Some time ago I had dinner with SAP co-CEO Jim Snabe. Jim is a bright and talented individual and one of the topics we got into was the setting of unreasonable boundary conditions as a mechanism to get the best out of employees. The principle is that by asking for the unreasonable, you will cause people to come up with more creative, better solutions to problems. I was instantly fascinated.
However, it wasn’t until a late phone call with friend and mentor John Niland of VCO Global some weeks ago, that my thoughts started to finally mature on this. We discussed the topic of motivating contributors, and how you get the best out of those people who work for you.
I told Niland that my experience was that the best way to get more out of great employees is to ask more of them. As humans, we tend to be limited by what we believe is possible and this in turn restricts us. In an interesting twist, contributors are actually happiest, when pushed in this way. So I came up with an idea to test this theory:
The SI Smackdown
We took what would normally a 3-4 week SAP HANA technology project and I told a team of two that they had 2 days to complete it. Everyone thought it was crazy. To make it crazier, we orchestrated it to happen live, on a conference room floor, in front of 8000 people. And just to make it interesting, we used two Systems Integrators and turned it into a competition. Oh, and we used a real customer, Consumer Products giant ConAgra, with real data.
Because unreasonable boundary conditions – think back to the conversation with Snabe – were set, the SI Smackdown competitors found a way to make it happen. And then they blew my wildest expectations out the window by not just doing what was asked, but so much more. They demonstrated not just a better IT system running on SAP HANA, but radical ways to show ConAgra how they could change the was they run their business.
The thing that really interested me about this most was that the two participants from my team, once they had a few days off after the conference, were demanding when they could do it again. It turns out that they loved it.
And so it happened a few weeks ago that I was in a situation. We had committed to a UK conference to show a customer demo and we got the data 7 days before the conference to build the demo with. Worse, I had no resources that week spare to work on it and we had a good portion of our team out at another conference that week.
So, I wondered what would happen if we applied the two concepts above at the same time. Set unreasonable boundary conditions, and ask even more of our employees. So, I designed (OK… handwaved) a really cool solution based on the customer data, using technology that wasn’t available yet and would only be released the day before the conference. Note once again the importance of making the boundaries unreasonable.
Then, I emailed 5 very talented individuals, each of whom would bring an invaluable skill to the table, and asked them if they would be prepared to do the project in their spare time before the conference. Every one of them replied within an hour and agreed. They created the most amazing solution that showed how the customer, one of the largest Pharmaceutical companies in the world, how they could revolutionise their Integrated Business Planning process. Wow.
It’s worth jumping back to my conversation with Niland, because my second assertion is that if you want to get more out of your contributors then – I believe – you have to observe an interesting set of rules, which are even more important when setting unreasonable boundaries:
First, there has to be a purpose and you have to explain it. This becomes a shared vision for the contributors, who usually deeply care about actually making a difference. In both cases above, there was a customer scenario and a reason for creating the technology solution. Ensure there are unreasonable boundary conditions. If they think it’s possible, it won’t motivate them.
Second, you have to motivate them by providing them with what they want – and here’s a hint – it’s never about money. In both cases above, they got access to cool technology – a $400k appliance, plus access to software that wasn’t readily available and the request to do something that had never been done before. Be very mindful here because different things motivate different types of contributor.
Third, you have to give them other great contributors to work with, and clear the decks. Both by getting out the way yourself, but also by making sure they have access to get assistance when they need it – assistance from people they respect. Listen to what they need and provide for them.
Fourth, you have to look after their wellbeing because they will not. When you set unreasonable boundary conditions, I’ve often observed that contributors fail to manage their own wellbeing. Ensure they take a break when they need it, and they get days off after a high-pressure stint. But, don’t be confused into thinking that wellbeing is about a 37.5 hour week – that’s Eurobullshit. Happy people can work long hours. Stories of early Apple suggest 90 hour weeks were a regular occurrence and they were some of the most motivated workers I have ever read about.
Does the consultancy market need disrupting?
One of the things I lay in bed thinking about at night is the Consultancy business model. It was borne out of the large business process change and globalization models of the 70s and 80s and it made a lot of people at Accenture and IBM very rich, earning $2000 a day for poorly trained graduates. This got better after the markets crashed in 1999 and again after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 and the sorts of customers I deal with are very sensitive to getting value out of consulting projects. Many customers will now opt for fixed-price contracts, which is the right way to do consulting engagements.
But I still agonise every time I get a call saying “we need your help, XXX consultancy quoted this price to do this work and it’s way more than the customer will pay” – and I get a few of those every week. Surely there is a better way? Surely we don’t need 18 month projects that cripple business change and the ability to be agile? We have worked on ways – templates, agile methodologies and amazing people – to be cheaper, better and faster than our competitors but I don’t believe it is enough.
So, I’ve been working with friend and SAP Board Member Vishal Sikka, to try and challenge all of our assumptions about how we deliver consulting engagements (paradoxically, he helped me, by setting some unreasonable boundary conditions). Could it be that the consulting market is ready to be disrupted?
It’s cloudy out there
Cloud advocate Dennis Howlett often waxes that the solution is in the cloud, with companies like Salesforce and Workday offering much faster implementation times. This works great – even for integrated business processes, in the mid-market, but the processes that sit behind the Global 500 customers are so complex – with many languages, end-markets and integration points that if Workday and Salesforce do start to be able to offer a solution, it will probably be just as hard to implement as any other software product. And the consultancy gravy train will start afresh.
To add to this, there is no lever for Accenture or IBM to change – they have a lucrative model and while there is no alternative, they will continue to milk their cash cow. In most cases, I think the customers, particularly at the board level, are in any case not unhappy with the large consultancies and their business model.
So this is a call to action. Do you think Consultancy 2.0 needs to happen? Let me know your thoughts, publicly or in private. And if you work for a large consultancy, or if you are a board member of the sort of organisations I’m talking about and want to discuss this off the record, then let me know.
And equally, if you would like to help with this by co-innovating on a project together then let me know.
Thanks go to everyone I worked with on this, and particularly to Vishal, Jim, and John Niland for being the contributors and inspiration to this process and to Lloyd, Tristan, Anooj, Gary, DJ, Ollie and Brenton for being the contributors, unwitting guinea pigs and for creating unbelievably amazing solutions.