Brian was the managing director of a travel agency.  He was in his mid-thirties, bursting with energy and keen to stamp his authority on the organisation.  A sporting type, he had always been loud and enthusiastic.  He was a big man, wore size 13 shoes (wide fitting), and had a flat nose that had received a battering in various boxing bouts and rugby matches.  He also had a head of unruly blond hair that stuck out in all directions like a thatched roof after a storm.

Brian was determined to succeed.  On his appointment, the chairman had set him the task of doubling turnover and profits within four years.  Each morning, as he shaved in the mirror, Brian would psyche himself up to face the numerous challenges the day would bring.  He made a point of arriving at work early, always ate lunch on the run and stayed late. It became a matter of pride that he was seen to work longer hours than anyone else.  He frequently visited the high street branches to address the staff and boost their morale.  Wherever he went, he explained the need for a step-change in order to meet the ambitious financial targets he had been set.  

Within three months of his appointment, in a flurry of activity, Brian had launched a company-wide campaign called ‘4×2’ – a title he thought of himself.   Having launched the campaign, Brian knew that it was vital to maintain the momentum.  He drew up lists of themes and initiatives and decided to launch them at the rate of one each month.  Some were designed to improve customer care, others to upgrade the IT system and other key processes, others to cut costs, others to enhance the company’s image, others to achieve better marketing segmentation, others to switch to eLearning for staff training  – and so on.  Breathless stuff!  Brian was definitely not short of initiatives.

Brian was an avid reader of management books and journals.  He lapped up The Harvard Business Review, Management Today, books on leadership and managing change, quality management, and even learning organisations and emotional intelligence. He loved to keep abreast of the latest writings from the management gurus.  Brian was what you might describe as an active reader.  He always used a highlighter to mark passages in the text that took his fancy.  He also kept a sheet of paper by his side and compiled an action list as he went along. These actions were added to his growing list of initiatives.  Brian calculated that he had enough to last at least three years, by which time, he surmised, he would surely have been headhunted and moved on to new challenges.

After a year in the job, and initiatives galore, neither turnover nor profit showed any signs of improvement.  Puzzled, Brian stepped up his efforts.  He continued to launch new initiatives.  He rushed around the country in a bid to re-galvanise people into action.

After another year of sweat and toil, turnover remained, stubbornly, much the same.  Profits showed some modest improvement, but only because of some cost cutting – unprofitable branches had been closed and headcount had been reduced. 

The chairman sent for Brian and announced that he no longer had the support of the board.  His contact was to be terminated forthwith.

Advice to Brian

 

My commiserations – all your hard work failed to produce the required results.  As I’m sure you appreciate, turnover and profit are dependent on many interrelated factors – some of them external to the company and beyond your control.  It is quite possible that without your initiatives, the performance of the company would have declined.  Looked at this way, keeping the turnover steady could be seen as a triumph!  Pity that your chairman didn’t see it this way.

I expect you are at the stage of licking your wounds and mulling over the experience?  No doubt you can think of things you could have done differently and, knowing your love of action lists, I bet you have already identified some to carry forward into your next job.

I wonder whether you have ‘initiatives’ on your list?  If not, I think you should have.

I suspect you are a fad surfer – an enthusiastic collector of the latest management theories. Fads, by definition, have a short shelf life.  They tend to follow a pattern: 

  • A book, written by a well-known guru, gets a high profile launch.

 

  • There is a lot of hype along the lines of ‘This is the Answer’.

 

  • This is followed by a spate of conferences and articles in the management press saying ‘You should try this’.

 

  • Some companies start to experiment with the approach.

 

  • The next book from the management guru production line is published.

 

  • People switch their attention to the new theory and the original one dips beneath the horizon.

 

There are two big lessons to learn from this iterative sequence of events.  First, despite rhetoric to the contrary, there are no panaceas.  Second, the attraction of the new, and the clamour for instant answers, means that the band-wagon rolls on before anything has had a chance to be tested.

With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps you can see how your addiction to an unrelenting stream of initiatives closely follows the same pattern.  The trick is not to have lots of initiatives, but to be highly selective and, above all, fastidious in following through the few initiatives you implement. 

If you keep launching initiatives people soon start suffering from ‘initiative fatigue’.  A sure sign of this is when people acquiesce but drag their heels as they wait for the next flavour of the month to emerge.

I imagine that many of your initiatives may have ineffectually fizzled out because of a combination of cynicism (‘Not another initiative!’) and fatigue.

The best antidote is to have a few, well-chosen, sustainable initiatives that are vigorously tracked through to completion.

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