Insight article

You can’t tell an adult what to do…

Back in the 1980s one of the management gurus of the day, Sir John Harvey Jones, coined the following phrase: ‘You can’t tell an adult what to do, you can only create the conditions in which they discover it for themselves.’ It’s a principle that underpins much of our work at The Storytellers. But back in the 80s I wonder if Sir John was slightly ahead of his time?

Much of business at that time was based on engineering principles – a legacy of the industrial revolution that started 100 years previously. The business was a system designed to produce things at scale, to a consistent standard and as efficiently as possible. Human beings were part of the system, a cog within the machine, and the system worked if you did what you were told.

Ian Davies, the global head of the consulting firm McKinsey, was around at that time. He was recently asked to share some of his wisdom from advising businesses over three decades. He talked about living through three major recessions, and observing the businesses who came out of them first and strongest. In the 80s these successful businesses had better strategies than their competitors. In the 90s, whilst strategy was still important, it had lost its competitive advantage, Everyone had one. Successful businesses in the 90s were the ones to harness the power of information technology.

That revolution is still going on and it has fundamentally changed the role of people in business. In many functions of business, human beings are no longer the cog in the machine; technology has replaced them. At the same time IT has become accessible to all, available to buy in bite size chunks at the click of a mouse. It is no longer a major source of competitive advantage. So what does the man from Mckinsey see emerging from the recession of 2008/9.

The answer is talent. The ability of businesses to realise the potential of their people and use them to do things that no computer, even the largest ones on the planet, can do.

Let’s take an example. Back in 90’s, a new retailer hit our streets, called Zara. Zara sold fashionable women’s clothes. They, like their competitors, knew that fashion is a fast moving business. But Zara had a secret weapon. They worked out a way of producing and distributing clothes in two weeks from order to store. This was compared to somewhere like M&S who needed 9 months. Zara called it ‘instant fashion’. If customers saw a new trend in a magazine, they could buy it that season not the next year. Zara started to steal market share, and its competitors started to steal their process. Now everyone has fast turnaround.

John Lewis, on the other hand, has a different kind of secret weapon (actually it is not very secret). It is its people. It has found a way of attracting, retaining, motivating and realising the talents of its people, and using them to create a distinct and attractive customer experience. Despite all the developments in technology, no competitor has managed to copy them.

At The Storytellers, we have seen how businesses who have harnessed the potential of their people have transformed their performance. Take two manufacturing plants within a European packaging client of ours. The first had an old command and control, management style. A new general manager arrived and with our support, actively engaged his whole workforce in the journey the business is on. He then invited teams of employees to develop ways of improving performance – celebrating their stories. In two years, the plant has seen a ten fold increase in its profitability. Another site focused its employees on reducing product defects. Within months their defects per million had fallen by 80%, to a rate that was world class within their industry.

A large pharmaceutical client of ours recognises all too well the talents of its employees, especially within the R&D division, which employs many of the world’s leading experts. Their challenge has been to harness this talent to deliver demanding commercial targets. Demanding a different kind of culture. The leadership have invested time in helping employees to engage in what it means to be part of this business, and to use their talents to discover how they can work more effectively together. Within 12 months of the launch of the programme, the division had beaten all its performance targets by 20%.

What would Sir John Harvey Jones make of all of this? I suspect that he now might alter his 1980’s insight to: ‘You don’t want to tell an adult what to do. You want to create the conditions by which they discover things for themselves. It’s key to your competitive advantage.’

Our role at The Storytellers is to help businesses to create those conditions…

Nailia Tasseel