The specific goal of running a micro-battle portfolio is to change fundamentally the behaviors of the company’s most senior leaders. We talked about the benefits of leading by getting out of the way. The executive committee’s second job is to learn. In this context, that means two broad activities. First, the Lead-Learn team tries to spot patterns emanating from a portfolio of micro-battles and make sure the leaders of those battles talk to each other when they face similar problems or are close to similar solutions. Second, leaders use this flow of information to adjust the firm’s strategy and their own behaviors. If a common set of bureaucratic obstacles is slowing down every micro-battle, it might signal the need to adjust the organization.
This kind of learning will ensure that the firm benefits from its scale. The challenge is to make the value of the micro-battle portfolio greater than the sum of its parts. The exam question is, “How do leaders learn and adjust without second-guessing and interfering with the micro-battles themselves?” This demands three key skills:
- moving from pattern recognition to team-to-team learning to action;
- solving the specific 10 times before debating the ideological; and
- managing the micro-battle portfolio to orchestrate broad transformation.
Moving from pattern recognition to team-to-team learning to action
The goal of reviewing multiple micro-battles at once is to find patterns, and that begins with listening to the micro-battle leaders discuss the following specific set of issues:
- progress on the prototype and the latest customer feedback;
- the latest hypothesis on the repeatable model and how best to roll it out;
- the latest hypothesis on how behaviors will have to change to win full adoption of the repeatable model; and
- the biggest issues that are eroding the micro-battle’s progress (the team will be asking specifically for new resources and help in removing obstacles).
Patterns will emerge from these discussions. If multiple teams are prototyping a technology solution that will put tablets in the hands of your salesforce, for instance, you may be able to coordinate these initiatives and provide a common pool of engineers to help with an integrated solution. Multiple teams may be designing Repeatable Models® that will change the way your marketers do their job. That might create a massive overload problem for the marketing department if you don’t coordinate. Perhaps several teams have argued that their prototypes will fail unless the supply chain organization builds more flexible and adaptable processes. Maybe everyone is saying they don’t have the software development talent they need to accelerate their initiatives. These patterns are very clear.
Leaders backsliding into old behaviors would say, “This is our problem. We are the leadership team, and we must now intervene. We need to take action and adjust the work of the micro-battle teams.” And this would be absolutely wrong. In this new way of working, what you are trying to develop is the skill to convert pattern recognition into team-to-team learning and, finally, into action. That means making it easier for teams to learn from each other and come up with the right answer to these common issues.
To help resolve a couple of the hypotheticals above, for instance, leaders might set up a meeting between the seven teams working on tablet-based dashboards and ask them to sort out whether they need to integrate their work or pool limited technology resources to create the dashboards. But it’s their call.
Senior leadership might also bring together the micro-battle leaders and the supply chain team and demand that the supply chain team work through how to test more flexible models of working with these teams. This isn’t a choice because the supply chain team is there to support the micro-battle teams. The solution may spur the supply chain team to demand more resources, but avoiding the issue isn’t an option.
Mastering this shift from pattern recognition to team-to-team learning is a skill, and you’ll get better at it over time. But your organization will also get better at it. In the beginning, senior leaders will have to recognize the patterns and refer them to the teams. But with practice, people in your organization will begin see these patterns for themselves and work without senior-level intervention.
How? Say seven engineers are participating in seven projects involving a dashboard solution for the sales team. As they talk to their line boss about this, she should see the pattern. She can then meet with the franchise players leading the micro-battles to figure out how best to coordinate efforts. The supply chain team likewise has multiple team members involved in micro-battles and should have realized from the outset that their ways of working were creating a common problem. A key benefit of running micro-battles is that it decreases the time between pattern recognition and team-to-team learning and adjustment.
So what are the most common patterns you are likely to see? First, let’s look at the obstacles organizations most often throw up in front of micro-battles.
- Insufficient resources: We can’t mobilize to deliver the win or to scale beyond the initial micro-battle. Micro-battles have simply been added to everything else we’re doing, and no one is stopping things to shift funds to winning micro-battles that are ready to scale.
- Inability to focus: We’ve got too many initiatives overwhelming mission-critical employees. We said we were going to refocus on micro-battles, but the same people still have to do their day job and we can’t seem to free up anyone.
- Risk aversion: Micro-battles underwhelm because teams too often trim their ambition to avoid failure or they are not empowered to think and act big. We say we want to tackle the hard things first, but we cling to our old mindset about failure. Our micro-battle teams feel this and start lessening their ambition and refocusing on the easy things.
- Organizational complexity: We’ve got too many nodes of decision making to really empower the leaders of individual micro-battles. As a result, micro-battle teams spend too much energy on working the system, which robs them of the time necessary to test real prototypes in the market with real customers.
- Weak business plans: We tend to launch the wrong micro-battles and either overinvest or underinvest in them. The lack of strong results then undercuts momentum. We just aren’t very good at this.
- Missing capabilities: We can’t mobilize the skills required for success (we don’t have the digital guru to deploy in China, for instance). Many battles require the same set of capabilities, and we are simply missing many of them. No one is accelerating the recruitment of a new talent pool.
Our hypothesis is that you will face all these issues and you are better off working from the beginning on solutions. Each of these takes time to solve, so start on day one.
There are also several common patterns that have to do with managing a portfolio of micro-battles.
- Trust: A lack of trust will kill any micro-battle. In our blog on leadership behaviors, we discussed how the senior team running the Lead-Learn model must be aware of their habitual mindsets. They have been trained not to trust those around them, and their default mode is to second-guess, to challenge, to assume they know better. We build interventions into the Micro-Battles System to address this. But remember, your micro-battle teams aren’t just working with the top leaders; every day, they are trying to get things done within an organization that is filled with leaders who simply don’t trust others to do a good job. Many of these leaders are energy vampires, and they are sapping your teams’ energy. The Lead-Learn team must invest a lot of time liberating their micro-battle teams from these people, and many of the vampires may need to leave the company.
- Everyone wants Fred: Because all of your teams will want the A-plus star player, you’ll very quickly get to the “everyone wants Fred” issue. Companies tend to have five to seven key people with particularly valuable talents, skills or leadership qualities. You don’t have enough of them to populate every micro-battle, so you have to triage. Yet the pattern we see most often is less about Fred’s ability to support three different micro-battles and more about Fred being stuck between supporting micro-battles and his day job. We encourage you to challenge whether Fred should even continue in his day job. In almost every circumstance, the highest and best use of your top people is to have them work on micro-battles. This is not a message many of the line bosses want to hear, so be prepared for a lot of deep discussions on this one.
- The cluster of common rollout solutions: In our blog on scaling skills, we talked a lot about rollout models, pointing out that the right model depends on the nature of the repeatable model that you are designing. In every micro-battle learning center, we always affix the rollout two-by-two on the wall and ask micro-battle leaders to place themselves in the box that currently represents their view of the appropriate rollout solution (see Figure 1). As they do, you begin to see micro-battles clustering around certain rollout solutions, which leads to a discussion about what you can do to facilitate those models or encourage others.
Companies and micro-battle teams like to think that most of their initiatives lend themselves to playbook solutions. But we believe the Lead-Learn team should work hard to challenge this assumption for a couple of reasons. First, most Repeatable Models demand a higher degree of tailoring than the playbook allows. Second, rolling out a playbook solution—even a fairly standard one—tends to require more buy-in than you’d think.
A go-viral-or-go-home rollout model relies on buy-in and is significantly more flexible. But it also has another key benefit: It encourages folks within the organization to challenge initiatives and think of ways to improve them contextually. Companies become great scale insurgents because they are filled with mavericks, not bureaucrats. So we like it when you have to win over advocates through the go-viral-or-go-home model. It honors the maverick and says, “We get it. You need to be convinced.” This is by no means an invitation to lock up the initiative in endless rounds of debate. But it does mean the initiative must live on its merits, not a directive from above.
The exception is when a micro-battle is focused on one of the company’s core capabilities. Then, a narrow-distribution-playbook or broad-distribution-playbook model is often the best fit. We’re talking about situations in which the micro-battle has targeted one of the critical Repeatable Models that will define the company’s competitiveness, making it essential that everybody approaches it the same way. Anheuser-Busch InBev, for instance, has Repeatable Models for the mission-critical capabilities of marketing, plant optimization and zero-based budgeting. Applying these models globally has been essential to transforming a long list of acquisition targets into the world’s lowest-cost brewing company. AB InBev wasn’t shy about building these models on a set of nonnegotiable behaviors and metrics and demanding that everybody get on board. But these processes were also designed to empower individuals and the front line by pushing accountability deep into the organization and rewarding those who take personal responsibility for results.
- Defining freedom and framework: The phrase “freedom within a framework” is widely used and understood in business these days. The idea is to empower people to make decisions and operate freely as long they stay within the boundaries of a commonly accepted framework designed to make sure the company remains consistent or compliant. The degree of freedom or framework isn’t the issue. As the AB InBev example shows, you can have a high degree of freedom even within a fairly rigid framework. The key is clarity. No matter what your repeatable model looks like or how you roll it out, it is critical to define precisely what freedom and framework mean in the context of any specific initiative so that your people don’t end up tripping over themselves and slowing things down.
Most companies operate with an astounding lack of clarity about what constitutes freedom and framework in a given situation. The big things are known; framework includes very clear guard rails around a global standard of legal conduct or very specific shared values. It might include things such as brand guidelines or product attributes. But once you get beneath the surface, it gets fuzzy. You may have the freedom to set prices at the store level within certain guidelines, but those guidelines aren’t clear or don’t anticipate the exceptions that always crop up. You may have freedom to solve a customer’s problem within a specific set of circumstances, but then a thousand other initiatives get in the way of solving customer problems. So what exactly are you allowed to break?
The common pattern among micro-battle teams is to assume that the framework is much more fully defined than it is. It is also common for one framework to collide with other frameworks that the micro-battle teams didn’t know about or anticipate. This is something the Lead-Learn team should be ready to challenge. Clarity in this area is essential to effective scaling.
- Sequencing: While we talk a lot about fully empowering micro-battle leaders to run their initiatives as they see fit, only senior leadership at the center can form an integrated view of how to sequence the battles. Sometimes, it is fine that each micro-battle moves at its own cadence. Other times, you want to take control of the pace at which they are rolled out. There are positive reasons for this—maybe you want to build the rollout of a group of battles around an upcoming leadership event. There are also negative reasons—you’re hitting the Christmas season, and your sales teams must focus on their day jobs to handle the rush. There are issues of momentum—you need some early wins, so it makes sense to bring an especially promising micro-battle forward. There are issues of managing the portfolio of leaders—you want to accelerate Fred’s work on your current micro-battle because in two months’ time you’ll need him to shift to your China micro-battle. You will be constantly triaging battles and people in a world of scarce talent. This is the reality of running a micro-battle portfolio, so you need to be having these discussions from day one.
Solving the specific 10 times before debating the ideological
People get ahead in incumbent organizations by making problems bigger. Insurgents get ahead by making problems smaller. Consider a typical problem statement: “We have a China pricing issue!”
- In an insurgent organization, the leader will say, “We don’t have a China pricing issue; we have a problem in four specific stores involving three products. Everyone get on the phones now; let’s call the store managers and sort this out.”
- In an incumbent organization, the leader will say, “We don’t have a China pricing issue; we have a problem with decision rights. We simply can’t get good pricing decisions because of the way we’ve organized the markets and product functions. We need to review our operating model and solve this.”
The second response is clever and probably correct, but responding to it will mean two things: We aren’t going to solve China pricing anytime soon; and we have now added another corporate initiative onto a very full plate of corporate initiatives.
Learning to act like a scale insurgent involves avoiding this added complexity by focusing first and foremost on making problems smaller. That is a critical skill that allows you to act quickly and decisively to solve the issues raised by the micro-battle teams. You want to resist your incumbent instincts to rush to the big ideological issues and create a new corporate-wide program to solve a particular problem. We refer to this skill as “solving the specific 10 times before debating the ideological.” And here’s how it works.
Your micro-battle leaders are constantly identifying hurdles that they encounter within the organization. You are responding to these issues in two main ways: First, you listen and immediately fix their problem in the room; second, you see patterns across your micro-battles and make sure the teams meet with each other and decide what to do.
But you also set up the micro-battle learning center in a very specific way. Every time a micro-battle team raises a new issue, you start a new flip chart. One of these will be dedicated to pricing. Suppose a micro-battle team can’t get marketing and product management to agree on a pricing issue. You first get the players in the room to solve this specific problem. But then you record on the flip chart how you resolved it. Over time, you’ll have dozens of these flip charts around the room. Some will only have one entry. (Good—we solved the specific, and it was a one-off.) Some, however, get filled up pretty quickly. (Darn—this pricing thing won’t go away, and every time it crops up, we need to get our marketing and product guys in the room to hash out a solution. Why does this keep happening, and are there patterns in how we keep solving this issue?)
The rule is to keep recording your solutions on these flip charts until you’ve addressed the same issue 10 times. After 10 times, you can add an agenda item to your Lead-Learn session that says, “Can we make a change in our operating model so that this pricing conflict between marketing and product management gets resolved faster and doesn’t need constant escalation to us?” That session won’t be a theoretical review of pricing and your operating model; it will be massively informed by real experience—namely, 10 specific instances of debating and solving a problem witnessed by the entire group. In our experience, this will lead to a faster and better answer about how to adjust the operating model because you had the patience to see the conflict play out 10 times.
This is making the problem smaller. You are solving the specific issue faced by your micro-battle teams quickly. You are learning how to use the experience of solving that issue 10 times to make a precise surgical adjustment to your operating model or strategy. And yes, there’s a tension. Often, the hardest skill is learning to do less. You are learning to encourage your team to learn for themselves. You are learning to make problems smaller and solve the specific rather than constantly debating the bigger issue. You are learning to see patterns that allow you to improve your model based on real experience, not theory. These are the skills of a scale insurgent.
Managing the portfolio of micro-battles to orchestrate broad transformation
If your ambition is to become the scale insurgent in your industry, this will demand a transformation program of some type. We talk a lot about the choreography of transformation—in the sense that every transformation program needs to unfold in a specific sequence depending on the magnitude and velocity of the change required. There are big horizontal initiatives—for instance, a new reorganization, a major portfolio review, radical cost and complexity reduction. And there are more targeted, vertical initiatives. Some vertical initiatives demand that your people simply execute (albeit perfectly) on an existing playbook—opening or closing a factory, for instance, or registering to do business in a new market. But most will require creativity and experimentation and lend themselves to micro-battles. During the learning phase, we argue that you should lean heavily on micro-battles and constantly consider how you can shape the portfolio to help choreograph and accelerate your transformation.
Some key points follow here.
Sometimes horizontal initiatives are critical. We make this argument in our book, The Founder’s Mentality, pointing out that almost all successful transformations of companies that were in free fall demanded a round of radical cost and complexity reduction in the first phase. In these dire situations, it is hugely important for the CEO to rapidly free up resources to give the company the time and space to make broader change. But we also argued that companies too often become prisoners of endless horizontal initiatives that result in endless debate at senior levels. This produces diminishing returns and leaves the organization exhausted.
Launching new waves of micro-battles, on the other hand, can offer you tremendous leverage in producing targeted change. But it is critical during the learning cycle to consider a number of important questions: How do you choose to launch each wave? Where do you need to focus in terms of products and markets? How should you time rollouts of specific micro-battles? And how do you engage with your top leaders?
The choices you make are critical to the choreography of transformation. This is our third critical skill, and you need to become outstanding at it. Below are just some examples of things you will need to consider.
- How broadly or narrowly do I want to engage with the top 100 stars of the company? Do I want to focus on a set of early adopters in one region and really demonstrate that with focused efforts we can turn a whole region into a scale insurgent? Or do I want to make sure that all my stars globally are involved within the first year so that they really see we are serious about our ambition to be a scale insurgent? In our blog post on scaling skills, we noted that the go-viral-or-go-home rollout model works best if you can install your stars as leaders of early micro-battles and then prioritize those battles in the launch sequence. This helps influence others to join the cause. But we get it: Everyone wants your stars all the time. That is why all discussions of micro-battles are really discussions about leadership: Where and how do we deploy a limited number of stars, and how do we create a better pipeline of more stars?
- How do I deploy my people in micro-battles vs. running the day-to-day business? And how do I make sure my people understand we have heroes on both sides of this? Not everything is a micro-battle. I need a lot of my heroes to focus on the making and selling of my core products. I need to balance messages and think carefully about the signals I’m sending between the day-to-day business and the micro-battles.
- How do I balance the relatively easy vs. the really hard? Nothing is truly easy. But some of my battles are going to be relatively straightforward, and I can count on victory. Some are going to be really hard, and we will need to pivot a lot to get to the right answer. I need to maintain momentum on this journey, so I need to balance some easy wins with some hard slogging.
- When do I go all-in to back my winners with a 10 times investment, and how do I fund it? Some of your micro-battles are going to be transformative but only if they get the resources and capital they need. You have to plan for success, not failure; that means you have to worry about funding winners from day one.
- How do I use the next micro-battle to focus squarely on the behavioral changes and sources of organizational dysfunction that are still keeping us from full potential? You’ll see the patterns. If behaviors in the supply chain are the issue, don’t launch a horizontal initiative to transform the supply chain. Instead, launch three micro-battles in which your supply chain team is on the hook to deliver. Then use the Lead-Learn sessions to bring about the behavioral change you need.
The Micro-Battles System is called that for a reason—it is a program designed to put you on the path to scale insurgency by not only winning in the marketplace but by bringing about deep behavioral changes and building new skills. Lean on the system, and use your portfolio choices to manage the choreography of change.
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