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Business Turnaround: From Lagging to Leading the Industry (Alison Joslyn)

In a dark time, the eye begins to see.
–Theodore Roethke

The numbers were all going the wrong way but she had a strategy in mind, “We needed to infuse a customer-focus in a very successful product-focused company. Only a few of my executive team members embraced the idea. I felt that every one of our 250 employees needed to join in.”

Alison needed to organize a business turn-around, fast. Her subsidiary had tumbled in market position and growth. There had been product supply challenges, loss of market share, and competitors ascending in customer perceptions. Employees had become discouraged and it showed in their satisfaction scores.

One year later, all the performance metrics were all going in the right direction. We were hitting it out of the park. We became the number 1 in growth in Venezuela. Our internal culture survey score was ultra high.”

Engaging everyone in a change initiative was not included in her management training. She recalls her experience in graduate school, “Working as a team was an encumbrance. It seemed so hard and frustrating without adding much value. I would rather do it myself. I was rewarded for my work as an individual.”

To address the challenge in Venezuela, she started to search for approaches. As luck would have it, a new experiment was being launched in the Latin American region. “I got myself invited to weekend leadership retreat for regional and country leaders,” she recalls. “The bottom-up include and unleash everyone was a good fit. A few months later, we started with an Open Space meeting for all 250 employees. Then, I attended the first Liberating Structures workshop in Brazil.”

Opening Space + Strong Leadership

It was a dramatic beginning. Over 70 projects were unleashed in Open Space. Many from frontline employees exercising unexpected leadership. While Alison and the management team were not comfortable with all the projects, they were thrilled with the unbridled enthusiasm and initiative.

With project leaders, Alison developed Min Specs to constrain and enable self-organization. Still it was messy. Out of 70 projects, 17 garnered formal support, and 10 were able to live within the Min Specs over the next 6 months.

While excitement was spreading person-to-person, I took a very firm stance. I very deliberately fanned the flames,” says Alison. “Liberating Structures would not be a one time thing.”

LS use included her own management team meetings, marketing strategies, the big sales convention, and (eventually) interactions with customers. “It could have stopped with the successful Open Space meeting but I insisted.”

One year later, the performance metrics were all going in the right direction. “We were hitting it out of the park. We became the number 1 in growth in Venezuela. Our internal culture survey score was ultra high.”

Waves of Internal Then External Experiments

Improving performance and integrating LS came in waves in different functions, levels, and at different paces. First up was the sales convention. The traditional convention was dominated by one way PPT presentations and formulaic sales training. The introduction of lively LS approaches sparked enthusiasm and engagement.

Hesitantly at first, marketing and sales directors brought interactive LS methods into everyday work. Respected managers in marketing tried LS first. One product manager used a Conversation Café in an evening meeting with customers, a highly educated professional group. Typically, the meeting would include a dry PowerPoint lecture, brief Q&A, and dinner. The response to the Conversation Café was very positive. Blackberries never came out. The meeting was truly engaging. Peer-to-peer and generalist-to-specialist exchanges were collegial and full of learning.

The sales force was another story. Everyone in sales department is organized top-to-bottom in a tightly controlled hierarchy. However, after a major meeting using 1-2-4-All, User's Experience Fishbowl, and Conversation Café for the first time with customers, the sales reps started to hear back from important customers. They loved the new meetings. They wanted more. They wanted to learn LS methods to apply in their own work.

There were stories that competitors were trying to copy their success. Soon, the sales director and more importantly, the first level sales managers, were 'all in.' Everyone followed."

Other experiments were unfolding. With Alison the HR director helped coach others on the management team. In pairs, they used Design Storyboard to sketch out LS-inspired agendas to formulate strategy. To build on early successes, the management team wanted a bigger splash. They designed a “LS basic training” session for all product managers and sales managers.

The workshop started with a work assignment: design a successful new product launch. No process or LS method was suggested. The autopilot pattern showed itself. Very large groups formed. A few individuals dominated. Quiet people retreated. Relatively weak ideas were put on flip charts. There was very little collaboration among groups.

The second session of the workshop used the same assignment with a twist: design the same successful product launch with Liberating Structures. The results were night and day. 1-2-4-All drew out many more good ideas. TRIZ helped make space for innovative strategies. Everyone felt they contributed and were part of the strategy moving forward. In all, they used 5 LS and a User Experience Fishbowl. They had liftoff!


Social Proof Arrived Before Business Results

Looking back, Alison muses,

Spread was happening at all levels. Social proof preceded conventional proof. I was looking for early indicators: did many perspectives come out?; are people high energy?; are groups mixing?; are blackberries tucked away?; is the top group working as peers?; and, are sales reps helping each other.” She looked for little things that suggested a bigger turnaround.

Importantly, Alison could also sense changes in the relationship with customers. “I sat in the back of the room for our first meeting with 60 general practitioners. They were leaning in and listening intently. The questions were practical about real concerns. Not the usual ‘I am smarter than you comment.’ There was freedom to explore and interact at a deeper level.”

At first there were worries that expert presenters would experience a loss of power and prestige: they were not invited to give the traditional lecture. Surprisingly, the specialist-experts also appreciated the freedom to explore deeper and more practical questions facing non-experts. Everyone rolled up their sleeves.

Alison recalls, “Several months later after the meeting, one specialist presenter called me over. She told me it was the most amazing experience. ‘At first I felt exposed, then elated. If you do that again I would love to be included.’”

Alison and the management team realized that the internal response and the customer response were no different. Nine months of internal experience made it possible and relatively comfortable to leap into customer experiments.


Upper left: Alison participating in the premiere LS workshop (Brazil)

For Alison, the experience was a genuine transformation.

Forever, the turnaround changed my way of leading. Management is not always about being smarter. You can drive a business from lagging-to-leading by engaging everyone from the mail guy all the way up. It is practical and powerful to hear every voice.”