Success Stories | Stay the course, especially if it’s a new one

Success Stories | Stay the course, especially if it’s a new one

Sometimes companies need to change even when there isn’t a crisis forcing the issue. In such cases, how do you keep your people excited about a change initiative after its newness has worn off?

—Trevor Smith, Singapore

You have to stay excited yourself. And not just excited, but obsessed. Talk about the initiative at every meeting, celebrate its smallest milestones and champion everyone who supports it as much as you do. If there is one reason that even the most meaningful initiatives too often die an ignoble death, it’s boredom.

If people—sometimes even the leaders who started the whole thing—don’t see immediate results, they may begin to get distracted by concerns that seem more pressing. And, before you know it, the initiative that was supposed to change everything has vanished into thin air. At which point, everyone sighs in relief. Or, worse, they quietly chuckle at the inevitable demise of yet another lame change programme.

Such entirely human sighing or chuckling would be fine, of course, if change weren’t a matter of life and death.

OK, that sounds overly dramatic. But in today’s marketplace, if you don’t keep reinventing your company’s way of doing business, you’ll be trampled by the competitors passing you by. Which is why you have to continuously cheerlead your change initiative—and more, too. Indeed, you also have to avoid three traps that, while perfectly understandable, have a way of speeding initiatives into oblivion. The first is launching another big, important initiative while your first big, important initiative is still a work in progress. Now, we’re not putting a kibosh on new tactics or projects while an initiative is under way. But tactics, like a focus on purchasing, or projects, like a special sales contest, are not initiatives.

Initiatives are transformative, like globalization. They start best as the seed of an idea that grows into a forest which eventually encompasses almost every activity across the company, sometimes even bringing customers and suppliers into the fold. And that is why a company can only handle one initiative at a time, switching only after the first is ingrained in the culture, which can easily take two or three years, if not longer.

The second trap is not putting the company’s best people on a change initiative. Oh, sure, we realize that it’s hard to take Ellen and Mario out of the jobs they’re so good at to put them on to something so new and risky. But that’s the kind of talent shake-up that makes an organization believe, not to mention the kind that makes an initiative thrive and succeed.

The third trap is related: It’s not publicly promoting and rewarding the people who do embrace the initiative. Even when the initiative’s results are still emerging, these individuals have to be held up as role models and heroes, and treated accordingly. Do that, and people will enlist in your cause faster than you can count them.

And that’s what you want. Even with strong management support, no initiative has ever succeeded without widespread engagement. You’re right. The early days are easy; the hard part comes when the newness gets old. The trick is to never let that happen.

What are some of the best approaches to improving marketing?

—Linda Schanz, Edison, New Jersey

Not long ago, we were helping our son get ready for college and noticed a hefty section in his course catalogue titled, “Topics in Sales and Marketing". With that in mind, we humbly note that your question is bigger than both of us. Indeed, marketing has become an increasingly complex science of data mining, number slicing and niche segmenting.

But since you asked... we would only add that, in our view, sales and marketing will always contain an element of art. Consider two terrific campaigns that just took place in connection with baseball’s World Series.

In the first, a Boston company, Jordan’s, promised full refunds on all the furniture sold in its stores between 7 March and 16 April if the Red Sox won this October. The team did win—and the company’s leaders have been on TV ever since, congratulating the 30,000 customers who are now receiving refunds on $20 million worth of stuff. In the second, Taco Bell promised to give away a taco to every person in the US if a base was stolen during the series. The young Red Sox star Jacoby Ellsbury did the honours and Taco Bell reaped untold millions in publicity with the happy stampede that followed.

Enough! We’ll leave sales and marketing advice to the experts, simply noting that, when all is said and done, a clever idea can still score big.

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