, take a look at Lucia, our AI-powered management reporting software. It offers live feedback, real-time prompts, smart automatic editing tools — and much more.

  Lucia   Write great reports, every time    A thinking and writing platform that helps you to write brilliantly clever and  beautiful reports that surface breakthrough insights and spur your business to  action. Find out more

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