PROBLEM: Changing mindsets and long-held beliefs.
LEADERSHIP FOR CHANGE
When a venture swims upstream, there'll be lots of factors to take into account. Ultimately, change is driven by getting to the core of a problem, and identifying simple solutions.
(See blog post Four Words, Top Line.)
Start with five basic questions: 1) What is your Purpose? Why does this group of people gather to do something together (nearly ever day)? Individually, it may be to earn a wage for the rent, but collectively: Why are you all there?
2) What are your Goals? That makes the Purpose more concrete and measurable, so you can track progress. And are the Goals aligned? Iron out internal problems, early.
3) Are the right People in the right roles? Everyone should count, everyone should contribute. Leadership is channelling collective energy to deliver the Purpose.
And the greatest risk to growth is hiring, promoting or keeping the wrong people in the wrong roles - then avoiding the decision to change.
4) How are you generating Cash? That’s the lifeblood keeping the venture going. Ensure that all your people understand this truth. It's not about getting rich; it’s so that everyone taking part can see how they contribute, and what needs to change when times change.
5) Who are your Customers? Who are the 10 most important for you? Who are the Top 10 for each of your team? Who buys from you? What do they buy from you? Who’s happy? Who isn’t? What can be done to make it better?
Back to basics to keep things simple - so as many as possible understand.
As Gertrude Stein wrote: "Everyone gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense."
an important problem
“Customers? Customers?? I don’t meet customers. I’m not a double glazing salesman. I’m a PhD in astrophysics.”
QinetiQ - the UK government research laboratories - had been privatised and publicly floated. That was an unknown world for the majority of employees; scientists, technicians and civil servants.
An 'intrapreneurial' team called New Business Accelerator (NBA) knew it was wading into a great lake of intellectual property that hadn’t been fully exploited.
Partly a funding problem, mostly one of mindset.
Wherever NBA lifted drain covers - on digital encryption, airport passenger security, aeronautical code testing and unmanned vehicle navigation - one question focused every conversation:
What important problem are you solving?
Aurix - a small speech recognition company - fitted the bill; its technology was developed as part of the Eurofighter aircraft build, giving the pilot voice control for non-combat aspect of the 'plane.
It had to work at extreme circumstances. Odd things happen to the human voice when you’re flying upside down at Mach 2.
Other sectors were looking for speech use - broadcast, telephony, call centres and security services - to search millions of voice records for key terms. Potentially, a commercial sweet spot.
Dreaming of possibilities was easy; taking employee hearts and minds to a different space was much harder. Two steps forward, one-and-a-half back.
Over the following months we created the levers needed to run a commercial venture: a business plan that meant something; roles and responsibilities that aligned who-was-doing-what; boundaries agreed for individual and team decision-making.
With a growing project pipeline, it was clear that further growth required more cash, beyond the hand-to-mouth survival of the past couple of decades.
So began the VC investment dance; three months of trudging with our presentation from boardroom to boardroom, learning what landed well and what was dismissed.
When you raise funds, you have to kiss a lot of frogs.
We finally got three who were interested enough to visit Aurix for live demonstrations and due diligence. And the engineers started buying into the idea that they were responsible for their individual and collective future.
Soon after, Avaya in the US showed interest. The Chief Engineer and I went to California to meet the telephony company, and potential investors.
Great meeting; no immediate pay-off.
Changing mindsets and long-standing practices takes time. By the end of my year as interim CEO we raised additional funding. Liquidity was important, the positive feedback for the team invaluable.
Aurix was starting to find its own feet. More accurately the Aurix staff - who had known nothing different until NBA - were starting to find their own way.
And six years later Aurix finally found a new home - bought by Avaya.