How to Implement Far-Future, Reality-Based Strategic Planning

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Why should a local company bother to carve out a 30-year strategic plan? Here’s one reason: to clearly separate today’s ambitions from tomorrow’s legacy.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, a sound long-term plan is built on small actions taken immediately, not on grand gestures. Here’s an example.

Jamaicans who travel to Trinidad notice a small but telling difference right away. At night, Port of Spain and its environs are “brighter.” Trinidadians who land in Jamaica at night say the same: Kingston is “darker.” This noticeable difference is not emotional but empirical: one country is an oil and gas producer, while the other is struggling to find the foreign currency needed to pay its energy bills. As a result, recession-hit Jamaicans look for reasons to turn off electricity, seeing every light left on as a huge cost.

The habit that’s developed seems like an insignificant one today in the present energy boom. An effort to be energy conscious would seem superfluous. However, a company that develops the small practices leading to energy conservation would be preparing itself for a time when Trinidad’s subsidies are removed. It would be able to accomplish goals that the average firm would not even fathom.

This is just an example of the benefit of simultaneously planning for the long term while focusing on small, frequent actions. With the right planning process, any company can project itself into the future and consider the kind of “what-ifs” that change the way business is done today. By taking big trends seriously, firms can use them to define a destination that inspires bold actions right away.

By contrast, RIM, the manufacturer of Blackberry smartphones, didn’t do this kind of projection. As a result, its U.S. market share plummeted from over 50% in 2009 to less than 3% today. How should your company look beyond the conventional wisdom to see future reality with greater clarity?

1. Welcome contrary views.

As the CLICO/HCU inquiry reveals, squelching contrary views is a fast track to failure. A company that suppresses alternate and uncomfortable points of view is setting itself up to fail, and it’s especially easy to do this in a growing, healthy economy. It’s much harder to introduce and encourage conflict when there is no urgent or even apparent need to do so.

One method is to introduce outsiders with sharply defined opinions to act as professional devil’s advocates. Another is to conduct interviews with participants that help them sharpen intuitions into well-articulated points of view. During the retreat, allowing difficult conversations with uncertain outcomes is an absolute requirement.

2. Look at long horizons.

It’s often almost impossible for leaders to plan and consider big short-term changes. The psychological need to feel comfortable is just too strong. However, it’s easier to look to big changes in the future. For example, the adjustments needed to thrive in an economy without subsidies are easier to see from a distance, without the sense of an immediate threat. Then, creativity becomes the driver rather than fear, allowing the executive team the freedom needed to go beyond everyday boundaries.

3. Craft adjustment strategies.

Using contrary views to look far over the horizon is not just for intellectual stimulation. The purpose is to create a specific, measurable vision that can be back-cast from the future back to today. That’s how short-term adjustments and course-corrections can become apparent. Saving energy, which might seem silly today, becomes critical when a longer horizon is seriously considered. These adjustments, if applied consistently, add up to corporate transformations.

4. Look for a legacy.

Another benefit of a long-term planning exercise is that it takes the participants away from their current crop of concerns: bonuses, pension plans and corporate ambitions. It allows them to squarely confront the legacy they are leaving behind.

Consider this fact: decades in the future, a strategic planning activity will be undertaken in which the future leaders of your company will be talking about the performance of today’s leaders. Will your team be judged as a group of wise men and women who saw what was coming and made hard sacrifices and investments in order to preserve the company’s future? Or will your team be judged as fools who fiddled while Rome was burning?

Steve Jobs insisted that the inside of an Apple machine (which only technicians would ever see) should be just as aesthetically pleasing as the outside. He taught his employees that excellence lay in the details that others overlooked, and it’s no accident that he was able to take a failing company and turn it into the world’s most valuable in just over a decade.

Companies that take the easy path are fiddling, when they should be looking for small actions driven by a vision – far beyond the sum of personal ambitions.

Published in the Trinidad Newsday.

New Ways of Serving Customers with Email

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Yesterday in the Sunday Gleaner, I had an article published that speaks to new thinking that needs to happen on the front-line when employees interact with customers via email.

Change Your Email Response Strategy! Now!

 

The end result is tragic: employees burn out and quit after making themselves available to their company’s customers 24 hours a day while replying to customer emails within 60 minutes. At some defining moment, they realise they can’t do it anymore and leave.

Where did this kind of stress come from? How did a straightforward service job turn into a nightmare?

Here’s one reason: Companies fail to manage customer interactions via email. Many firms are pressuring their employees to provide a level of service via email that they can’t deliver.

It began in the late 1990s when customers began to demand email communication with companies. Some firms refused, deciding to ignore the new technology altogether. Lots of government agencies still don’t deal with customers via email. Many tried and failed, setting up generic ‘info@yourcompany.com’ addresses that go nowhere.

Others made a good-faith effort, encouraging customers to email anyone in the company at any time. This may have worked well when the number of email messages was low – one or two per day. At the time, it met the needs of the occasional tech-savvy customer.

As time passed, however, the use of mobile technology expanded, and the number of emails sent by customers increased exponentially. But no policies were changed. Individual employees were still expected to respond to emails within the hour and customers were conditioned to expect a response to each and every message.

What happened next was unintended but disastrous. Employees became slaves to email.

Consider the problem this was. An important customer innocently sends the company a message: “I’m coming by to pick up the (very important) cheque in 20 minutes’ time.”

Not wanting to disappoint this customer and others like them, management tells its entire workforce to ‘be responsive’, which requires responses within 60 minutes. To meet this objective, employees need to check their email every 45 minutes at least. In a company of 200 people, this translates into 2,400 separate inbox visits per working day. Multiply that by the number of minutes it takes to scan every inbox message and you arrive at a total amount of email checking time.

Most of this time is wasted. Perhaps only one per cent of emails is from customers, but 100 per cent of messages need to be checked, most of them more than once.

What managers don’t know is that ‘just checking email’ interrupts productive work.

According to Mihaly Csikszen-tmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Expe-rience, it takes 25 minutes to get back to your most productive state once you have been interrupted.

Do the math: that leaves a mere 20 minutes of productive time per hour before it’s time to check email again.

The solution, as IT departments will attest, has been around for a while. The best IT departments don’t let technicians respond to individual emails in a scattergun fashion. They use help desks as single points of contact to coordinate their responses.

Follow these steps to apply the same idea to your customer email:

1 Discourage customers from using email for emergencies:

This principle, which must be implemented companywide, solves two problems. First, due to technical glitches, email is successfully delivered only 80 to 85 per cent of the time. Using email — an unreliable medium — for time-critical communication is crazy.

Instead, a live phone call guarantees that the message is received and helps the employee understand the urgency of the situation.

Second, training customers to avoid email in emergencies frees employees from the constant email checking mentioned before.

2 Set up a help desk for customer email:

Let customers know that an instant response to their queries is available at a designated email help desk. Staff it full-time, and programme an autoresponder that tells the customer what to expect next and how to immediately escalate an urgent problem.

3 Teach employees how to steer customers:

Employees need to retrain customers to use the appropriate channels under the right circumstances. They need to understand that individual responses to customer issues might solve an immediate problem, but they create a much bigger one for everyone included. They need to be able to explain this logic.

My June 10, 2012 column, ‘How executives unwittingly turn employees into morons’, explains why executives also need to be retrained.

The contract between employee and customer must be constantly re-examined to keep up with the times. When this doesn’t happen, everyone suffers, including employees who can’t handle the stress – all because the problem and its resolution don’t fall neatly within a single executive’s portfolio.

Employees bear the brunt of a lack of cooperation between departments, falling victim to policies that simply weren’t meant for the mobile Internet age.

They struggle hard, but they can never, ever catch up.

Francis Wade is president of Framework Consulting and author of ‘Bill’s Im-Perfect Time Management Adventure’. Email columns@fwconsulting.com.