Q&A: Writing the ‘history of your future’

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This is a Q&A with Monica Heuer, Nancy Drozdow, and Larry Hirschhorn of CFAR Center for Applied Research, a Wolff Olins internal engagement partner. 

WO: Thanks for talking to us! First, would you please tell everyone what CFAR is all about?

CFAR: We’re about helping organizations, often successful ones, to figure out what’s in the way of their progress, and then how to acquire the will and skill to change it. We’re able to work with leaders to discover not just what might seem obvious about what’s in their way, but to get to what’s at the heart of why things are the way they are and may feel stuck there—whether it’s their economic engine, the way people work together or how and why they feel like everything leads to the same outcome.

CFAR spun off from the Wharton School in 1987. How have you all seen consulting change in the last 25 years?

Clients came to us in those early days to do research that could only be done inside a university. Today any company that knows how do to research can find data on almost any topic via the Internet—much faster and cheaper. This seems so obvious but is a big change since our founding, and has led us to adapt and change. Today the focus is not on acquiring knowledge, but knowing how to put it to good use.

So while what we do has changed, our clients have many of the same sort of questions now that they had then—wrestling with fundamental dilemmas of organizational life: “Our margins continue to be squeezed so how do we avoid becoming a commodity?” “Our strategic direction is clear but we are not getting the results we expected. What explains this disconnect?” “Organizational friction exists (between generations in large family firms, between physicians and nurses in hospitals, among business units in public companies), and the resulting conflicts impede our progress.”

When you visited our office last month, we talked about how we’re seeing more and more organizations collaborating with outsiders (consumers, partners, or even traditional competitors) to create better products and services—we call that being “boundaryless.” What else do you think growth in the 21st century will require of businesses? 

We are definitely in the middle of a profound shift from an Industrial Age model of organizational life and leadership, to an altogether different one. In fact two decades ago we published an article in Harvard Business Review on the “New boundaries of the boundaryless organization.” Today, even in a down labor market, people are less loyal to organizations and more committed to the good work they can do and the teammates who help them. Work takes on the character of a succession of projects, each with its own unique trajectory, story, and promise. This is the world of work we see. 

Growth in this world may be more about finding ideas that have “legs” and less about where these ideas are found—organizations that can germinate ideas that start anywhere, regardless of industry or geography or sector, are more likely to grow. But this takes what we’ve been talking about—less tight control, more intrinsic motivation of employees, clarity around goals—a sense that working together will be better than working independently.

We also talked about the need for today’s organizations to have the confidence to be creative with the future. How have you helped clients on that front? How do you guys act on this as a business?

One thing we take seriously is the risk clients take to lead in such uncertain times. We begin with our own teams’ thinking together about what risks we will need to take to move our client’s organizations forward. We know that there is not just one answer to the dilemmas that face organizations. The best thing we can do is build an organization’s “learning muscles.”

Creativity comes from a willingness to try things, and that, in turn, comes from some degree of freedom to make a fool of yourself without being organizationally sanctioned. We certainly have tools that foster new thinking, and these really help, but more than that we develop our staff so that they know how to help clients create a climate of problem solving rather than politics.

How do you guys measure culture change within an organization you’re working for? 

We set goals with our clients at the beginning of any assignment—what results do they want to achieve, what does success look like—and then commit time to regularly assess with them if they are on the path to success. 

The best measure so far is what clients tell us directly, as well as what is learned by independent consultants we have used to survey our clients about the impact of our work. One example is a client saying that if they had known how much they’d accomplish at the beginning, rather than seeing it at the end, they would have hired us sooner. An important milestone for us is that leaders can accept and work with people “speaking the truth” to them, rather than doing the politically correct, but not so helpful, thing.

How do you make useful tools for clients as they move forward without you?

Our tools help clients grapple with what was once undiscussable by using data to depersonalize disagreements. We do our best to stay in touch with clients after we’re no longer working together, and we hear about how they’ve used what they learned to solve some new challenge. That’s as good as it gets!

Can you give some examples?

We invented a tool for supporting strategy execution that helps clients explicitly identify, step by step, the accomplishments they have to achieve and the obstacles in their way of achieving them. We use the results of this analysis to help clients write a “history of their future” which tells their story of how they succeeded and why. The result is a motivating document and an important communications tool.

In our strategy work we also heard our clients tell us that they wanted to hear early from the people with a stake in the strategy, but didn’t want to be overwhelmed with data. We developed our Strategic Options survey as a way to ask large numbers of stakeholders—employees, customers, board members, leaders—provocative questions about the often implicit and un-verbalized assumptions they make about current strengths and weaknesses, and future options.

The survey results become the center of a conversation among a leadership team aimed at helping them develop a more synchronized view of their organization and what’s next.

What about when you’re working with a relatively flat organization (no hierarchical leadership structure), how do you drive the adoption of new ideas?

Organizations now are all, to some degree, organizing “volunteers.” Even the military has had to adapt its ways of getting things done. This is particularly true as our economy is now based on “knowledge work” and services rather than products. While we have seen no good substitutes for hierarchy and authority, we also know that leaders can’t just say, “make it so” and expect followers to follow their orders. Organizing today’s workforce takes new and interesting skills. 

Leaders need meaningful contact with a broad cross section of employees—what many call “engagement”—so that people feel they matter and are welcomed when they bring their own passions to work. They also need to be much clearer about how they both describe and express, in their policies and practices, the organization’s strategy. Bullet points on a PowerPoint aren’t especially motivating! Instead, employees want leaders to “show not tell.” 

This means of course that leaders want to hear from employees, even when they don’t agree. The structured organizational dialogue can yield what hierarchy alone was once used for: key people throughout an organization—leaders and employees—seeing the rationale for change and being part of advancing it, exercising influence rather than control, to get things done.

Let’s keep the conversation going. What questions do you have for Wolff Olins or for our audience?

We have felt challenged to answer your questions well, and would have many of the same ones for you. Brand seems so central to identity in the way we think about it.

How do you help your clients imagine their future, overcome fear of change, discover a new way to think about a problem?

How do you help your clients understand the relationship between “the brand” and their work—and does this even matter to success? How do you use branding and marketing to help your clients achieve collective value and impact?

We’ll be diving into CFAR’s questions in a follow up post this month. Keep an eye out.

For more information on CFAR contact info@cfar.com or 215.320.3200, or visit their website at http://www.cfar.com.



Image via Cairn Culture

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