I had a fascinating conversation with Will Best about his learnings from being a business founder. His journey made me think about what can hold leaders back from growing businesses and brands and making change happen. I’ve always believed that start-ups and large businesses can learn from each other in more ways than we see, and my chat with Will reinforced this.
We usually misjudge our chances of success
Start-ups and new strategies in established brands have one thing in common, that they are trying to make change happen, and at least 75% of these fail. There are plenty of useful insights and models for being the lucky 25% (including the work by Anand, Galbraith and Kotter in driving successful change) and what I have also learned over the years is that different types of leaders believe that they have more effect on success than they really do. Some believe that their charismatic vision or burning platform threats will magically make things happen while at the other end of the spectrum that detailed plans, KPIs and multiple meetings are what’s needed. (In behavioural terms this leadership blind-spot is described as the need to see beyond the role of cognitive instruction, but a command-and-control model captures it too.)
We also misjudge the runway and resources needed to make things happen
The reality is that somewhere in the middle works best to make change happen. With that in mind, I’ve always found Kotter’s 8 step model useful in reminding me why change really fails, rather than being a linear model to follow.
Numerous research studies have also shown that leaders usually massively misjudge what’s needed to make a project a success, both resources and time, which then skews our views on its success and failure. We all know of public sector projects which go massively over budget and beyond deadline but the same constantly happens in business, just without the public outcry. (I particularly remember a spectacular failure of a multi-million initiative for a major business and the mop-up, focusing on who would be the scapegoat and take the velvet bullet (generous pay-off) rather than why it had really failed.)
My favourite example is the Scottish Parliament. With an estimate starting as low as £10m its final costs came in at £414m and it was three years’ late. Despite that, it still
looks like the winning design came from a competition ran across Scottish primary schools, and that the materials were then sourced at a fire sale from a B&Q on the outskirts of Edinburgh.
We misunderstand what luck means in business.
Until recently, the role of luck in business has been misunderstood, but the work of Chenwei Liu and Andy Nairn have been insightful in addressing this, one from an academic perspective and another from a practitioner’s perspective. We all believe we appreciate the role of bad luck in failures but don’t have the same appreciation of the role of luck when it comes to success. This is because we all want to believe that the world is more controllable and predictable than it really is, another blind-spot.
We can make ourselves lucky
As Will Best said in relation to his experience as a founder, being present and in the game can create opportunities that are often described as ‘a lucky break’. They really aren’t. He had some interesting anecdotes that could have been interpreted as being lucky enough to bump into the right person or fall upon the right solution by chance,but is that really luck? Research on serendipity, stumbling over an idea while doing something else, suggests otherwise. Rather than being happy accidents’ certain steps will have come before this, and you can consciously create these. Examples are changing routines, mixing teams, changing workspaces and actively setting aside time for experimentation, as well as just having a strong presence in the right communities and social media spaces.
Culture makes or breaks you
Larger and mature businesses can often learn from younger businesses, and one important point is that they haven’t had time to put rigorous processes and structures in place to make things happen, but they do start with more agile and entrepreneurial cultures. Larger businesses often just focus on changing policies, processes, facilities, and technology, as well as changing behaviours through specifying new practices, defining new objectives, pushing new skills, and training to deliver it. Meantime, the leaders promoting these changes struggle to lose their legacy mindsets and still work too hard on too many things without the focus and energy that we often see in start-ups.
Change yourself first
Real change and success happen when leaders consider their impact on the culture in a business and recognise that they aren’t demonstrating the mindset and behaviours they want from everyone and need to change the way they think and feel and are unconsciously modelling a culture they see as the barrier to growth.
Despite my best attempts at bringing together academic rigour and the experience of real-world practitioners experience I’m going to end with a thought that reads like a self-published self-help book, but it’s true – it’s all about people.