Knowledge Center: Article
Putting META into Action6/7/2017 Scott Jacobs and Steven Krupp
How do elite companies set themselves apart from competitors? A multiyear research effort by Heidrick & Struggles identified acceleration—or the ability to reduce time to value by building and changing momentum more quickly than competitors do—as a competitive game-changer. Acceleration, in turn, requires a focus on mobilizing, transforming, and executing with agility—or “META.”
This approach can be applied at four levels: strategy, the organization, teams, and leaders. Here, we give an overview of how META works in practice—specifically, how strategies must account for the short and long term, how organizations should embrace a handful of differentiating actions, how teams are the engines of organizations, and how leaders can themselves accelerate to better serve their teammates and organization.
Strategizing for the short and long term
The business environment is constantly changing. Nearly every day something in the market shifts, a competitor develops an unexpected product, a policy change affects how you can do business, and you’re blindsided.
Indeed, in a survey of 1,200 leaders conducted by faculty at Wharton Executive Education, 60% of respondents said that their organization had been repeatedly blindsided by high-impact events. And an incredible 97% said that their organization lacked an adequate early warning system.
Like all the drag and drive factors contributing to a team’s performance, strategy requires a good amount of foresight. But foresight alone isn’t enough. An accelerated strategy involves a number of practices, including fostering adaptability, developing back-up plans, and keeping an eye on both the short- and long-term trajectory of the organization.
To make sure you’re promoting the right behaviors and practicing an accelerated strategy, you should think in terms of the four areas of META.
Mobilize: Capitalize on uncertainty
Uncertainty is a given in business. An accelerated strategy embraces and mobilizes that uncertainty, helping leaders achieve clarity and alignment on the most important forces shaping the future and helping pinpoint where some of the most profitable opportunities actually exist.
Nathan Rothschild, a prominent member of the second generation of the illustrious banking family, is reputed to have said, “Great fortunes are made when the cannonballs are falling in the harbor, not when the violins are playing in the ballroom.” An accelerated strategy recognizes the opportunities in the inevitable uncertainty—opportunities that lie ahead, yet unforeseen. To capitalize on these uncertainties, dedicate time to play with assumptions about the future of the business to see how they might be able to develop into opportunities. And adopt tools such as influence diagrams, real-options analysis, and system dynamics modeling to embrace and capitalize on ambiguity.
While uncertainty can be intimidating, it is actually a friend to an accelerated strategy, as it can encourage you to spot openings and keep you from getting bogged down with too much information.
Execute: Prepare multiple strategies
A global survey of senior executives by PwC found that more than half of respondents did not believe their organization had a winning strategy. In addition, two-thirds believed their company lacked the needed capabilities to realize its strategy.1 To accelerate, executives must understand the capabilities their company needs to achieve its strategy, which of those capabilities the company already has, and which it must develop.
One of the most important parts of a good strategy is, surprisingly, having multiple strategies. That’s because, often, market conditions change, new threats arise, opportunities emerge, and competitors pursue unexpected avenues. Work to understand your competitors’ possible reactions, and build your own approach around this thinking. Role-playing, for example, can help you imagine the competition’s strategic intentions and thus build multiple strategies to address them.
While most organizations make plans as if the world were predictable, you want to be among those that recognize the value in adaptability and thus are ready to act quickly when the environment changes.
Transform: Split resources between short- and long-term initiatives
Accelerated strategies focus on pursuing long-term ambitions without sacrificing performance in the short term. Strategic transformation requires organizations to plant the seeds of growth while maintaining their core business.
It’s easy, for example, to get sidetracked by near-term initiatives with a clear return on investment, as a leading global chemicals manufacturer did. It was losing its edge in long-term innovation because its resources were primarily going to short-term initiatives. So executives developed a system to combat this trend. They allocated investments into three categories: core (short term/low risk), new (medium term/medium risk), and experimental (long term/high risk). Since each category is based on its own time horizon and risk level, the executives ensured that short-term focus wouldn’t crowd out longer-term investment.
With a strategic eye on both the short and long term, you will also be better able to let go of failing strategies. Everyone knows the dictum to fail fast, but few have the wherewithal to exercise this discipline. By investing in initiatives of diverse risk levels, you’re more likely to know when to pull the plug on a flagging effort.
Agility: Look ahead and adapt
Some projects will inevitably fail. The best companies learn not only to fail fast but also to anticipate, recover from, and learn from setbacks.
Adaptability and foresight are vital to developing an accelerated strategy. In our assessment of nearly 25,000 executives in more than 175 countries on the “six key elements of strategic thinking,” we found that predicting competitors’ potential moves and likely reactions to new products or initiatives ranks as the least-developed skill among the most important strategic behaviors. Being able to foresee such moves is obviously central to an accelerated strategy.
But it is not enough to merely work to anticipate shifts in the industry. You must know what to do with that information, adjusting your strategies and processes, even if they have been successful in the past, to ensure continued performance in the future. A famous scholar once wrote of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, “It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”2
An accelerated strategy relies on the ability to look to the future and prepare for it in every way possible: by brainstorming diverse strategies for different situations, being ready to adapt as information and trends change, anticipating competitors’ moves, embracing uncertainty, and planning for both the short and long term. Only then can your organization be prepared for an ever-changing world.
What differentiates winning organizations?
Business is all about innovation, but in one area—how companies are organized—we’ve seen precious little change over the years. In fact, organizational structures have remained mostly the same since Alfred P. Sloan oversaw the development of the modern corporation at General Motors from the 1920s to the 1950s. Why? It’s risky to try new things. To be innovative, you must be prepared to experiment, fail, and get back up again.
Consequently, too many companies have become herbivores—slow to act and react.
Through our research, we identified 39 differentiating actions that can help spur organizations to a faster pace—and better results. Here, we will discuss a handful of those actions. At the very least, they will allow you to operate much more efficiently, but they also have the potential to send you accelerating far past your competitors. (For the full list, see our white paper.)
As we did in the previous section on accelerating strategy, we will look at these differentiating actions as they fall within the META framework.
Mobilize: Put your customers first
Mobilizing requires that you read changes in the external ecosystem through the lens of your customers. The clothing company Zara is widely recognized for a method it has used to coinvent with customers. Sales associates carefully watch which items customers consider buying but then put back. They ask for feedback and communicate it instantaneously to the company’s design team, which then modifies items and ships them out—tailoring products to reflect customer preferences.
While this approach is effective, there is another side to the equation: you have to anticipate customers’ needs before they recognize those needs themselves. Henry Ford reportedly said that if he had just asked customers what they wanted, they would’ve told him to design faster horses. He knew more about their needs than they did. But to understand your customers today, you have to spend time with them. Your leaders need to engage face-to-face with customers.
Execute: Embrace simplicity
Execution at the organization level requires you to harness and streamline resources, and for that to happen, simplicity is key.
The visionary art critic John Ruskin famously warned, “It is far more difficult to be simple than to be complicated.” Indeed, that’s why you see organizations getting bogged down and overwhelmed by data, hierarchies, and new product offerings. But some of the most successful companies have straightforward offerings and structures. Take Apple with its 19 products or Chipotle with its 5-item menu or Comcast with its organizational structure that frequently puts leaders in physical proximity to frontline employees.
Try to reduce the layers of your business, with no more than five to seven layers between the CEO and the front line. With too many layers, it’s easy to get distracted from the task at hand: making the best products or offering the best services.
Another area begging to be simplified is your data. With so much information at your fingertips, how do you know what to look at or what to do with it? Our advice is to pick a limited set of metrics for your scorecard. Decide carefully which you’ll look at, make decisions based only on those metrics, and don’t be afraid to change your metrics as the business or business climate evolves. In fact, insist on it. The environment changes—your metrics may need to change as well.
Transform: Innovate collaboratively with courage
Transforming involves experimenting and innovating—and collaborating to make that all happen. To truly be innovative, you must encourage disruptive thinking across the organization. Listen to your instincts, back them up with empirical data, and then track the impact of new ventures on your customers and employees. Take General Motors. It is investing aggressively in driverless cars, even though they could represent a threat to its long-standing business model. It’s a courageous move, with an eye on the future and a little bit of faith that it will all work out.
To get the most innovative ideas out of the organization, though, you have to encourage collaboration and celebrate net exporters of talent. “We don’t have time for people who hoard insights or data,” said Comcast Cable’s head of HR, William Strahan, in an interview as part of our research. You’ve got to remove blockers and make information transparent. Create an open, collaborative environment, and everyone will feel equally a part of the organization, thus making employees more likely to contribute. Transparency is how you get even more and better ideas from people throughout the organization.
Agility: Learn and bounce back from mistakes
As the critical element of acceleration, agility allows you to spot opportunities and threats, learn from mistakes, and pivot quickly.
Failure is not the enemy. In fact, agile organizations invite people to fail, as mistakes present opportunities to learn and adapt. Intuit, for example, tried a marketing campaign aimed at young adults that would let them get tax refunds as gift cards to retailers. While the campaign generated almost no interest, it cost next to nothing. “It is only a failure,” cofounder Scott Cook said, “if we fail to get the learning.”3
Try risky endeavors, but also conduct a postmortem on mistakes. This way the organization can adopt what worked and avoid what did not—and do it quickly. When something “bad” happens, it’s natural to slow down, take time to think it over, and lick your wounds. But recovery has to happen on the go. Keep pushing forward and trying new things, and don’t forget to praise those unafraid of putting themselves out there for a new opportunity.
Innovation is hard, and it’s why so many organizations are structured the same way they were 10, 20, or even 50 years ago. But continually rethinking how you engage with your customers, how you can simplify, how you collaborate, and what you do in the face of failures can keep you fresh, competitive, and, critically, accelerating.
Accelerating teams, the engine of your organization
Do you have a nagging suspicion that the team you manage could be doing better? You’re not alone, and you’re probably right.
Just as molecules are the building blocks of the universe, teams are the building blocks of every organization. From the senior leadership to the back office to customer-facing departments, organizational performance critically depends on the health of teams at every level. Yet teams tend toward chaos: tensions build up, bucks are passed, and purposes clash. Our research found that acceleration is not the natural state of most teams; only 13.0% of the teams we studied could be defined as accelerating, while 27.5% were lagging or outright derailing, as shown in Figure 1.
What does all this mean for performance?
The truth is that underperforming teams are leaving money on the table, wasting time, and deterring top talent from joining or staying in your organization. Using corporate bonuses as a proxy for economic performance, we found that accelerating teams had an average economic impact 22.8% higher than that of derailing teams. Accelerating teams also reduce costs more quickly, go to market more effectively, and launch products more smoothly.
We also found that senior-level teams (director-level members and above) were 1.6 times less likely than junior teams to be accelerating. Why is it worse at the top? Because at the senior level, team members must integrate a portfolio of different activities—marketing, manufacturing, finance, and so forth—into a coherent whole. This finding aligns with previous Heidrick & Struggles research; in a survey of 60 top HR executives from Fortune 500 companies, only 6% of respondents reported that “the executives in our C-suite are a well-integrated team.”4
To help teams at every level, we developed the Team Accelerator Questionnaire (TAQ) to measure the 16 drive factors that our research has shown are critical to team acceleration. The TAQ is completed by stakeholders inside and outside the team and provides a “heat map” of the team’s performance; it enables the team to construct a journey to suit the industry context, the organizational strategy, and the team’s ambitions. Figure 2 is an example of a team’s personalized heat map, which reveals the areas in which it is succeeding and those in which it is struggling; in this case, adaptability is clearly a weak point.
Though the specific plan for each team will differ, the differentiating actions for teams map well to the META framework.
Mobilize: Obtain clarity
Mobilizing a team means aligning it around a clear set of priorities. Without fail, accelerating teams put the customer at the center of everything. Unsurprisingly, our research found that the further a team is from the customer, the harder it is for its members to prioritize the customer instead of single-mindedly pursuing financial targets and internal key performance indicators. Thus it’s crucial to find ways to bring customers into the room for non-customer-facing teams—including, of course, senior teams.
In addition to keeping the customer top of mind, mobilized teams also share a deep understanding of the expectations of each stakeholder—including team members, team leaders, commissioners (that is, the bosses of the team leaders), and outside stakeholders. This understanding is translated into action through the team members’ straightforward articulation of the team’s purpose, mutual commitment to achieve its priorities, and laser focus on a clear direction, delegating away tasks that diverge from its mission. Indeed, too many teams—almost half of those we surveyed—cited “allowing priorities to pull in different directions” as getting in the way of acceleration.
Execute: Achieve functional excellence
Mobilizing is only the start. Execution of the team’s agenda requires a disciplined approach. To begin, team members must be the right fit for the job; a tight composition and the ability to restructure as needed are crucial. As Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise and former CEO of eBay, said, “At eBay, someone who was perfect when it was a $40 million company was not quite so perfect when it grew to $4 billion.”5
With the right members in place, each entrusted with explicit accountabilities, the team can concentrate on execution built on uncompromising standards—a single-minded pursuit of priorities aided by ruthless time management—and a focused grip on matching critical resources to the biggest opportunities rather than chasing red herrings.
Transform: Drive productive disruption
A team that mobilizes and executes well is an asset to any organization—especially when operating in a steady state. But in a dynamically changing environment, it’s not enough. Through high-quality debate and frank yet supportive feedback, accelerating teams transform the organizations in which they work. Four differentiating factors distinguish members of accelerating teams:
- They wield stakeholder influence, managing these individuals as if they were customers, creating a compelling call to action, and enjoying the snowball effect of stakeholders’ rallying the support of others in turn.
- They distribute leadership responsibilities, demanding full participation, ensuring decisions are made at the correct level, and establishing a unified team voice. Such distribution is the essence of collaboration, free of micromanagement.
- They hold each other to account, stretch each other’s thinking, and understand each other as people and as colleagues; the reward is that such teams rupture and repair from conflict quickly.
- They make disciplined decisions that benefit from full transparency and unfettered information sharing—particularly the decisions centered on risk. Too risk-averse, and opportunity is left on the table; too risk-“loose,” and risk is managed poorly, with potentially disastrous outcomes.
Agility: Evolve and grow
The final set of team acceleration drive factors ensures that the team never stands still. Teams that are agile create energy, attempt the ambitious, and overcome barriers to delivery—and enable the organization to pivot when required and to execute and transform where the strategy demands it. Agile teams are characterized by foresight, learning, adaptability, and resilience. In practice, these teams scan the environment for fresh ideas and welcome challenges to conventional wisdom. They learn from the past, present, and future, implementing these lessons at pace. They experiment and adapt, and they manage their energy to ensure that there is enough appetite for risk, absorb setbacks, and view challenges—inevitable in the business world—as opportunities for growth. Our research found that adaptability in particular can be a sore spot for teams; 70% of teams in derailing companies struggle with it.
As more and more companies organize through teams, think about your own team challenge—and consider where, specifically, your team may be struggling. What would it take to capture the maximum value for your organization?
We’ve now discussed how strategies must account for the short and long term, how organizations should embrace a handful of differentiating actions, and how teams are the engines of organizations. Leaders are the final piece of the puzzle; they set the pace of the team and therefore of the organization. And watching an accelerating leader at work is like watching a three-act play titled META.
Mobilize: Set the foundation
The first act is mobilization. In the first scene, we watch our protagonist shape strategy by envisioning a compelling future for the organization. This vision requires the leader to anticipate and interpret market changes and set strategic priorities accordingly. These priorities provide clarity on the critical factors for success while not hampering the company’s ability to be flexible and agile.
In the second scene, our protagonist outlines a specific approach to putting the customer at the heart of everything the organization does: understanding customers’ needs, creating distinctive value for them, and building deep customer relationships. The leader harnesses and constructs the full set of capabilities and resources to anticipate and shape evolving customer needs, staying one step ahead of competitors and disrupters.
The third scene unfolds with our leader inspiring others and leading through influence, not authority. To do this, the leader co-creates meaning and purpose, ensuring that all team members engage with the team’s mission statement; employs tactics such as storytelling to engage and energize the organization at large; and aligns stakeholders to establish buy-in and support.
Execute: Deliver results
The action heats up in the second act. Accelerated execution requires the leader to build talent and teams and seek results—that is, translate strategy into clear execution plans and priorities. The importance of building a high-functioning, diverse team cannot be overstated; our protagonist knows this and so makes investing in talent attraction and development a personal and business priority. The leader empowers others, thus creating space to lead. At the same time, the leader deftly coordinates execution across a wide-ranging portfolio, evoking a high level of ownership and accountability. Our protagonist is always focused on improving core capabilities and delivering at pace by removing process complexity and showing courage to change plans when appropriate.
Transform: Embrace disruption
The third act features two equally important scenes: disrupting conventional ways of thinking and leading innovation. The disruption phase requires asking bold questions for which our protagonist has no answers—including about the company’s own business model, if necessary—and being an advocate for trying new things. It also requires the leader to protect the core business from potential external disrupters by leveraging technology. To lead innovation, the leader finds ways to experiment. The leader fosters an environment that encourages others to take risks and experiment with new ideas, collaborate across silos, and rapidly scale up those ideas that promise a material impact.
Agility: Learn and adapt
Throughout the three-act play, the leader—and the leader’s supporting cast—demonstrate agility. We watch as they journey through the stages of mobilization, execution, and transformation, developing foresight, learning, constantly adapting to changing contexts, and drawing on their resilience. This compelling performance is, perhaps, why this play keeps replaying in our minds; like a stunning theater performance, the leading character stands out. Our protagonist faces complex problems and solves them; is self-aware, curious, and courageous; balances authenticity with adaptability; and—sometimes against all odds—sustains energy throughout the organization. It turns out that this unbridled success is not magic, nor is it out of reach; it is a symptom of leading with agility.
The opportunity to lead is why many of us got into business in the first place. And our dreams are often rewarded, because leading an organization—be it a company, an association, a government agency, or a nonprofit—is thrilling. It tests you and requires you to constantly retool, adapt, and learn. As Maya Angelou famously wrote, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” We put it to every leader: What can you change about yourself to become a better leader?
About the authors
Scott Jacobs (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ London office and a member of Heidrick Consulting.
Steven Krupp (email@example.com) is a partner in the Philadelphia office and a member of Heidrick Consulting.
Christine Lotze is an alumna of the New Jersey office.
Colin Price is an alumnus of the London office.
Sharon Toye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a partner in the London office and a member of Heidrick Consulting.
Stephen Wyatt (email@example.com) is a partner in the Singapore office and a member of Heidrick Consulting.
This article is drawn from posts previously published on LinkedIn. The thinking is adapted from Colin Price and Sharon Toye’s recent book, Accelerating Performance: How Organizations Can Mobilize, Execute, and Transform with Agility (Wiley & Sons, January 2017).
2 Leon C. Megginson, “Lessons from Europe for American business,” Southwestern Social Science Quarterly, June 1963.
5 Adi Ignatius, “‘We need to intensify our sense of urgency’: An interview with Meg Whitman,” Harvard Business Review, May 2016.