Wednesday, May 11, 2005


The name O={R° is as close as my keyboard gets to "an organisation is equal to the sum of its relationships to the power of the trust in the relationships" (the ° should be a superscript t but it doesn't mind standing in.)

More to follow, about complexity, human relationships, trust, energy, story telling, cynefin, interim management, gardening, communities, wealth creation, interventions, power, women, male egos, coaching organisations and individuals, and being what you think you are.

here is a story to be getting on with;

The short story of Scarlet Belgium or how three became one,

or A+B+C =D or chicken.

Executive summary.

This is the story of merging three disparate Belgian telecom, data and internet companies into one, using the Cynefin approach.

It highlights how a complex and failing merger was made sense of, and resolved through the use of emergent techniques, narrative analysis, multiple attractors, social network analysis, heuristic interventions and communities.

NETnet was a small 35 man Belgian Telco, invoicing 60,000 customers’ calls, using the incumbent’s network, and making a happy profit. One day, having been bought by Scarlet, a Dutch Telco of a similar but bigger nature, they bought the Belgian daughter of KPN, 150 people (from 600 at their zenith) - mostly engineers, with serious corporate data and voice products and their own network of fibre optics, but not making a profit. This was followed by its sister company Planet Internet Belgium. Planet had about 100 people (down from 240) and was probably the best residential Internet provider in Belgium, with great products, service and brand, but definitely not making a profit.

The Vikings conquered northern Britain with a famous strategy which lives on today; raping and pillaging. There weren’t many Vikings, and they overcame and controlled a much bigger population. NETnet managers (not yet feeling themselves to be Scarlet), equally outnumbered, employed a similar method, without the blood or lawbreaking but using fear, confusion, and high impact gestures to reduce a loss of some 2.5m€ per month, to near breakeven in the first six months.

Although the finances were going in the right direction, people were not, they either had their heads down in safe bunkers or they were leaving fast. The war between the three factions was mainly guerrilla, but discussed by everybody, it consumed most of the organisations energy and attention.

I arrived at this point to find the dominant story being ‘this mess is going bust fast’ and ‘we’re all out of a job’; the task of integrating the three businesses and their processes, had not started, six months after the takeover.

It’s really complex, I told a friend, asking for her ideas, unable to find any case studies or rules on how to get these three companies integrated into one.

Cynefin seemed an appropriate choice, there was no consultant’s recipe or best practice on the subject; the number of variables was high, multiple perspectives everywhere and the outcome extremely uncertain. Using emergent methods, to define the archetypes characterising the problems, provided a way forward.

In fact there were many more than the three main perspectives, as the various communities and their stories emerged during lunch, coffee machine and one to one discussions. I soon had to go to the shareholders to say that no integration was going to happen whilst these factions were locked in battle; the active archetypes were all negative.

As a result the owners decided to ask the bosses of the factions to leave and to ask me to be the Interim COO.

I am an Interim executive, and Cynefin has enabled me to explain how I work. It helped made sense of the situation to the owners, and showed a way to move forward.

Becoming the boss is a problem though, whereas before I could collect stories easily, now the flow dried behind the perceived hierarchical barrier of ‘talking to the boss’.

In order to disrupt this conditioned response, I used multiple attractors; free sandwich lunches, breakfast meetings, tea times, Friday lunch question times, wandering around and moving my ‘office’ from place to place. The flow of narrative was important to sense where the communities’ opinions were headed and to develop heuristics on how these people were ever going to feel part of one company.

One of the most successful methods was to push a tea trolley around the building twice a week, inviting the people where I landed up to tea and cake, along with their neighbours. It was at one of these teas that the ABCD theme emerged, and it was soon clear that people were responding to the idea of building ‘D’, and leaving their A or B or C behind. Not building Scarlet, that was still a bad word, but the more neutral D.

Soon we had ‘D’ architecture and applications coming from the IT developers, D process groups, D budgets and so on. It became the D story.

The D period lasted about 6 months, illustrated every couple of weeks with a communication session, to 50 or 60 people, with stories of my sons bloody knees learning to ride his bike, with storm reform perform stories, and even gardening stories as we re-organised repeatedly.

The ‘we’re going bust’ line was killed off by feeding the unions with numbers of improving performance and consolidated results that put the old legal entities out of the spotlight.

The next challenge was the low level of trust in the relationships around the company, tea times helped, believe it or not, just to introduce people to one another and to get them to talk to the opposition as a person, over a cup of tea. The number of valid relationships was a problem in itself, tainted as they were by the Viking period, and by older stereotype stories between B and C.

Complexity workshops helped too, explaining the nature of complexity to the engineers so they could see that there wasn’t necessarily always a black or white answer, and that other mindsets might help in handling the complexity around us.

As always, the key internal storytellers played an important role in raising trust levels and building new relationships across the old communities. The nodal points in the various networks, l brought these people together to tell each other their own variants of the D story.

Work on the technical integration work was about half way, when a new challenge appeared. The launch of a new technology platform, ‘Voice over DSL’, both for the corporate and retail markets. The negative reactions quickly started again, ‘too early’, ‘suicide’ and ‘madness’ amongst the favourites. Vodsl, as the project was called, was lead by a traditional time driven Dutch project manager, who gave rise to his own brand of charismatic stories. After considerable investment in reframing and positive messages, more story work around transparency and tackling the negative stories head on, belief and trust slowly ebbed back into workplace stories and relationships.

There was still no Scarlet identity, D had done its job, Vodsl had focussed attention but Scarlet wasn’t happening. A group started up called fun@scarlet. Encouraged by a budget from a % of savings on costs, they set about organising events; brewery trips are good in Belgium, along with whisky sponsored putting competitions (a favourite), and several more cultural events, but Scarlet as collective identity had no critical mass.

Over the year we had recruited about 25 new people up and down the organisation, part of building confidence (and competence). After 3 months investment of time and energy, the new Retail Director had united sales and marketing from three to one, but he didn’t stick. The Holding kept changing the rules and the basis of his job as he saw it, so he left, leaving a bigger hole than before he started, and no practical plan for launching Vodsl.

So the complexity level increased again, not for the first time. How were we to launch a product (free calls on fix lines in Belgium, ADSL and a mobile simcard for 49.95€/m) with no budget, no agency, little distribution, no ideas and no organisational belief or trust?

Weak signals were emerging. It was becoming clear that women, who control at least 60% of domestic budget in Belgium, could be the decision makers and thus the target of our retail launch. This story produced a contact who came from a small, all women, advertising company, and despite warnings of how difficult we were to work with, they came on board with an idea developed from a creative tea time we had held a week before.

The cartoon chickens had Scarlet logos on their heads, and were all talking into a red phone, with a strap line of ‘at last clucking is for free’. They looked great on the posters, the radio campaign really caught the ear, and the chicken clucked their way to the women’s magazines.

Scarlet happened. Real white chicken with red combs even appeared on the grass in front of the building, almost everybody inside loved them, and people were finally proud to work for Scarlet. A real life example of small things having a large impact.

The epilogue (early 2005) is that 25,000 new customers have signed up and my successor’s problems are now of too much success…..

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