Digital — does it make the boat go faster?

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A few years ago, when I was still at HSBC, my sister was urgently admitted to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London for surgery on a tumour.

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It was distressing and bewildering for our family. That first night, my mother asked me how everyone working at the hospital was so consistently brilliant. She meant everyone — the doctors and nurses of course, but also the receptionists, housekeeping staff and night porters. All I could offer was that I thought the entire team must feel part of a clear vision. To be recognised as the world’s leading centre for neurological diagnosis, treatment and care.

It reminded me of the (apocryphal?) story of John F. Kennedy’s visit to NASA HQ in 1962. During the tour, JFK approaches a man with a mop and bucket asking him “What do you do around here?”. The man — quite clearly a janitor — immediately quips “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

Kennedy had shaped the nature of NASA’s overall human spaceflight efforts with his speech in 1961. The audacious goal — of overtaking the Soviets in the space race had been unambiguously communicated to the world. The janitor was proud to be playing his part.

Will it make the boat go faster? Back to 2013 and in the post-London 2012 euphoria, we faced a steady stream of Olympic athletes at offsites delivering motivational speeches on teamwork and performance. The standout story for me from the Team GB rowers was the impact their ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’ mantra has on the chap who drives the rowing boats to practice.

He only has one job — get the boats to the water on time. But when he stops to grab a meal in a motorway service station, even he considers “Will it make the boat go faster”. He never selects the top plate in the stack — reasoning there may be more germs (think other diners not washing their hands…) on the plate lying at the top. He knows that if he gets sick, the boats might arrive late to practice. In a sport where Gold and Bronze are separated by hundredths of a second, the extra time he spends in the restroom may not make the boat go faster at all.

I’ve never rowed competitively, but the goal seems linear and easy to interpret. If you want to win, you must row faster than the other guys and not sink. But the coach driver’s hand-washing routine, the rowers’ diet, the manner in which the crew elect to travel to practice together (or apart) — every element impacts the boat’s speed and the team’ performance.

The beauty of the clear and unambiguous “faster boat” vision is it grants each and every member of the team an accessible framework with which to evaluate their own actions. Assuming they want to win, they can assess every decision, every action against the framework and incorporate, reject or adjust accordingly. This leads to marginal gains which in turn drives high performance. Make 100 things 1% better. If they don’t want to be part of the winning team, they can leave — there’s always Dressage.

No plan survives contact with the enemy. If you’re an incumbent financial services firm, nobody can reasonably expect you to have a complete digital transformation plan yet. It’s an impossible moving target as consumer behaviours evolve faster than you can adapt.

But if your team has been conditioned over decades to operate with fixed Terms of Reference, monthly Programme Steering Committees and a “last year +/- 10%” approach to revenue and cost management, is it reasonable to expect them to spontaneously succeed in a new paradigm — one that isn’t even defined yet?

No plan survives contact with the enemy

So whilst you may be excused for not yet having a plan, you must be like the rowers, rocket scientists and brain surgeons. You must have and hold a vision.

Does every member of your team know what’s expected of them today? Tomorrow? Do they know why they’re doing it?

How have you equipped them to adapt to the emerging future. Have you enabled them to determine how to best balance today’s revenue with tomorrow’s relevance?

I was in an incumbent workshop where one task was to identify the most significant threat to the bank’s strategy. We decided the most obvious obstacle to the bank’s success was the bank itself. The bank was following a suicide strategy by clinging to the past and looking only one quarter ahead. Like the frogs who allow themselves to be boiled to death, the threat wasn’t apparent. This meant the digitisation efforts weren’t understood in context and so were failing to gain traction. The team did not believe the Board knew why they needed to embrace digital. It doesn’t matter whether this was true or not — it’s what they felt.

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CapGemini 2015 World Retail Banking Report

I’ve been looking for other “Does it make the boat go faster?” mantras which are equally powerful.

Few come to mind. Unless your business is linear or singular in purpose, you may struggle to give your team such an accessible vision.

Yet you must.

As you pursue your digital transformation, consider how clearly you communicate the change that you expect of your team — the story you are asking them to be a part of.

Choose, articulate and embrace a clear vision of the future. Give your team the confidence to let go of yesterday’s story, of today’s way of doing things.

Adopt and relentlessly embody the most authentic mantra that you can all use to move your oil tanker forward.

To do something new, you’ve got to stop doing something old. ~Peter Drucker

For your organisation to thrive once again, you and your team must embrace new ways of doing things — even if that means destroying your existing business.

Cultivate change through courage, clarity and consistency.

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