Death to 2020
Updated: Dec 29, 2020
Recap of the year from hell.
“It's only when the tide goes out that you learn who has been swimming naked.” - Warren Buffett
You are closing out the financial year 2020 right now, and you already know there will be hell to pay. The coronavirus pandemic has led to an immediate and drastic drop in advertising spending. All media buyers and brands paused spending as quarantine took effect - with travel and retail media taking the brunt of the hit. Your organisation has made significant losses. You know what is coming up. You know the drill. It’s time for housekeeping again; a cost-cutting exercise. Laying off people. And it’s not just your organisation. The entire industry goes through a round of musical chairs. No one is spared. And that’s reality. We all know the game. We’ve been playing by its rules for a very long time.
But is there another way?
CHASING THE PAST OR LEADING INTO THE FUTURE?
You being the wily old fox of the industry - all this comes as no surprise to you. The writing has been on the wall for quite some time. The crisis only exacerbated the situation, throwing the deep underlying problems into stark relief. The company’s growth has hit a wall for a while. Consumer behaviour, and correspondingly advertising spending, has shifted significantly since the advent of the digital age. Advertising has become very complicated. Externally, your advertising clients want a single face to the company rather than working with ten different business units unaware of each other. Internally, these business units compete against each other like enemies. Employees are frustrated with confusing messages from the leaders. Investors are terribly unhappy with the inefficiencies: “Why are we maintaining eight billing systems to do exactly the same thing?”
COMPLEXITY IS THE VILLAIN
Imagine managing a $60 million business with more than 20 advertising and media brands, but no common method for tracking, reporting, or analyzing results. How would you assess relative brand or business unit performance? How would you evaluate individual performance? How would you know where to place your bets?
Your organisation’s lack of cohesion is the unintended consequence of an enormously successful growth strategy, which involved acquiring other agencies - from boutiques to conglomerates - and then allowing the acquired organisations to operate relatively autonomously. This has conspired to add layer upon layer of complexity to how the businesses are structured and managed. Responses to new business challenges — globalization, emerging technologies, and regulations like personal data protection, to name a few — are just plastered on like a band-aid, layer upon layer. Inconsistencies are swept under the carpet. This is how complexity is created right under our noses; the by-product of organisational changes, big and small, cemented layer upon layer over the years, surreptitiously weaving complications into how work is done. The unintended result A monolithic organisation that is increasingly ungovernable, unwieldy, and underperforming. More energy is devoted to navigating the labyrinth rather than achieving results. Accountability is unclear, decision rights are muddy, and data are sliced and diced, again and again, frequently with no clear idea of how the information will be used.
When a crisis hits, the fragmented organisation’s lack of common systems, data, and processes makes it impossible to respond to the challenges in an agile manner. In the thick of the crisis, how do you elevate the game while everyone is working remotely? How do you monitor performance without micro-managing?
It seems everyone across the marketing industry is stressed out, angry and afraid. When people are too stressed to think big thoughts, ideas get smaller and more disposable, worth barely two seconds of attention, no more. In all that noise, your advertising can’t break through. How do you get your heads back into the game of creativity and stop this tanking?
There is a bigger game to play, but you can’t do it yourself. It requires a different playbook. The internal rules and regulations need updating. Childish games no longer interest you.
The simplicity idea is brilliant. From the Danish hygge lifestyle concept to the KonMari Method anti-clutter campaign, simplicity appears to be gaining a lot of traction. Not just applied to life, but spilling into business.
But simplifying business would appear to be rather like the myth of Sisyphus - condemned to the eternal punishment of forever rolling a boulder up a hill just to have it roll back down. We are always instructed to simplify but then faced with ever more bureaucracy and convoluted systems being implemented. As soon as one set of rules are taken down, they are replaced with two more. Lip service is paid but never really acted upon - it has the soft qualities of a “nice to have” rather than a hard business imperative. Or we embark on one-off efforts to simplify processes through implementing large-scale enterprise systems without addressing the underlying fundamental issues - unwieldy organisational structure, lack of common systems and processes, confusing product offerings, culture, employee mindset. This creates even more complexity than before; interrupts established relationships, introduces unanticipated roadblocks, creates confusion over decision rights.
Isn’t Simple Business perhaps the biggest oxymoron?
LOOKING GOOD VERSUS DOING GOOD
In the effort to drive growth for your business, you pay half a million dollars to management consultants to tell you to simplify your business - in a 500-page presentation slide deck. You spend another million dollars to implement a CRM enterprise system across the organisation. And if you have any dollar left, you spend it on training. People always come last. Why?
I posed this question to the CEO of an SGX-listed company. And his truthful response: “Because it’s the hardest.” You want quick wins. You need to show the investors that you are making progress. It needs to be swift. And it needs to be very visible. And so you have ten “transformation” projects going at one time, each one promising to turn the business around.
That’s how we end up spending most of our time chipping away at the little bits and pieces of ice at the top of the iceberg, rather than spending time at the bottom - mining the core of what's really going on, and exploring the assumptions, processes and mental models that are creating the complexity in the first place.
While constantly evolving structures, products, and processes lie at the roots of complexity, senior leadership frequently behaves in a way that exacerbates the problem, while having the best of intentions. For example, you understandably want information, but you may not realise that a request can set off a cascade of reporting work, which often keeps being added to overtime. You put in place OKRs, in addition to the existing 400 KPI’s. You schedule weekly CEO update meetings, on top of the regular departmental, cross-departmental, local, regional, global meetings that everyone else has to attend to. What seems like a simple request to the CEO can turn into a major military operation for hundreds of other people.
Changing people’s mindsets lies at the bottom of the iceberg. As the CEO said matter-of-factly: it’s the hardest. It takes a very long time - a luxury that we simply can’t afford in this instant gratification “I want to see results NOW” world that we work in. You may not have the seat long enough to see the changes through. Even CEOs are not immune to the vagaries of job insecurity.
The idea that you can eliminate complexity and simplify your business in six months is illogical. But the idea that you can change people’s mindsets - working your way up the iceberg model - to change behaviour, to then fundamentally change a system, is a compelling one. There’s more leverage on the system if you can understand and modify the old underlying habits, thinking and processes that are keeping it stuck in place. Chipping at bits and pieces of ice at the top of the iceberg just creates busy work for everyone.
THE BIGGEST LESSON FROM 2020
The biggest lesson I learnt from 2020:
If you think you know exactly what is best for you, think again.
If you think you know exactly what is best for your customers, people and organisation, think again.
2020 has indeed been a transformational year, albeit not according to what you thought was best. In 2020, your organisation experienced being agile. You had to deal with uncertainty. Things got real… fast. You had to be adaptable to the situation that was changing around you every day. You went through a crucible moment together. In 2020, you didn’t study it, wish it, or pontificate about it. It wasn’t an academic or intellectual exercise. In 2020, you actually did it.
In 2020, you busted old habits, old processes and old thinking that kept you stuck in the past.
People didn’t think they could be as productive working from home.
People didn’t think customers would buy online.
People didn’t think corporate policies could be overridden.
People didn’t think it was possible to implement the “digital transformation plan” in 4 weeks.
In the past, people have said: “No, it will never work.”
Now, they know better.
It’s not that the pandemic is shaping the advertising industry. We have been talking about disruption in the industry for a very long time. What has happened with the pandemic is that you can no longer deny the fact that things have changed. The traditional boundaries in the advertising world are blurring. The Googles of the world are working directly with the P&Gs. The P&Gs are building their own Ogilvys in-house. The Ogilvys are starting to look like the Accentures. The Accentures are starting to look like the Ogilvys. It’s f*cked three ways from Sunday. No wonder everyone is confused.
Businesses may have prioritised survival when the quarantine initially came into force, but I believe a fundamental shift is afoot. People are more open-minded - not as resistant to change. You know that saying: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” And boy are people stronger! We’re going to see people finding ways to push transformation even faster. There’s never been a better time to pitch ideas that involve real transformation - to tackle the fundamental issues that lie at the bottom at the iceberg. With a more open mindset across the organisation, pushing for Simple Business will face radically less resistance than it did before the pandemic.
It could be made into a monster
If we all pull together as a team
And did we tell you the name of the game, boy
We call it 'riding the gravy train'
- Roger Waters (Pink Floyd "Have A Cigar")
The last gravy train left the station a long time ago. A new one has just arrived, and it's time to hop on.
ARE YOU WILLING TO CHANGE?
Change is in the air. For real ideas. The opportunity is there, but it requires your active participation, your willingness to claim your authority as a leader. The opportunity does not materialise on its own. Of course, there is a risk. By speaking the truth, and not what others want to hear or see, you risk getting fired.
To embrace change or be numb to it - it’s a personal choice. I’m not telling you what you “should” do. This is not about what's right or what’s wrong. This is not some model answer promising guaranteed results. What I’m sharing here is simply what you can do. And it may sound like: “It’s all up to you”. But this is not meant to blame or make anyone feel bad. I see it as an act of kindness. Because you can stay numb to change, and 2020 will feel like a big f*ck up, full of drama, chaos and bad ju-ju, hoping for things to get back to “normal" in 2021. Or you can embrace change and look back at 2020 with a sense of excitement and deja vu: “Wow, all that was happening for me. 2021 is gonna be exciting!” Embracing change took guts and courage. At times, it felt like you were on the edge of despair. But if you look closely - with the cool eye of hindsight wisdom - it was also the edge of greatness. They are two sides of the same coin.
You created law and order by providing principles or guidelines to help people make sense of the changing situation. You created calm out of chaos by showing people how to break down the problem into its parts and then map out the actions they need to take to resolve it. This helped them be systematic, strategic and highly organised in their approach, and helped them stick to the plan until the end and deliver unexpected results.
This is something we can do. We can choose how we view the world, and respond to it, no matter the external circumstances. And that can make all the difference in the world.
WILL LEADERSHIP COACHING WORK FOR YOU?
Some of you may be feeling exhausted and depleted, and you are beginning to see that to scale yourself and your organisation, you have to become a different type of leader. You have read the leadership literature. You want to simplify your approach to leadership, becoming more strategic about where you put your attention. Laser-sharp focus on the things that matter, and create profound impact. You want to unhook from old patterns that are holding you back. You are committed to making it happen.
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