World is changing at the speed of light and so is changing the business canvas. CEOs and Boards are constantly worried for that ambiguous period between the last light and the first light, next day. They are worried as to what might change during this intervening period. There are successions, replacements and firing of CEOs and top leadership team in various companies across the world. A new CEO’s celebration is short-lived, whether he is hired internally or brought in from outside. Before he settles down, the media is already bombarding him with their version of top 10 challenges and 10 most critical things to do. If you don’t believe this, look at the series of digital posts by various ‘News Portals’ on Satya Nadella in the first week of February, post announcement of his appointment as the CEO of Microsoft. Everyone has his own version of recommendations, which are being hurled at him and the company. Such a flurry of suggestions is not restricted to the new incumbent alone. Similar treatment is also meted out to the outgoing incumbent. In his case the remarks are “he should have or could have done this”.
How should the new CEOs, whether moved up internally or having come from outside, act or react in such scenarios?
The problem is relatively different, when an internal leader gets this opportunity; more so when he knows that he is in the reckoning and he is anticipating it. In this case, he has had the time and opportunity to brace himself and his ‘to do list’ for the onerous task ahead. However, the biggest disadvantage here is that an internal leader knows what can’t be done and probably will never make an attempt of treading that path. On the contrary, an outsider may not have this benefit of an ‘advance view’ and thus cannot come prepared with his secret ‘to do list’. But he has one advantage, “he doesn’t know what cannot be done” and he will give a serious attempt to make the change that he feels is imperative. Naivety has his own advantages and is very successful in bringing new paradigms. The issue I am trying to raise is, “how can we leverage the advantages of both the propositions – an internal candidate as well as an outsider”. The answer lies in combining the Naiveté of an external candidate with the vast array of insights that an internal candidate like Satya Nadella would bring. In other words, “behave like an external candidate in your own organization”. It doesn’t sound very fancy, does it? It appears that the vast internal community might start saying that the CEO has changed, he is treating us as if we have come from outside. But this is not really what I am trying to propose. What my recommendation is that the CEO must put on the ‘External Lens’ to look at his own organization, its strategy, structure, the culture, talent practices and the entire DNA on which the organization is embedded.
In simple words, the CEO needs to ‘Reimagine the Arena’ in which he and his organization will have to operate. For a new CEO to be successful in taking the organization forward or for an existing CEO to shift the momentum, he will have to reshape the canvas for painting the new vision. And this needs to be completely sold to the employees for unlocking their energy, spawning renewed vigor and manifesting the vision. What is this reimagination? Why reimagine? How to go about? Who can help reimagine? Where to begin from? These are some of the questions I wish to address in this post.
This is the core question that needs to be understood before embarking on the journey of renewal or overhaul. The CEO, board and top execution team must reimagine the business for:-
- Creating and sustaining growth
- Creating new potentialities
- Letting go potentialities that are not relevant anymore
- Conjuring a new ecosystem that may unleash a whole new range of possibilities
- Envisaging new tastes and preferences of consumers
- Generating new efficiencies in the system
- Fashioning new user Experiences
- Reviewing the value delivery architecture for engineering new experiences
- Engendering new excitement, energy and drive in the system
- Last but not the least ‘Staying relevant’
Together, all the above dimensions will trigger a fundamental change in the strategy, architecture; set of behaviours and the culture needed to embed the change. It is a strange phenomenon that in order to serve the changing consumers’ expectations, the reimagining must begin at home, but what must change at home is often triggered by reimagining our perception by customers. The companies that are constantly working on managing their ‘look and feel’ in the eyes of consumers often succeed in changing their internal outlook, necessary for reimagining the business and staying relevant for their customers.
What to Reimagine?
For many companies reimagining is just a fancy word or a phrase often launched with a buzz in the annual strategy meets. It stirs up the excitement of a new bold statement, a new outlook, a new set of expectations and new energy for employees. Unfortunately, no one at the top cares to demystify this reimagination and it is often left to the next-level leadership’s interpretation. And thus begins the journey of ‘Chinese Whispers’. By the time, it trickles down to the operational leadership; the buzz of reimagination is reduced to mere repackaging the old content in its new avatar of reimagination. Few months later, everyone starts feeling disillusioned and thus falls back to the tried and tested operational rigor, in order to meet the ‘Quarter to Quarter’ numbers. In my opinion, ‘what to reimagine’ is not just a triggering statement but a whole new way of life in the organization. It is about reimagining the core, the frontiers, and the linkages that keep it nimble yet intact. However, for reimagination to happen, the nuances ranging from conceptualization to execution must be delved deeply in its full spectrum. In other words following must be reimagined:-
- Nuance of future customers
- Relationship with Customers
- Scenarios that may reframe the outlook towards customers
- Outlook toward technology – technology being the single largest disruptor
- The way companies do business planning
- Decision making within the organization
- Structures that bind/embed the organization
- Capabilities needed for future
- Engines needed for building the future capabilities
- Decision workflows and patterns
- Metrics and measures of performance
- Culture needed to drive the organization into future
- New thresholds of performance
- Pockets of Immunity, which will strangulate creativity
These are some of the ‘absolute tangibles’ organizations can work on, in order to cascade the reimagination in thought, to reimagination in execution. Such clarity will help organizations carve out ‘paths of execution’ with priority, ownership, accountability and a governance framework so as to ensure that the reimagination manifests its intended outcomes. Once we have the identifiables in place, we can then proceed to make this happen.
Amazon’s thinking of delivery its packages weighing less than 2 Kilograms through ‘Drones – Amazon Prime Air’ is a classic example of reimagining delivery of goods, which has the potential of disrupting supply chain and creating new expectations among consumers.
How to Reimagine?
This is one of the most difficult aspects of reimagination framework. By just stating, “let’s reimagine the business” and not able to actually reimagine, has been one of the most common experiences that various companies have faced. It is not easy to even imagine, forget about reimagining. The CEOs alone can’t reimagine. For that matter, a leader who has been anticipating the top position can’t suddenly start reimagining, if he has not been imagining throughout his professional journey. Not all people are good at reimagining. Most organizations are not designed to reimagine, there are umpteen barriers. So what should be done? Well! Organizations need to create conditions for reimagining. They need to create a team which is good at reimagining. And by the way, reimagination doesn’t mean the absence of structure or a haphazard day dreaming. On the contrary, reimagination is all about structured thinking in outlook, approach and execution. Few companies, who were successful in reimagination, demonstrated a unique set of behaviours that made them conducive for reimagining. They seem to be doing following things:-
- Create new labs or simulator for reimagining
- Constitute the team for reimagination
- Build new tools, models, frameworks of reimagination
- Paint a fresh canvas, even if it appears a bit weird in the beginning
- Engender and invest in some timeless moments for reflection. We all know that world’s best creations happened in the moment of ‘Quietude’
- Institute a culture of questioning in the organization. Questions like these are extremely powerful in generating energy and momentum :-
- Is there another way?
- Can it be done differently?
- Can we visualize a different outcome?
- What if it doesn’t work?
- What else can we try?
- How about identifying what is not or will not be relevant in future?
- Think of ‘Parallels’ to existing workflows which are like ‘Alternates’. It is like sustaining current engines successfully and simultaneously developing new engines/models that produce exponentially bigger outcomes but draw upon, still relevant components of the current models.
- Widen exposure to enhance the ‘Triggers of Reimagination’ for key enterprise decision makers.
- Visualize the applicability of your business model, frameworks and management practices on other industries and try superimposing the other industry models on your company. This will simulate more conflict/non-compatible zones. These zones are the melting points of new opportunities, similar to ‘Plate Tectonics’ where ever-shifting plates create new basins and mountains. Once such zones are identified, look to apply the ‘Migration Technology’ which IT companies have pioneered – moving clients from one platform to another with seamless ease. In doing so, the potentialities for new outcomes will emerge.
- Go back in time, into the ‘Chronicles’ of your company and industry; try and recall how things were, when nothing existed. Reflect on the outlook your predecessors must have had in order to shape up things from the ground zero. Replicate that experience for reimagining; it is priceless. However, for this to be recreated, organizations must maintain a ‘War Diary or a Digest’ to log that ‘Formative Nothingness’, those ‘Crucial Milestones’; occasional successes and a series of disappointments before the momentum got picked up.
- Create and nurture a cell of ‘Weird Thinking’. Future will always appear weird to antagonists and purists. Construct a structure to review the apparently weird ‘Flights of Fancy’ to cull out the potentialities from things that do not make sense at this point of time. Like, Elon Musk’s Hyperloop must have appeared weird to purists a decade ago and even as late as few years back but the same weird imagination is now being viewed with excitement and anticipation.
- Focus on transitory periods. Key signals get mixed during the transition. Put on lenses that can capture these signals of potentialities during transition. These are game changing moments. No wonder the horizon looks ethereal during sunrise and sunset.
- Induce catalysts that can disturb the organization’s equilibrium and break the boring rhythm. Depute a team to study organizational routine for its undue-prolonged intactness. The longer a routine is allowed to remain intact, harder it becomes difficult to break or change.
Who are your best people to reimagine?
You cannot run a monorail on a conventional railway track. You cannot land an Air Bus A380 on an airport not designed for this. You cannot drive a winning streak through a mindset, which is tentative and self-limiting. You cannot make people reimagine, who have only delivered on others’ imagination. Let’s accept it, there are few people who are good at it, others are not. But what these other people can do is surely dampen the spirit and morale of ‘Reimaginers’ by thwarting their pursuits at each stage enactment. So if a CEO and his top team want to reimagine the business, they must invest their energy in creating conditions for ‘Reimaginers’ to initially survive and later thrive. They must be protected from the onslaught of veterans, who have grown seeing things happen in a particular way. They must be nurtured like ‘Embryos in the Incubators’, before they find their own feet in the system. Executive sponsorship, budgeting; dedicated support and most importantly empathetic listening are the key nourishments, ‘Reimaginers’ need to set the journey of reimagination rolling. Following people are best suited to be part of the reimagination spaceship:-
- Internal champions who have been moved and rotated around different functions, roles, geographies; markets and arenas. They must have got stretched beyond their limits and were probably never allowed to settle down in their comfort zones.
- Outsiders, that came in from different industries at various levels and brought in with them perspectives that were new to your current company. What needs to be ensured here is a culture of embracing and encouraging what these outsiders bring and not shutting them into their cocoons by frequently saying, “This is not how we do things here”.
- Young managers and Freshers empowered by senior leaders to question the status through their innocence and naivety.
- Leaders entrusted with innovation of new products, platforms and services.
- Leaders entrusted with opening new doors, markets and regions.
Where to begin from?
Finally, this is where the action begins from and is indeed a crucial step. Most companies and leaders appear clueless here; how to move the ‘Giant Wheel of Action’, how to begin a movement and how to build the critical mass in the movement for traction to happen? This is the ‘Rubicon’, companies and leaders need to cross or else the reimagination vision will not manifest. The best place to begin the reimagination journey is from CEO himself and his office. CEO needs to look at how he and his top leadership team are motivating the employees. How are they listening to employees? The seeds of future are often concealed in the conversations with employees that never happen. This leadership team needs to transcend beyond or below its immediate layer of ‘Direct Reports’ for listening to larger group of employees. Use all channels, all the time for a sustained period. Primarily, the CEO and his top team need to reimagine their own role in bringing people together to drive the ‘Shared Reimagination Agenda’. After all this is the biggest strategic change they would ever drive. And most strategic changes are driven as robust processes. They must appear as viral but the engine of dissemination must be structured. Following steps hold the key:-
- Create a Reimagination Vision & an Agenda.
- Conceive it as a Strategic Change Management Drive.
- Create a Re-Imagination Group (RIG) at CEO level as well as each business unit and function level.
- Hold frequent interaction among various ‘RIGs’.
- Socialize the draft reimagination agenda through Crowdsourcing as well as structured conversations, such as town halls, one on one, skip level meetings etc.
- Take people’s feedback and assimilate it into the agenda.
- Give people a ‘Parameter Framework’ to obtain their ideas. The framework must act as a filter to allow only game-changing ideas and eliminate the ‘chaff’. However, the chaff must not be ignored; this should be the fodder for our current – transactional goals, to improve the efficiencies in the system.
- Review all inputs and refine the agenda with 10-15 points, to be driven in next 2 to 3 years.
- Prioritize these 15 items in such a way that not more than 5 items are the actual strategic imperatives to be driven in a particular financial year.
Be prepared, the above items will suck tremendous amount of time and energy of CEOs and top leadership team. You need to factor that ab-initio and plan for it. The question, “where this additional time and energy would come from”, the companies are not prepared to deal with or find it difficult to address it. This is also about the transfer of succession – managing current, being dealt by the next level team and creating future by the top team. This team reconfiguration is not exactly by the seniority or hierarchy. This should be purely by mindset of contemporaneity, futurism and disruption, all extremely critical for staying relevant. Companies must prepare for such collective succession, where managing current is handled by the next level team and creating future is handled by CEO and his carefully chosen team. Reimagination is a monster in making, you ought to be prepared to face and guide it in such a way that the monster drives you into the future by unlocking creativity, energy and drive and not suck out the energy from the system.
Finally, whatever you do in terms of reimagining, it must eventually reinvent following levers of organizational growth and sustainability:-
- Leadership – How are we going to develop leadership of tomorrow?
- Strategy – How do we formulate and plan strategy?
- Structure – How do we bring structural changes to embed the new strategy?
- Technology – How do we find new uses of technology or create new technology to reshape the user experiences, for our customers as well as employees.
- Culture – How are we addressing cultural conflicts arising on account of generational as well as global diversity?
Reimagination is not imagining new but changing the lens through which we see things, as they exist today and thus create new experiences for customers as well as employees. Often, in the pursuit of reimagining business for customers, employees get overlooked or ignored. Reimagination must begin from employees because it is ultimately they, who will create new experiences for customers through a unique interplay of people, processes and systems. If companies miss out on employees, they can surely forget about driving reimagination at work. Reimagination is also about the balance between timely and timeless. It is a periodic process and needs to be initiated at crucial junctures. Identifying those junctures is a critical challenge and at best handled when reimagination is driven through a structured strategic change initiative and not left as a free, pervasive happening. The means of driving should be structured but the outward appearance must appear viral and spontaneous. This is where reimagination will yield best outcomes by finding the problems that could usurp a company from the position it commands in the market, rather than only focusing on new solutions to stay afloat.
By Himanshu Saxena is the Head, Strategy Alignment & Leadership Management at TCS BPS, part of Tata Consultancy Services, a Global Top 10 IT Services Company. In his 27 years of diverse career, he has held Strategy & Leadership assignments in Corporation, United Nations and Military, besides being an entrepreneur. Editing by Amarendra Bhushan, Janina Energin, Hendrik L Clarke, and Amy Canter.
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