Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Go "Undercover" To Find The Flaws In Your Company

You may remember I posted a blog here on when the television series Undercover Boss premiered a few years ago. Each episode followed a CEO, disguised and unrecognized, working in often-difficult, first-line jobs in their organization, with the audience enjoying a view of how (and how much) the CEO learned along the way.

We saw each CEO struggle as fellow employees do with difficulties that are often of the company's own making, such as inconsistent service, ill-conceived workplace rules, or unattainable performance standards. Immediately prior to the conclusion of each episode, there was some sincere statement by the reeducated CEO, offering newfound respect and deep empathy for the challenges faced by company employees and gratitude for their dedication, with some declaration of how the entire exercise would have a positive impact going forward. It is the stuff of which New Year's resolutions are made.

It is also apparently the stuff of which good television viewing is made, as the show, with local versions thereof, now airs in more than 25 countries around the world. While one obvious takeaway is that there is a universal appeal in seeing the same story retold in multiple versions, there are more important lessons as well. They all focus on the importance of leaders deriving valuable insights on their companies and their work, and figuring out how best to do so without being followed by a camera crew, engaging in subterfuge with colleagues, or drawing inaccurate conclusions from a single, isolated, or atypical experience.

After all, if you went the "undercover" route, would such a single episode with a customer, supplier, or employee give you a valid, enduring picture of all the important areas awaiting improvement or revamping? Doubtful. So how do you engage most effectively in some new learning or inquiry on those topics? How often should you and/or your team change the format, the venue, or the time frame of such an exercise? Here's a fairly straightforward three-part suggestion for you to use or adapt to build that wider spectrum of understanding. In the next two weeks, you pick the date, venue, and format; observe your current practices in these three areas; and gather just one or two insights and necessary action steps regarding:

  1. Your "most favorite" and "least favorite" current customers, looking at why those relationships vary so significantly. What might you anticipate hearing? Will it be your products, your quality, your people, your service? What will you do about the "surprises" in what they say? Your marketers should know the best way to share that in your organization, not just with your sales folks.
  2. Your two most important suppliers, looking at what they do with you as a customer that affects you most substantially. What are the things they do with and for you that you most value? Is there some degree of "balance" in the relationship? Are you a good customer in their eyes? The answers to those questions will be helpful across your organization, beyond procurement and supply chain.
  3. Your most promising employee and your most problematic one, shaping an agenda for what you need to do for your workforce as a whole. Once you identify both of them, or both types, what's your action course? How can you get more of the former and less of the latter? Don't dismiss your "problematic" ones too quickly, however. They may also be among your most promising if you can guide them well. They can be your eyes and ears, offering perspectives you may not have previously considered.

If you can actually undertake this quickly, in these next two weeks, there will be some great individual vignettes and observations on which to build. You'll have at least six new insights on which to base some valuable actions without ever having to appear on the show.

However, if you do this only once, it's not enough. Unlike the television show, where it's one company, one visit, one time, you'll want to figure out how best to keep it going. The more episodes you can generate for your company, the better. Try it quarterly. It will give you a basis of comparison, so the accumulated information will rise above the level of single anecdote and into the realm of valuable data.

If you are doing something like this already, tell us about what you are learning. If not, now's the time to act. Not one of these steps takes a long time to do, and none of them are costly in terms of time or money. But the returns can be substantial.

Robert Galford, Managing Partner of the Center for Leading Organizations, is a Leadership Fellow in Executive Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Thanks to Robert Galford / Blogs HBR / Harvard Business School Publishing

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