Want to win? Don’t repeat history, make it
As we come to the end of the year, I’ve been thinking about all of the people who are rightly touting the merits of data analytics, digital transformation and customer experience management. And I’ve been thinking about the much smaller number of Credit Union people who are moving forward with initiatives focused on these topics. And, I can’t help but think about George Santayana’s oft quoted declaration that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Year end is a time when many people, and organizations too, profess their desire to change their ways, adopt new habits, tackle new challenges, do better in the coming year; but, more often than not, people and organizations end up at the following year end almost exactly where they started. Why? Well, many reasons, including Santayana’s notice that ignorance of what’s come before keeps us from learning what didn’t work. For me, however, the key reason why people and organizations remain largely unchanged year over year is because the one constant in mankind’s history is human nature. And it is in our nature to seek solace in stability. It is why we seek consensus. And it is why we shy away from the kinds of transformational change touted by those folks advocating for data driven decisioning, digital processes, and customer focused delivery.
The smart folks at The Financial Brand tell us that customer experience has a major financial impact on the banking industry. They tell us “differentiation in the marketplace is no longer determined by price, product or location. Instead, leading brands have shown that the power of customer experience – both online and offline – is the most important component of long-term competitive and financial success.” I’m confident they are right.
I’m also confident that others are right when promoting the merits of data acquisition and analysis to understand better our prospects, our customers, and their needs. And I’m equally confident in believing that digitization of products and services can drive improvements in service and reductions in service costs, and that these improvements will allow businesses to put customers front and center.
But my history working in and with financial services organizations tells me that transformative change is unlikely, because it’s just not in their nature. Folks will include these topics in their discussions. They will eventually “try some things.” And some people will even move aggressively to integrate the new tools and thinking into their plans and operations. But few will find themselves operating in drastically different ways than before. And that’s why everyone will end up largely where they started. They will be doing some things differently, and think them to be transformative; but, to their customers and members, they won’t be perceived to be different. They won’t be perceived to be other than what they were before. And that’s not “winning”, that’s surviving – at least until everyone in the ecosystem “goes down.”
Why Change? Because we are Existential Beings, and so are our Organizations
I’m going to get philosophical, but please hang with me for a few minutes more. Existential philosophers are defined by their belief that people define their own life’s meaning, and people try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. People, say existentialist thinkers, need to take ownership of their lives, recognize they have choices to make, and understand that they are not simply “who they are now” but, rather, are “always in a state of becoming”, always changing, always have the opportunity to change their life’s course. I have often heard people describe existential thought as depressing (likely they feel the burden of choice), but it is that freedom to choose and to change course that I find most optimistic.
In business, unfortunately, people tend to see their organizations as “what they are” rather than “what they can or should be.” And they quietly fear having to question their organization’s reason for being. Because of this, they don’t look outside themselves and their organizations for help in defining that future-state organization. They see questions as challenges to their “current state” rather than as opportunities to succeed. And they don’t work at “change.” They don’t work to be “always in a state of becoming.” But they should, if they wish to succeed, and not just survive.
So, what’s first?
If you agree that being open to change, focused on change, organized to change can improve your opportunities to grow and win, where do you start in your organization? I have four suggestions:
- Stop doing annual planning with the goal to produce a roadmap for the year. Instead, see strategy as the journey your organization is on, and start planning for how you are going to evolve (starting today) to meet the changing needs of your customers and your people, even if it leads to places you have never gone before.
- Stop working toward consensus. Stop working to get to “yes.” Instead, start debating real alternatives to what you are and what you do today. Start accepting the challenge to change.
- Stop focusing on simply making the numbers “work.” Budgets need to be approved. It’s simply so. But start making big moves. Start changing the culture by taking chances, by embracing change. Fund your future, not just your present.
- Finally, stop focusing on long range plans. They don’t move you forward. They tend to promote thinking grounded in the present and untouched by the future, a future that changes you and makes those now old plans useless. Instead, promote agile thinking that recognizes you will be different in the future and that today’s assumptions will not be valid. Force yourself to take that first step forward into the future of your organization by stepping into “change.”