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How running to standstill won’t get you ahead of the pack

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How running to standstill won’t get you ahead of the pack

Ask anyone how they are nowadays, and the answer is likely to be ‘crazy busy’ or something along those lines. Today’s world, designed around convenience and speed, seems to have had the exact opposite effect. We’re trying to cram more and more into the same 24 hours and wearing our ‘busy-ness’ like a badge of honour. Part self-imposed, part a reality of modern life, we’re a bit like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass — we’ve got to do all the running we can just to stay in one place.

This delivers businesses a massive catch-22. Although we are running as fast as we can, keeping up is no longer good enough. We need to be fundamentally and exponentially change the way we work in order to succeed in the digital economy. For instance: transitioning to cloud computing is critical to enable the services, features, and capabilities demanded by the market today and tomorrow. Things like collaboration, mobility, self-service, real-time data analytics, omni-channel retail and so on. Not to mention the long-term cost savings and efficiencies cloud economics can bring. But, how are companies supposed to find the time to take a step back and re-engineer their infrastructure and processes to make the shift to the cloud?

The same applies to wider innovation: fundamentally changing how you do things, from small, incremental enhancements to new business models and existential shifts in your organisation. Innovation is a product of a few things: time, money, and being open to failing fast and often. Organisations don’t innovate though, people do, and to do so they need time to think, research, experiment and develop their ideas.

Google’s 20% time is probably the most well-known initiative where companies try to carve out time for employees to innovate away from their day-to-day tasks. The search giant gives staff around a day a week to work on side projects, and the outcomes have included commercial successes such as AdSense and Gmail.

This is not some harebrained internet start-up window dressing, though – like beanbags, hammocks and foosball tables. 3M, the inventor of Scotch Tape and Post-it notes, and the holder of almost 23 000 patents, has offered its employees 15% time to work on passion projects since 1948. Indeed, the invention of Post-it notes is an illustration of just how long innovation can take: an employee invented the adhesive in 1968 but it was only in 1974 that another 3M employee joined the dots and realised it could be used to create a reusable sticky note. Ditto the development of Gmail. The Google engineer who invented this worked on it for two and a half years before convincing management that it should be launched.

All very well, as are innovation competitions, hackathons and other tactics companies use to foster new ideas. But reality bites. And the reality is that if we are running to standstill, we can’t currently carve 15–20% out of our business day, no matter how vital strategic innovation is.

It reminds me of that cartoon doing the rounds: two cavemen are energetically but not very effectively pushing and pulling a barrow with square wheels. Their friend offers them a set of round wheels. ‘No thanks,’ they say with a wave, ‘we are too busy’.

Something’s got to give. Somehow tired, ineffective and antiquated processes need to be sped up and automated, freeing people to be more strategic and perhaps to come up with the enhancements your company needs to survive.

Take the typical CPM (corporate performance management) processes, for example. In today’s real-time world, it can’t and shouldn’t take more than four weeks to complete a budget, or hours to complete month-end reviews. Bloated timeframes are compounded by manual processes resulting in errors and unnecessary admin. Plus, lack of transparency and collaboration between departments causes confusion and reduced accountability.

Fixing this single process can have a series of positive knock-ons. First, it can save you time. The vital time you need to spend innovating and thinking strategically about your business. But it will also improve the timeliness of your data – giving you and your senior management the real-time financial data to base decisions on. And if, as part of the fix, you have effectively included those at the coalface in the process, your data will be more accurate and relevant. Inclusive management also increases transparency and accountability, resulting in an aligned organisation that manages itself better.

So the flipside to the catch-22 mentioned above – that to keep up effectively, organisations need to slow down to change gear – is that once you have done this, the outcome is not only winning the time you need to innovate, but also gaining the data and other capabilities you need to succeed in a digital world.

Article published in Accountacy SA Magaine May 2017


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