Building sustainable systems
Practical change requires more than just a sticking plaster says Matt Spry
When Bill Walsh became head coach of the San Francisco 49ers American Football franchise in 1979, the club was in free-fall. With a record of just two wins from 16 games in the 1978 season, the club was widely regarded as one of the worst in the NFL.
Walsh recognised that in order to effect the transformation to the championship-winning team he wanted, a fundamental shift in all aspects of the organisation was necessary. The problems ran deeper than could be fixed by a good draft, big signing, or motivational speech.
The whole organisation needed to be shown what excellence looked like, in order to create the right conditions for the team to practice and display his tactical vision on the pitch. For every role and function across the franchise, Walsh began defining the standards of performance he expected.
Every person in the organisation knew exactly what was expected of them, why it mattered, and how they could achieve it
From the star quarterback to the receptionist, the chef to the groundsmen, every person in the organisation knew exactly what was expected of them, why it mattered, and how they could achieve it. This process built a sense of purpose, shared identity and pride in the 49ers organisation as a whole, not just the team who took the field.
For the first couple of years of his reign, there was little immediate impact on the pitch. Indeed in the 1979 season, the team again managed just two wins, but everyone within the franchise could feel the difference. In the years that followed the 49ers won three Superbowl trophies (1981, 1984 and 1988), and the team has gone down in NFL history as one of the all-time greats.
Aside from Walsh’s tactical vision, and deep understanding of the game itself, what sets this transformation story apart is the methodical building of robust, scalable systems across the organisation that underpinned the successful decade that followed his appointment. Both Walsh and the owners of the 49ers resisted the temptation to go for the quick fix, instead building something altogether more impressive.
Of course, we’ve all seen the opposite approach in the world of sport. A star signing or three, a new manager, short term success, then a slide back into poor performance, the underlying issues papered over rather than resolved.
So in sport, as in business.
It’s a common scenario. Things are going well, demand is rising, your business is taking off. As workloads expand across your teams, your systems start to creak and problems arise. What used to work perfectly well no longer does. Quality drops, customer complaints rise. It’s clear that change is needed.
At this point the real challenge of transforming or scaling a business becomes apparent.
How do you bridge the gap between what you can do now, and what you need to be able to do next?
The easy answer is a ‘sticking plaster’, often in the form of someone who ‘just gets things done’. Someone who steps into the breach, puts a veneer over the problem and takes the pain away from the leadership. Someone who can put their arms around the challenge and seemingly bring order to the chaos.
For a while, the problems go away, no longer visible to the leaders who assume the issues have been solved, rather than shelved. Eventually, the pressure builds again and the same problems resurface. The sticking plaster becomes the bottleneck.
We’ve all seen the evidence of this approach. Key processes that are managed by bolted together spreadsheets, dependent upon single people. Inconsistent results. Inconsistent data. Duplication of effort. Multiple systems are available, but none are used to their full potential or connected. More than one version of the truth. People spending their time hunting across systems and data sources to solve problems, wasting time.
The results of this are clear – frustration, operational inefficiency, lost confidence in underlying data, poor customer service, low confidence in making decisions, missed opportunities, subpar performance.
Businesses can survive like this, but it’s much harder to thrive and impossible to scale.
So, if you want to move beyond sticking plasters, what do you do?
The simple answer is to find the patience and discipline to put a scalable, lasting system in place that will solve the underlying problem, even if it means short-term pain to implement.
In the words of Abraham Lincoln ‘discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most’. If you want a business that can perform consistently and has the potential to grow and evolve, invest the time in sustainable change, and ditch the sticking plasters.
Matt Spry is a strategy consultant and founder of Emergent
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