MT Round-table: How to do more with less

Now that the age of austerity is upon us, how can UK plc keep growing through these hard times?

by MT Staff
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

MT gathered a group of corporate leaders around a table in London's Soho Hotel, ordered them drinks (tap water, of course) and asked for their advice.

Ian Wylie, MT The aim of this discussion is to tease out whether it really is possible in this economic climate to do more with less. We could couch the conversation in negative terms but, as we all know, it's in difficult economic times that we often see examples of innovation and fresh thinking. So how does the notion of doing more with less chime with your experience in your business?

Steve Walters, Ricoh UK Our clients know us as a provider of hardware services, but we're flipping the problem on its head and see it as a good opportunity to get under the skin of customers and tease out of them the problems they are experiencing in the marketplace. It's an opportunity for us to show them how other companies have managed to improve efficiencies, drive down costs and gain control of areas they're not experts on.

Paul Stephenson, Naim Audio We're in the business of making hi-fi and when you are actually making something you cannot do more for less overnight. But we've taken the opportunity to do some value-stream mapping to analyse our production, sales and admin processes to see if we could reduce waste. That has led to better productivity but has also given us the chance to listen to what people involved in those processes find frustrating, and to energise them into a positive outcome.

Simon Hancock, Control Circle We have actually seen quite strong growth over the last year. But what we also saw is a desire among customers across the board to get better value for money. Cost savings are as important to customers as service levels. So, for example, over the last year we've seen more customers asking if we could buy hardware on their behalf and build it into their monthly costs. We've also made our customer portal more self-service, so customers can now do for themselves some of the management that we may have done before, which cuts down on our internal administration.

Rob Pringle, Gazprom We too are growing quite strongly at the moment. But getting more for less is also key for us, because it is about delivering a business plan and making sure that we spend our investment cash as effectively as possible. We also have to keep an eye on the long-term structural costs of running IT as well. The more it costs to run IT in the long term, the less investment cash there is. So we decided, for example, this year to deploy unified communications technology so our business team can share information more freely - because people have different jobs in different time zones, and some are in an office and some are not. It wasn't a large-scale investment but it was a very good one.

Toni Smith, The Viral Factory Our viral marketing campaigns already offer our clients huge cost efficiencies. When trying to reach a wide audience, the impact of viral marketing is not limited by media spend. We win the audience, people enjoy what they see and they choose to send it on. So the recession has put us on a huge growth path. While many clients are not able to spend huge amounts on traditional campaigns such as TV or print advertising, they are looking to viral campaigns instead. Because of the recession, many clients are feeling a lot braver about viral marketing.

John Bruce-Jones, Stanton-Marris In recent months we've seen two different stories. In the public sector, it's a question of not just doing more with less but doing the same, or even doing less, with less. We are seeing organisations faced with quite staggering cost challenges. So we help people prioritise, work across organisational boundaries and redesign their organisations to make the most of what they have got.

In the private sector, we are involved in large programmes of change, working with organisations on talent management, how they get the skills that they need for the future. They are two different worlds. But in both cases, I'm interested in the notion of simplification - doing more with less is actually not an end but the means to other things - and simplification as a kind of mantra for growing. If you simplify, you get better; you get bigger, you grow. It is a very interesting mindset and one that people ought to be taking up and thinking about how they can apply it to themselves.

Fred Warren, Microsoft I agree that these are times for simplification. Why should a manufacturing company be running its own email system? Better to turn to trusted partners that can the tools for your people so they can decide how to optimise their efficiency and productivity. Provide the social networking capabilities, provide the collaboration tools so that your people and your customers can actually do more with less. If you simplify your business and you focus on what is important, you can start looking instead to the new, green fields of opportunity.

Steve Walters As you say, Fred, there are so many distractions within a workplace. Allowing people to focus on their core competencies keeps people motivated and focused. Giving people clear direction and removing the distractions is key.

Fred Warren It's a bit like how the challenges and adversity of winter weather often bring people together. In business, we are seeing the same thing. We are reconnecting with our employees, being transparent and talking to them about the tough decisions. In return, they are trusting managers to make the right choices.

Simon Hancock We try to keep our staff motivated through cost-effective measures. We offer pensions, healthcare and gym membership, but, on top of that, we try to provide interesting, slightly quirky types of awards. We have an MVP (most valuable player) award every month and celebrations for people with birthdays or an anniversary of joining the company. All these things create the team spirit that we were talking about earlier. They don't actually cost the company much but provide that community feel within the business.

Paul Stephenson Management also has to show some flexibility. If you want to gather morale and push in the right direction, you may have to recognise that the world is changing and your five-year plan might need to become a one-month plan. By getting your teams to break that down and explain those messages simply, you can attribute roles and responsibilities that people are happy to take up.

Rob Pringle It's about doing more with less time as well as less money. The cycle of change is speeding up and it is down to your people. A lot of the answers can be found within your team. What are the different options? How can we think laterally about the problem and not just repeat how somebody else has done. It's really important to harness your people to solve problems.

John Bruce-Jones What engages people is feeling a connection with what the business is about, what their role is in the business, what they can do. It builds a sense of belonging, a sense of ownership and builds a sense of responsibility. But that creates huge demands on managers and leaders. 'Why should anyone be led by you?' is such an important question in these times. What is it about me that means I can authentically connect with the people I am working with and so they want to work with me? It is not just about direction or clarity; it is about personal connection and values.

Ian Wylie What are the key messages as leaders that you feel you should be giving to your staff and to your marketplace in these times?

Paul Stephenson I think the key message has to be, especially in difficult times, that we are working at the issues that are facing our particular businesses. We are prepared to put a plan together, share that plan, show our reasons and explain our methods for rolling out the strategic plans. Providing you are open and honest with people, you can get great results. And I think there has never been a better time for cross-functional working. But normally it takes a leader to break down some of those barriers.

Steve Walters In any difficult time, you need to hold on to your good people. To keep investing in those people means they will feel far more loyal to a business that has seen them through a very difficult time.

John Bruce-Jones We need to remember that people get messages from all kinds of things, so leaders need to be thinking about how people perceive them - what I have said in the morning, the questions I ask people, what I pay attention to. If I want customer focus but I am always asking whether the project is on time, what message do people get from that?'

Toni Smith I think cashflow is what cripples so many companies in the current climate, and it's so frustrating. In many cases you have a huge opportunity that will put you out there. However, big clients want 90-day payment terms and you cannot deliver on that because your suppliers will not deliver 90 days for you. Trying to deliver on those terms, particularly when banks are not willing to lend, is a massive threat to small companies like us.

Paul Stephenson Fred talked about the greenfield opportunities, but the leaps that we have to make as small businesses to get to those greenfields require some pretty brave decisions. If you take a leap of faith, will your bank come with you if your time frames slip? In some banking relationships there is a lack of confidence on both sides. But it's improving. I think we have got to a stage where we at least can talk about green fields again.

Ian Wylie Are there any other examples around the table of smart uses of technology to do more with less?

Fred Warren Some research colleagues of mine wrote a paper called The Hybrid Organisation about the idea of the workplace shifting away from the office. And times like this are making people think maybe work doesn't have to happen in the workplace any more. Maybe that is where the technology toolkit now available and the principles of leadership, authenticity and leading by example combine to make something useful and we can reclaim some of our lives to find that balance we are all looking for.

Paul Stephenson I agree, although when business is tough, you sometimes need to not just hear what people are saying, but also see what they are not saying. However, for a global business there are some huge savings to be made from technology such as video conferencing.

Toni Smith Absolutely. I have worked online for my entire career. I have always enjoyed the ability to do video conferences and collaborate over email, but it's about getting the balance right. For example, there is a team of 16 people in our office and often we speak to each other on Instant Messenger, whether we're in the office or out of it. But I make a point of ensuring that we are all in the same space at least two days a week. When it comes to working with clients, conference calling gives us huge cost and time efficiencies, particularly if our clients are in South Korea or America. But when we need to do proper business, it's normally over lunch! That's still when the deals get done.

But of course we could not operate as an online business without the latest software. Because we don't have the budgets that you would get with TV or print advertising, we have to create campaigns that are far more impressive, innovative and experimental with far, far less. Technology is what enables us to do that.

Fred Warren That's a fantastic example of the consumerisation of enterprises. I was speaking to a CTO recently and he said that he was thinking about giving every one of his employees a laptop budget. Perhaps more organisations could embrace that kind of mindset.

Toni Smith If you give people the ability to use their laptops and other equipment personally, they understand it so much better than if they use it purely for business.

John Bruce-Jones There is a risk that ever more sophisticated technologies become something else to hide behind. Even the newest technologies can become stale. The CEO's blog which was a fantastic novelty for six months is becoming utterly outdated. The YouTube video about employees is well received, but soon loses its freshness.

Toni Smith Absolutely. And the amount of time and effort that goes into adopting each new technology is often huge. For example, I do not tweet. I work in the world of social media and yet I do not tweet because I simply do not have enough time in my day to do it. I would have to allocate time to something which I don't believe would deliver enough gain. It is about finding the balance and using the technology because it is going to work for you efficiently and effectively - not just using it because it is the latest fad.

Ian Wylie So, finally, how do we ensure that we embed these changes, this fresh thinking? How can we create this culture of doing more with less?

Rob Pringle I think it's about leading from the front - setting an example about how you want your team to operate. So if somebody comes to you and asks for a new person to do job x, make sure they can justify what that person is going to be doing day in, day out, what are they going to be contributing. If you train them into thinking that way, once they go and hire people into their teams, they will be asking the same questions. That kind of leadership in lean times will help to sustain the organisation.

Simon Hancock As markets continue to mature - and I do not think it is just in the current economic environment - more people are going to be focused on their core business. They will outsource the things that are not key to specialist providers.

John Bruce-Jones My mantra is simplification, both internally and with the clients I am working with. That means always asking the questions, is this the simplest way of doing it? Is this an elegant way of doing it? Is this absolutely necessary, does it really add value? Is it freeing up time for people to add value doing the things that really matter, or is it just eating up time? The most successful businesses have simplification ingrained in their DNA. mt

The panel

  • Paul Stephenson Managing director, Naim Audio 
  • Toni Smith Managing director, The Viral Factory
  • Fred Warren Strategy consultant, Microsoft
  • Ian Wylie Chair and MT special projects editor
  • John Bruce Jones Partner, Stanton Marris
  • Rob Pringle Head of IT, Gazprom Marketing & Trading
  • Steve Walters National sales director, enterprise accounts, Ricoh UK
  • Simon Hancock founder and CFO, Control Circle

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