By Bhavya Nand Kishore and Peter Slagt
Micro-battles are microcosms of the company you want to become and are designed to promote transformational change from the inside out. Consequently, you need to build in training and coaching for everybody from the executive committee (Exco) to the members of the micro-battle teams.
By design, micro-battle training is an ongoing journey. It is an iterative process that combines both hands-on fieldwork and a set of workshop-style forums. In the field, teams “learn by doing”—solving real problems, facing real moments of truth, and trying on new behaviors in the real world. As such, field training provides the most powerful and lasting learning experience, especially as Leadership and Win-Scale teams forge a new style of working together. But forum-based learning is also critical to ensure the effort stays on track. This involves facilitated workshops where people come together to reﬂect on lessons learned, trade observations, address obstacles and initiate action. Forums also help prevent backsliding into old habits as leaders and micro-battle teams adjust to new behaviors.
Ground zero for this forum-based training is the learning center—a room devoted to collecting and codifying what the organization is shooting for and what it is learning from its micro-battle portfolio. One wall of the room lays out the aspiration (what your company would look like as a scale insurgent). The others track your progress toward that aspiration. Every month, the micro-battle teams meet here with senior leadership for review sessions to analyze results, raise concerns, keep track of resources and celebrate victories. It is also a dedicated space for teaching both senior executives and micro-battle teams how to engage in this new and dynamic management system.
There are two fundamental aspects of the micro-battles training agenda:
Foundational elements. These are core modules that are required to get the basics right and set up and run the Bain Micro-battles SystemSM.
Micro-battle and Leadership team trainings. These are key sessions to help the micro-battle teams and the Exco build the skills and behaviors needed to run micro-battles successfully.
Let’s take a closer look at the content for both of these aspects (see Figure 1).
The micro-battles journey is structured around four stages, each of which requires some grounding for the teams—this is what the foundational elements set out to do.
When the organization is embarking on the journey, there is often an innate sense that the Founder’s Mentality® is still relevant, yet not as strong as it was before. There is a lack of clarity on how big an issue this really is, and whether others feel the same way. The critical goal of the foundational elements is to unite the Leadership team on the point of departure and the point of arrival, then uncover some of the big steps to get there.
We recommend two foundational modules, or working sessions, at this stage.
Founder’s Mentality overview and survey
Objective: Introducing the Founder’s Mentality journey, establishing the point of departure, and aligning the Leadership team on the extent and urgency of the change needed.
Participants: Leadership team.
- Is our company retaining its Founder’s Mentality as it scales? Is the sense of insurgency still alive at all levels in the organization? And can the company’s strategy translate this insurgency into frontline action?
- Is our company really gaining the benefits of size as it grows? Does the company’s strategy lead to sustainable differentiation, leadership economics and market influence? Are we actively capturing the benefits of learning?
- What are the key internal barriers that hold back growth? Does our company’s organization and performance culture enable scaling with speed?
- What are the biggest external threats that our company needs to address? Which external threats do we face today? Which will we face in the future?
- What is our company’s ability to address these risks?
Defining the insurgency
Objective: Uniting leadership around a common point of arrival by defining what the company will look like as a scale insurgent and what it will act like as it regains its sense of mission and Founder’s Mentality.
Participants: Leadership team, potentially with a subset of the franchise players.
- As a company, what is our insurgent mission? Who are our target customers, and how are we waging a war to serve their needs?
- How do we deliver this insurgent mission in the market? What capabilities do we rely on today? What should they look like in the future?
- For each of these capabilities, are we truly differentiated vs. our competitors? What are our strengths and weaknesses?
- What should we do strategically to address those weaknesses and get us closer to fulfilling our mission?
- How do our leaders stack up in terms of the behaviors needed to win? Which behaviors do we need to adopt, and which do we need to let go?
Having established the overall ambition and point of departure, the next step is to identify the most important micro-battles that you want to pursue and scope them out. The next two modules help the Leadership team build out the micro-battles roadmap (which will get refreshed over subsequent cycles), and set out the initial hypothesis on deliverables for the working teams.
Micro-battles identification and selection
Objective: Learning how to define and choose micro-battles while creating the conditions for them to succeed.
Participants: Leadership team, potentially with a subset of the franchise players.
- Based on the key strategic themes identified in the insurgency workshop, how can we develop more precise goals? What are our specific priorities for product innovation, biggest competitive threats and opportunities to address organizational dysfunction?
- What is the first failure point for each priority, and how can we define a micro-battle to address it?
- The launch of these battles should be phased in according to two criteria: value at stake (How much value can each battle generate by addressing a crucial strategic or organizational issue?) and ability to win (Is the scope manageable? Do we have the resources to succeed? Is the potential solution scalable?).
- Based on these priorities, what are the three or four essential behaviors that leadership should change to set these battles up for success?
Defining micro-battle missions
Objective: Defining the initial micro-battle mission, creating the micro-battle team and articulating a repeatable model for scaling. The goal is to give the new micro-battle team a point of departure, including a clear sense of what the first few Agile sprints will look like.
Participants: Leadership team, potentially with the micro-battle leads, if already identified.
- Confirm strategic intent. What is the precise strategic intent of this micro-battle, what is the first failure point and who is the customer? Who should lead this battle, and which functions/roles should be represented on the team?
- Define the winning prototype. What is our hypothesis for the most effective first prototype, and what are the criteria for testing it so the team can begin learning?
- Develop the repeatable model. Who can help the team translate the prototype into a repeatable model, and what is the right scaling model to ensure a smooth rollout to other markets or functions?
- Outline the deployment plan. What behavior changes throughout the company will be required as we build the prototype and roll it out to the rest of the company? How can we start managing for that change?
Once the micro-battles are underway, the next two modules aim to help the working teams and the Leadership team gather at a couple of forums to solve specific issues and reflect on what they learned from each sprint.
Weekly Win-Scale sessions
Objective: These are less formal, hands-on sessions devoted to ensuring that micro-battle teams turn learning into a habit. They focus more on the quality of the discussion and insights, and less on PowerPoint slides and status updates. Team members practice giving and receiving feedback. They share their work, collect feedback from the prototype and co-create the plan for the next sprint. They learn how to discuss their results objectively and openly, rather than protecting themselves or defending their point of view. They also receive training in how to challenge the Leadership team and ask for what they need to make the micro-battle a success.
Participants: Micro-battle teams, with the option of having the Leadership team sponsor join one to two of these sessions.
- Briefly recap progress on the micro-battle objectives and discuss what needs to change.
- Share what the team has learned from the prototype and customer feedback.
- Identify roadblocks that need to be addressed early. Sort out which can be handled by the team or the team’s sponsor on the executive committee, and which ones need intervention from the CEO or executive team.
- Outline the scaling plan and potential actions needed to change behaviors to make the rollout effective.
- Agree on a plan for the next sprint.
Leadership (Amplify) team reviews
These are crucial sessions in a micro-battle process. They bring the micro-battle and Leadership teams together and create a forum where everyone has to role model the desired behaviors of a scale insurgent, while evaluating the prototype and learning from each sprint.
Objective: Co-creating solutions to accelerate micro-battle results, while drawing out the broader implications of this learning for the rest of the company.
Participants: Leadership (Amplify) team and micro-battle leads.
- Co-create and recap the desired behaviors to role model.
- Share what the micro-battles team has learned from the prototype and customer feedback, giving the Leadership team the opportunity to ask questions and provide guidance on the scaling plan and the objectives of subsequent sprints.
- Solve the roadblocks that need intervention from the CEO or executive team.
- Celebrate successes and recognize team heroes.
For one large telco, the first Leadership team review was an eye-opener—even for a company deeply committed to the Founder’s Mentality and the journey toward scale insurgency. The CEO and executive committee were clearly aligned on the company’s insurgent mission: Redefining data connectivity through pervasive, high-quality network access and services. Yet putting micro-battle training into action raised a number of important lessons. Here are a few:
- This company discovered early that changing existing ways of working is the toughest act of leadership. It requires deep commitment from everyone involved, but the change has to start with the CEO. The telco’s top leader was committed to role modeling new behaviors in every interaction and had called upon the rest of this executive team to do the same. But when you’re under pressure and fighting daily competitive battles, this requires a focused, conscious effort, and the team found it easy to slip back into a command-and-control mindset. To reinforce the need to think instead like a coach, the CEO made the pivotal decision to personally mentor the franchise players who were leading each micro-battle. This meant making time for monthly coaching sessions with them, keeping the CEO focused on the new micro-battle agenda and the key behaviors that would support its success.
- The company also learned early that these joint sessions have to focus on real results, not PowerPoint activity updates. This meant pivoting from the usual internal discussion about how difficult things were this week, to an external analysis of what customers want and how the company can delight them. It also helped leadership maintain a surgical focus on what really matters: how to help vital micro-battles show results in the market.
- For everybody involved, it’s easy to concentrate on what it takes to win with the new prototype. But each session is also about learning and scaling the micro-battle outcomes. That’s why conducting them in the learning center environment is so important. The learning center is designed to codify and promote the broader goals of the Micro-battles System. Each meeting builds on the earlier ones, and the learning center’s four walls provide space to make results, decisions and commitments clearly visible to everyone. At the end of each meeting, people should leave the room with:
- Commitments from individual executive committee members on which impediments they will remove in the days ahead.
- Actions for the micro-battle teams to consider for updating their next sprint and accelerating results.
- A list of patterns across the micro-battles that require urgent leadership attention.
- A roster of heroes who made things happen and a plan to recognize their stories more broadly.
- This leadership team also learned that personal ownership is essential—and that starts with making problems smaller, not bigger. In the first Leadership review, the team discovered that a lot of the challenges raised by the micro-battle leads could have been solved by their executive committee sponsors earlier through cross-functional discussions. It didn’t have to happen in the review. As a result, the sponsors and the micro-battle leads pledged to initiate cross-functional discussions to solve these relatively easy issues before subsequent sessions. That way, they could devote precious Leadership session time to the truly difficult, unsolved issues.
For both leadership and the micro-battle team, the micro-battles approach comes to life in two training sessions. These sessions are geared to equip the teams to actively lead micro-battles, manage the portfolio, and learn new ways of working.
Win-Scale training for the micro-battle teams
As we have seen, one of the Leadership team’s early objectives is to find the first failure point for each micro-battle and then propose a micro-battle mission to address it. But this is really just a well-informed hypothesis; it is up to the micro-battle team to gather the hard evidence. The team’s first objective, in fact, is to confirm whether or not members agree with the proposed prototype and repeatable model. The team must then test these hypotheticals in front of customers using Agile principles and ways of working.
This means the initial training for micro-battle teams focuses on how to crack tough problems quickly, using rapid test-and-learn cycles. But the training must also focus on how to scale solutions and new behaviors to the broader organization. This is the essence of the Win-Scale model—it often requires difficult shifts in how the teams interact with leadership.
Objective: Learning to solve problems using an Agile approach, which requires a very different mindset. Teams need to embrace repeated cycles of trying, failing and learning, while collaborating to build on each other’s strengths. This training uses a series of interactive exercises to introduce the basics of working in Agile, while coaching the team on such topics as how to make problems smaller and how to solve the specific first, before debating the ideological.
Participants: Micro-battle teams, with the option for the Leadership team sponsor to attend.
- Create and manage the product backlog. This helps define and deliver the micro-battle objective, which the micro-battle leadership owns.
- Create and manage the sprint backlog. Once the team defines the product backlog, it pulls those items into the first set of sprints to deliver a minimum viable product that customers can react to.
- Run Win-Scale or sprint reviews. Using role-playing, the team learns how to capture results from the prototype and measure feedback. Part of the goal is to understand the templates needed for reporting across micro-battles.
- Define how team members will interact. Teams need to learn how to draw upon common resources, celebrate learning and hold both themselves and leaders accountable for new behaviors.
- Identify individual postures, recognize moments of truth and commit to act like founders guided by an insurgent mission.
As the teams are trained, trainers should point out a few important principles and things to watch for:
- Be prepared to push boundaries. Often the habitual fear of failure results in teams either abandoning an idea too early or not being bold enough to really push the envelope with the first few sprints. Embrace failure as a stepping-stone to success.
- Beware of the “pilot success story.” Celebrate incremental success with the prototype, but declare victory only after the repeatable model is successful. The ultimate goal is bigger than a one-off, local solution.
- Focus and time are critical. Teams need to ask for adequate time and the right support from central resources to make the micro-battle a success.
Amplify training for Leadership teams
One specific goal of running a micro-battle portfolio is to change fundamentally the behaviors of the company’s most senior leaders. At its most basic, this means replacing the traditional command-and-control approach with one based on empowerment and trust. Much of this involves learning how to get out of the way—how to facilitate rather than dictate. Top executives need to be role models for new behaviors, listen closely to the micro-battle teams and give energy to those teams by removing obstacles in their way. The goal is to make problems smaller, not bigger, so the micro-battle teams are in the best position to execute quickly and effectively.
Needless to say, this is a major adjustment for many leadership teams. The Amplify training helps leaders explore topics in two main categories: “hardware,” or the nuts and bolts of setting up a micro-battle portfolio, and “software,” topics focused on the changes to mindset and behaviors that leaders must undergo to make the Micro-battles System work. They are intended to occur after the Leadership team has done the core strategy work that lays the foundation for the company’s journey to full potential.
Objective: Using exercises and role-playing to help the Leadership team become better at managing the portfolio of micro-battles and governing them. This is where the Leadership team will likely have to stretch the most in adopting new behaviors, because it involves both new leadership skills and new learning skills.
Participants: Leadership team (or a subset of it).
- What is our starting point? Where are we today as a company on both hardware and software issues?
- Do we have individual leaders who can inspire and guide the micro-battle teams through trust and empowerment, not command and control?
- Where do we want to end up? What kind of performance, behaviors and mindset do we expect from ourselves and from our micro-battle teams?
- What commitments are we willing to make to get there?
- How will we demonstrate this commitment in each interaction with the organization? This typically involves role-playing that helps leaders recognize the moments of truth in their interactions and coaches them on how to change their responses when necessary.
- How are the micro-battle teams adopting new ways of working? What is our role in helping the teams, and in scaling the prototypes and the ways of working? What should we expect in the first Leadership review?
Every company’s experience is, of course, different, and Leadership teams need to structure the training agenda to reﬂect their company’s unique circumstances. It should be tailored according to the company’s position on its journey to scale insurgency and the context it faces financially, organizationally, culturally and in terms of leadership readiness.
Think back to our previous telecom example. What rings true is that the effectiveness of micro-battle training results from a rich combination of hands-on field experience and a set of open, facilitated forum discussions in the learning center. Learning about new behaviors is one thing; living them is another. But as the telco discovered, embracing change can improve business rapidly and transform a company’s ways of working. Micro-battles unlock an enormous amount of energy and enthusiasm, and that is the best measure of success.
Bhavya Nand Kishore is the global practice director in Bain’s Strategy practice and is based in Zurich. Peter Slagt is a partner in the Kuala Lumpur office of Bain & Company and a member of the firm’s Global Results Delivery® practice.
Bain Micro-battles System℠ is a service mark of Bain & Company, Inc.