Flexibly Rigid Processes – Huh?

Let’s get right down to it.  The best strategy in the world doesn’t mean anything if it just sits on a shelf and collects dust.  Strategy isn’t an event, it’s a process.  That means that it’s not something you set and forget.  It’s something that guides you and your company, but its also a living thing that needs to be updated and changed as new information comes in.

Similarly, the best systems in the world are useless if they’re not put into practice. It does you no good to have identified a set of ‘best practices’ if they’re not followed.

But they’re actively harmful if they’re meticulously scripted and require your people to follow them blindly, forcing everything to fit into the system framework.

Here’s an easy example – I’ve worked with a lot of companies on scripting their incoming and outgoing calls.  And every single time I bring up the topic, I get the same response:

“Really, Shawn, scripting calls?  My people aren’t interrupting dinners and asking ‘Are you happy with your long distance service.’  My people are dealing with complex problems, and with people we want to cultivate a long term relationship with.  Take your script and -”  (I’ll cut off here out of politeness).

I love seeing that reaction.  It tells me that the people I’m working with are thinking critically, and understand all the reasons that blind adherence to policies are dangerous (even if they can’t articulate them).  The same is true of systems in general (after all, a script is just a type of system).  This understanding on their part makes it easy for me to show them how they’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater when they dismiss scripting.

Here’s why.

Back to first principles

At the most general level, any system is codified and implemented under the assumption that if you want to get the best results, you find out what the best performers are doing and get everybody else doing the same thing.  That becomes your base system.

Lots of companies stop here.  They say “Here’s what worked for X, so we’re going to do that.  Everybody do that all the time, and we’ll be unstoppable!”

There’s an easy temptation to codify everything about the successful performers, and forcing it all onto everybody else.  This is where the nauseating practice of word-for-word telephone scripting (and other types of ‘follow it to the letter’ systems) comes in to play.

These practices take place because of a common misconception about what separates the very successful from the mediocre in almost any field.  If you think that a collection of tricks / tactics / specific formula’s are responsible for success, then you’re probably going to fall into this rigid systems approach.  This approach quickly becomes more superstition than anything else.

This would be like a military commander saying “We need to take that hill.  Last time we took a hill, we sent 2 platoons to approach it from the east and west sides respectively, 1 platoon to the rear, and the rest of the company straight up the front.  We fired 8,703 rounds at the enemy, and took the hill in 4 minutes.  We’re going to do exactly the same thing this time.  Since there are 1,000 soldiers in this company, I’ve given each of you 87 bullets.  I’ll take the extra 3.  Let’s GO!”

It’s ridiculous, but is it any more ridiculous than saying “Here’s exactly what our best sales person said on their most successful calls, so use this script exactly when you’re trying to sell.  Go!”

Truly powerful systems aren’t developed like that.  Instead, they’re developed by looking at the common elements of success, and abstracting out a generalized process that led to the success.

To revisit yesterday’s discussion of sales systems – a successful sales system is about identifying a sequence of events that occur along the way to a sale, and supporting your people in reaching those milestones.  It’s not about telling them “Here’s exactly what you say on a prospecting call, here’s your word-for-word script in describing our services, and here’s your standard objection handling scripts.  What do you mean, what if they ask a question not covered in here?  If that happens, just shut down and start crying.  It’s all in the manual.”

A good system tells you the critical things that must be covered, the order they need to be covered in, and gives suggestions as to how this has worked in the past.  It gives people the freedom to operate with their own strengths and best judgment within the guidelines of the critical areas (so, following from yesterdays sales example, “I don’t care how you do it, but you need to get an acknowledgement from them of the organizational pain.  Here are some suggestions, but feel free to modify and adapt to suit your style.”).

I’ll be coming back to this topic quite a bit in this blog – it’s extremely important.  My final word on it for today – your systems need to be flexible enough to allow people to adapt to changing external circumstances, but they need to rigidly define the milestones & sequence of outcomes you need to achieve.