It’s interesting how things go full circle.
Thirty years ago I had just accepted a job to turn round an ailing specialist coatings business in Scotland. We were in the teeth of a big recession, the company had halved its workforce and barely had a pulse. It turned out to be the most fulfilling, and possibly the easiest job I’ve ever had.
What it did have was a tight knit workforce, which itself was part of a close community. it had good skills and attitude by the bucketload. Fortunately, I knew nothing about specialist coatings but had been brought up in Scotland, which as the new CEO meant I sort of understood how communities like this worked. Because it barely had a pulse it was difficult to make a mistake – almost anything that was done to recognise and support a skilled team was likely to improve things.
One of the wonderful things about the business was the complexity of the product. It was highly technical, involving the laying down of nanostructires as a transferable coating used on a wide range of materials, from the shiny gold lettering on an airport paperbacks to the holographic security structures on currency. It required a team of people from Ph.D chemists and physicists, to highly unionised printers serving large customers from packaging companies to banks.
Steve Jobs observed that it’s easier to join the dots looking backwards than forwards. Five years later, with the business thriving, I’d love to say I knew exactly what I was doing, and it was all down to my management and leadership talent. It was nothing like that. When it’s not clear what to do, and the situation is volatile and complex, leadership is not about seniority or knowledge, it’s about getting people to talk to each other. In this case, it was about getting the Ph.D’s to work as equals with the printers, in the space where scientific theory meets the printer’s craft, and it turn getting them to work with the craft printers at our clients.
The beauty of the business was that conventional marketing and sales counted for very little. The product we made was a constraint. Simply put, when we made good product, our clients presses ran faster and that in turn had a major impact on their production costs. Make good product, that ran well, and in which our client’s printers believed, and everything else from volumes to margins pretty much took care of itself. All we did was move anything that was in the way of the Ph.D’s talking with the chain of craftsmen and women out of the way. That included sales people, marketers and whole chunks of management.
We extended the principle. In the early 1990’s manufacturing was already moving towards China. and that meant that packaging would too. We determined that we needed to be there first if we were to support our major clients as they moved operations east. That meant immersing ourselves in yet another area we knew nothing about, tackling language cultural and political boundaries before others had shown the way. We did largely the same thing and just got out of the way of the people who made stuff. It worked.
By 2000, when I left, a relatively small company had become attractive to financial investors, who in turn wanted it to become more efficient. Apparently that meant more management, more processes and more measurement. In a business where making stuff that worked was far more important than notional efficiency, we watched as rigidity overtook what we would now call agility, the soul of the company shrivelled and relationships (and laughter) shrivelled with it. A few short years ago, adminstrators delivered it out of its misery.
The purpose in telling this story is that we are back there again. As businesses adapt to a post Brexit, post Covid environment where the waves of climate change and technology batter us, I think we will need to apply similar lessons.
Embrace uncertainty. Marry theory to craft, and let the artisans loose. People who love to make stuff that matters with skill as part of a community of craft. Move those who get in the way of those who design, make, and work with clients to deliver the stuff they need and out of the way.
This looks like the decade when the industrial era gasps it’s last, to be replaced by something altogether more connected and altogether more human.
It’s a huge and welcome opportunity.
Books I think you’ll wish you’d read:
Boyd. The fighter pilot who changed the art of war. The maverick and genius strategist who really understood how to deal with uncertainty.
Sun Tzu. Art of War. Denma Translation. This translation is in my view by far the best of this classic wisdom.
Apollo’s Arrow. Nicholas Christakis. A very current account of the impact Covid 19 is having on us.
Learning from the Octopus. Rafe Sagarin. Lessons on dealing with complexity from nature
Cynefin. Dave Snowden. A excellent update and summary on what I have found to be a wonderful key to understanding the complexity we’re in.
Things you’ll want to be good at.
Conversation. Proper listening. No assumptions. Starting from scratch to build new knowledge. We have access to all the knowledge that exists. We need to understand that it’s raw material, not answers. It’s hugely valuable, but was generated in different times. To thrive this decade, we need new knowledge. That’s down to us as curious, creative, purposeful humans. Read Lost art of good conversation
Observation. Noticing, not just looking. No two of us see the world in the same way. When we notice as only we can, we make progress.
Resilience. This is going to be wonderfully bumpy, and no-one iscoming to rescue you. You don’t need to be be rescued, just take responsibility.
Community. You become the average of the five people you most associate with. Choose well.
Something to listen to
Mark Tully is one of my favourite broadcasters. This from his flat in Delhi, celebrating 25 years of “Something Understood”. An hour well spent at the end of the year.
Here we go.
This will be an important year.
Enjoy it. Good luck.