The illusive Holy Grail of business has to be a corporate change that leads to improved financial and operational performance. Sounds simple, but in reality it’s as complex and controversial as the Da Vinci Code.
Often these change efforts go fly under many flags: restructuring, turnaround, right-sizing, cultural change and reengineering and so on.
Names are different but in every case the basic aim is the same: to make a fundamental shift in how the business is run in order to cope with a more competitive Rwandan marketplace. Bright ideas and business jargon are not enough
The difficulty of setting a strategic direction in business performance should not be underestimated.
All sorts of companies try and make themselves into significantly better competitors. A few succeed like Kenya Airways and Serena Hotels. Many fail though.
In every case the prime goal is the same - to make a change in how the business is operated in order to cope with a more challenging market environment.
Two lessons standout: a) the process takes time, at least 3 years plus. And, b) making mistakes in any of the steps can have devastating effects later on and may negate hard fought gains.
On the one hand, as pointed out in the guru of corporate change efforts, John Kotter of Harvard Business School, change has to be urgent.
Staff and management have to see tangible “small wins” within weeks. They have to intuitively feel in their gut that something is different.
On the other hand, intuitively, one knows that change takes time as written about by Jim Collins when he talks about the chick slowly hatching unseen in the egg and the difficulty of getting a massive flywheel weighing tonnes moving.
While on the one hand, change seems a simple concept in reality in it can be a little more complicated. As individuals we know the difficulties of making changes in our own lives even when we can see that there are clear benefits to the change.
The routines we have now are familiar and comfortable, changing them would take an effort, and we are usually too busy or tired to imagine even putting in any more effort that we now do.
Change is usually scary too. Even when we know the end result will be worth it, the process of getting there is often uncomfortable and difficult.
This all seems so daunting that we don’t know where to start, but the fortunate news is that change begins with simple things, what the Japanese call Kaizen, and making improvements each and every day.
There are masses of literature corporate change programmes, some of which is genuinely insightful.
The trick is to take the theory and apply it in practice and have the results show up on the several dimensions in finance, operations and levels of staff engagement.
That’s the good news, here’s the bad news. One deeply unfashionable but true conclusion, you won’t find in the business and MBA textbooks is that 99% of successful change efforts typically rely on the leadership of one person.
David is a management consultant now working in Rwanda