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Why safety can put a business at risk

This is a business meeting

The importance of putting growth first and safe-calls second.

What happens when people disagree? They can represent themselves honestly and with their clarity, yet others will believe they too hold the ‘right answer’ and demand alternative courses of action.

This predicament struck me with the Jeremy Clarkson and BBC debacle. You see, despite people being true to themselves and possessing a good degree of the facts (which seem to be universally accepted), many came to the conclusion that the man is a legend and the BBC the obvious villain, while others felt his actions were those of a spoilt child having a tantrum, with the result being exactly what he deserved.

The issue at hand is one of subjectivity and perspective, which materially affects how decisions are made in the face of differing opinions. It seems that integrity and clarity aren’t enough; one has to have the right clarity. Ironically in this example, the BBC and Clarkson himself were pretty much in agreement, but the wider audience was polarised as the facts were interpreted through different perspectives.

In the early phases of entrepreneurs building their businesses, it’s fairly ‘cut and dry’; there’s usually an inspirational leader, with a vision and a clear understanding of how that vision is to manifest – employees follow with imbued passion. Yet, as the company grows and talent is added, additional opinions form and decisions are often shaped through healthy debate. Even with this debate, the focus remains very much on the achievement of business goals.

Though what happens when the team is meaningfully grown, to 100 staff then say 250 and beyond? The dynamics become entirely different, the founding benevolent dictator is often far from the frontline or indeed gone, since the buyout. Yet, the company needs more decisiveness – leadership providing confident direction and effective decisions being made at every juncture.

I’m often astounded at how such indecision creeps into many organisations, or a poor decision making process at best. Collaboration replaces the single mindedness of the original maverick(s) – which is often a good thing, in the sense that everyone has blind spots and the higher the stakes (the bigger the company) the more important it is to ensure that the decisions made are the right ones.

However, collaboration is most effective when it takes the form of seeking input for consideration from the relevant stakeholders, with someone (a leader) still making a judgement call as to exactly what is to be the course of action. Instead, it feels in many instances, that collaboration sets up a level of expectation between stakeholders that ‘all inputs are equal’ and decisions should be team-based. This really worries me; I see it as one of the pillars of procrastination, inertia and mediocrity – reducing outputs to a ‘safe’ route that’s acceptable to most, a process of negotiation and navigation, which leads to a satisfactory, but often compromised, outcome.

This isn’t to say that great teams can’t come up with great decisions, but often, I find as the business becomes bigger, employees are less willing to select the brave options that may challenge the norm or carry a level of risk, which could reflect badly upon them if the outcome is negative.

And this is where the Clarkson thing is relevant, because people will passionately argue for or against him (admittedly many just don’t care). Intelligent people can look at the same thing, yet have entirely different perspectives, which is a direct parallel to inputs and opinions on which decisions should be made in the business context. Often there are a number of people for and against different courses of action, and several who might be ambivalent. It’s the job of an effective leader to take the input and ‘call the shots’, aligning everyone behind that decision once it’s been taken.Yet, you’ll be reading this and you’ll know how that transpires in the workplace. There are those who feel shunned and will quietly/begrudgingly follow the direction, while others will continue to grumble that they know best and this way is the wrong way. So for an easier life, many of the hardest decisions aren’t made correctly, perhaps they’re far too collaborated and compromised as a result. The fear and the politics, of getting it wrong, or being seen to push against general consensus, results in some of the brightest decisions being suppressed and the worst ones being taken.

Think about it; who on earth within Thomas Cook decided the company should deny culpability while accepting a compensation payment amounting to many times more than was settled with the parents of those two unfortunate children who died while on a Thomas Cook holiday? This is a massive organisation with ‘family’ at the very heart of its brand, but, collaboratively, somehow, they came up with the response that they did for so long… probably based on legal advice and posturing in order to mitigate further risk. If someone at the top felt truly empowered, not a slave to shareholders or fearful of ramification, but a truly empowered leader who could soul search for the right decision, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been the one they took.

Sir Richard Branson recently waxed lyrical regarding the importance of employing ‘disruptive talent’. Business psychologists OE Cam define disruptive talent as ‘Individuals who think and act differently, innovate, challenge conventional wisdom, spot trends, see commercial opportunities and tenaciously find ways to achieve success’. I would add to this that these types of individuals are also too busy focusing on the end goals to be worried about themselves, their political standing or who they offend – they’re driven by the pursuit of success in the bigger context, not viewing decisions as good or bad career moves, but doing what needs to be done.

And while even Branson acknowledges that disruptive talents are both hard to manage and difficult to integrate across wider teams, I’d argue that this is exactly what larger organisations need, peppered across their entire structure – people who aren’t ‘hedging’, or making decisions based on factors which may affect personal career paths or reputations; people who are too busy focusing on getting the right result to care about playing to company politics and corporate culture.

Many companies lose their way as they grow, because decision-making becomes so much more complex. For most staff, it’s not just about the right decision any more, or best judgement, it evolves to become a consideration regarding job security, career prospects, political posturing, agreeing with allies, avoiding risk – elements which have no place in contributing to the most effective outcome for the business.

And while teams are often the source of true inspiration in being able to develop iterative ideas, exploiting a collective brainpower, they are also a safe haven for failure; if the ‘team’ came up with the direction, individual responsibility is avoided.

In many instances, it may not even be the fear of getting it wrong that stops them from challenging the status quo; it could just be the desire for a route of least resistance. Running with the status quo is most definitely the comfort zone when working for a business which isn’t in trouble. Change equals pressure, inconvenience and stress; it’s considered ‘safer’ to keep your head down and ‘go with the flow’.

Safety, in my book, is often tantamount to mediocrity, which leaves the door wide open for competitors to make the bold decisions, think out of the box and steal market share: fortune favours the brave. Three particular areas I continually see being addressed far too softly in many organisations are:

  • Saying no to customers and the wrong type of prospects
  • Moving mediocre staff out of the business
  • Challenging current business models

In all scenarios, fear is the cause of paralysis; ‘if we make this tough decision, it will bite us’. Thoughts of needing the prospect, needing the revenue, unable to cope without a resource in the position – all natural considerations which cloud the judgement and discourage one from ‘grasping the nettle’. Yet time and time again, how many times have you experienced it? When a problem resource finally leaves, many colleagues said it should have been six months earlier. And how many problem customers – high touch, low to no margin and high hassle factor – are preventing your business from focusing on the right sort of prospect?

I recently mentored a managing director, who recounted a story to me, pertaining to the culture of ‘sticking with what you’ve got’, the idea that the strategy is virtually always ‘business as usual, only better’, because it’s what everyone knows. Yet in a board meeting some eighteen months ago, the sales director proposed a fundamental change in an element of their product and service proposition – something different, untested, yet which could transform the size of opportunity for the company. Six directors sat around that table with the MD, five of them firmly blocking the idea – ‘it won’t work’, ‘it requires too much change’, all the usual barriers. Yet they were dismissing the head of sales regarding a sales initiative! Why? Because it wasn’t a ‘safe’ idea, or at least it didn’t feel safe to them.

Fortunately the MD backed his sales director (why else have one?) and the initiative was bludgeoned through. Eighteen months on, the company is transformed. That sales director cared more about making the right decisions for the company, than protecting himself from the ramifications of failure. It’s also possible that this particular sales director couldn’t even comprehend the idea of failure because the solution was so obvious to him, yet invisible to others. This scenario though is unfortunately so often not the case; with directors clouded by thoughts of protecting large salaries, meeting mortgage payments and ensuring continuity – none of which by the way have any relevance whatsoever to making a good business decision.

One further dimension that is worthy of consideration is the attitude of ‘why do anything new’ when everything is going well and there is a proven formula? ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it’. This is the difference between having vision and pursuing greatness versus managing success, with the effects of time and procrastination presenting a material downside. All too often important decisions are taken far too late, which creates a huge amount of pressure to react within an underperforming business or to a competitive threat. Ironically, disruptive ideas are easier to implement when everything is going well.

As with many issues in business, particularly relating to staff, there’s often no one magical solution or quick fix. Though, it’s essential to recruit empowered leaders throughout the organisation, foster a culture where mistakes are OK and individual accountability is high. Team input is essential, but leads across all disciplines should make the tough decisions with management peers backing them, even if they don’t always agree. Team size is also an important factor; it should be recognised that the larger the teams, the greater the pressure against people speaking up and challenging the modus operandi, whether relating to staff or strategy. Oversized teams become ‘heavy’ in many ways and often also evolve into protectionist environments in order to justify their viability.

It’s tough running any business, but someone needs to make the difficult calls, decisively, and without fear.

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