How to tell if your business is dead inside

Warning signs include standing still, forgetting to put customers first and a preponderance of siloes.

by Abbie Walsh
Last Updated: 31 Jul 2018

'Get busy living or get busy dying.' Fictional convicts may not seem an obvious source of inspiration, but it’s this kind of purposeful thinking that businesses should be embracing.

These are challenging times. Established players are finding themselves disrupted by new challengers. Household names have disappeared from the high street. They all have something in common: they reached a dead end because their customers wanted something different and they weren’t able to adapt quickly enough.

Dead end for businesses

Take Comet. The electricals retailer was a familiar face on the high street until it failed five years ago. Focused on a price war with competitors, Comet failed to invest in its e-tail experience and was left behind by the internet shopping boom. The experience it provided across its stores and online didn’t change when its customers did. Blockbuster is another. It stuck to its long-held strategy and remained committed to a vast retail network, even when that was no longer the way film-renters wanted to shop.

Both are examples of brands that stood still and paid the price. Digital technology is disrupting every industry and fundamentally changing the way businesses interact with their customers. Consumer expectations are rising. People no longer just compare their experience with a bank, for example, with that of other banks; they compare it to their experience with Netflix or Amazon. It is not enough for a brand to be best in its class; consumers today expect it to compete across the board.

That is the premium that digital has placed on customer experience. But understanding that consumers want better, more connected experiences can only get you so far if your business is not set up to deliver them. Many large companies are encumbered by rigid internal structures, strict siloes and departments that don’t talk to each other or see the bigger picture – a stark contrast to nimble, fast-moving start-ups. The unintended result can often be a focus on divisions over people, and a culture that doesn’t encourage innovation or empower employees to think and do differently.

In the past, siloes may have proved helpful as a way of organising a complex business. In today’s increasingly digitised world, they come to restrict innovation, limit employee potential and hamper business growth. Poor internal structures can stop new products and services coming to market on time or more meaningful relationships being developed with consumers. 

The living businesses

The bar has never been higher for businesses that don’t have the flexibility, culture or digital capability to respond rapidly to changing consumer behaviours. Many are fundamentally redefining their structures and digital capabilities, making sure they are set up to continuously reinvent consumer relationships and experiences, and remain relevant. In fact, 93% of the highest performing companies today prioritise organising their entire business around customer need and the power of their people.

Delivering the experience consumers want is not easy. It means being able to change rapidly in response to shifting expectations – becoming a ‘living business’. These are firms that focus on the customer first, putting digital at the heart of everything it does and creating multi-disciplinary teams that work closely together without being constrained by the traditional parameters of defined roles.

Nike has taken stock of the touchpoints where it interacts with its customers, uniting its web presence, apps, retail stores, and its digital Nike+ platform so it can become more responsive to customer needs. For instance, it can now use data on members’ location and behaviour to interact with customers in a more bespoke way, unlocking personalised rewards and creating richer experiences through partners like Apple Music, Headspace, and ClassPass. 

Ikea, meanwhile, is working with outside partners to think outside the big store box, experimenting with new store formats, distribution partnerships and mash ups with other brands such as Lego and Adidas.

Success isn’t just about structure; it is about empowering people through new ways of working. Creating a culture that is both flexible and innovative results in more authentic and relevant connections with customers, and allows employees to be engaged and deliver better thinking.

When Satya Nadella was appointed CEO of Microsoft, for example, he introduced a ‘learn it all’ culture to encourage employees to try new things even if they fail. Four years on, this approach has led to a huge upturn in business performance as employees are encouraged to 'think outside the box' and learn beyond their specific remit. 

Checking the vital signs

So how can you tell whether a business is alive or dead inside? It is important to look for the vital signs, the things successful, adaptive businesses have in common – personality, instinct, craft and relationships. In the digital world, the organisations that thrive will be those that deliver exceptional employee and customer experience by giving their talent the right tools, structures and freedoms to excel. They will be more connected, more flexible, more people-focused and more human in outlook. And they will embody a culture that encourages innovation at every level from the top down and bottom up.

Abbie Walsh is group director, Europe and Latin America at Fjord, part of Accenture Interactive.

Image credit: Nomad_Soul/Shutterstock

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