The Next Big Thing, or building castles on sand - 782x504

The Next Big Thing, or building castles on sand?

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I think it’s fair to say that for most executives and senior management teams, hitting the ‘go’ button on a business change programme brings with it a sense of both excitement and trepidation.

Excitement because business transformation is intrinsically connected to a company’s long-term competitiveness; and the ability to align the three core pillars of people, process, and technology more closely with business strategy.

Trepidation because the promise of change is frequently let down by reality. Indeed, the oft-quoted statistic that 70% of all organisational change initiatives fail is rooted in fact – and in their wake can be found reduced employee productivity, engagement, and retention (and that’s before we talk about the financial impact).


Failure is of course a strong word, and I should clarify that most transformation projects will have multiple objectives – many of which will be achieved. However, few transformations will be deemed an unqualified success across the board.

Yet however you measure it, the overall result is often the same: the initial hopes and enthusiasm for a ‘game changing leap’ in productivity, customer engagement, digital agility etc. have been curtailed by an inability to deliver long-term strategic value.

All of which leads to one simple question: why?


More often than not I would suggest the answer is to be found in an organisation’s existing infrastructure. By that I mean the traditional/established ways of bringing people, processes, and technology together that collectively defines ‘business as usual’: the standard operating procedures that guide behaviours and outputs from the HR department to the finance function. An infrastructure that rarely exists in an ideal state of being, and as the old adage tells us, it’s not a good idea to build castles (or for that matter any other complex architectural structure) on sand.

OK, well maybe not sand, but you get the picture. Existing infrastructures can struggle with change, and to accommodate new demands to embrace the latest business innovations (think augmented intelligence, social learning etc.). As for why this is, I’m conscious of applying a ‘catch-all’ hypothesis to my line of thinking as each business has it’s own unique challenges – but there is one factor that appears time and time again: the existing infrastructure isn’t ‘sexy’. In fact it’s ‘so last year’ (or the year/decade before that). The business has moved on. New targets. New dreams.


It’s true (depending on your viewpoint of course) that infrastructure development lacks some of the glamour of acquiring the latest fourth generation, IoT-enabled, time travelling wonder app. Equally, it might not promise the same awe-inspiring double-digit sales growth and/or cost reduction promised by outsourcing, insourcing, offshoring, near-shoring, community selling, shared service(ing) etc.

Yet a weak, under-optimised infrastructure has the power to compromise any new business initiative. Take for example the promise of outsourcing. The rush to BPO in  the recent past was built on the back of a desire to cut costs. Looks great on paper. But what if a fine-tuning of the existing infrastructure could deliver similar savings? What if, once done, you could then engage with an outsourcer to deliver additional savings and performance improvements that really make a difference?

A more modern example is the use of robotics, automation and machine learning to drastically reduce the cost of monotonous activities that add little value to an organisation. This is something many businesses are keen to discuss – a potential panacea that sounds great in the boardroom. How many businesses are really ready for such a great leap forward? Will spending millions on an automated solution to revolutionise the way invoices are processed make as much difference to a business as making sure the rest of the organisation adopts a “right first time” approach in providing the necessary information for those invoices?

Countless other examples exist of course. Take marketing: introducing a new customer experience initiative, and re-vamping online resources sounds great, but not if the ‘back office’ processes for how a lead is handled and qualified remain rooted in old school techniques. Same with sales: offering a new product (or product mix) into the equation can fail to deliver the required pipeline impetus if the underlying commission structure and processes remain poorly conceived and implemented.

As an analogy, imagine if you will the proud owner of a beat-up, rust-bucket of a Ford Cortina being sold the latest V8 engine. Yes, the high level benefits are clear: the raw speed, the torque, even the sound! Perfect for American muscle cars, high performance sports cars, and pick-ups. The trouble is it’s sitting at the front of a Cortina that was lucky to pass its last MOT. What’s more, the V8 now demands a new camshaft, exhausts, and intake manifolds to let the engine work properly (if at all). In other words the basics aren’t right, and therefore the full potential of the engine will never be realised.


For many executives, transformation, and technology leaders this situation is a source of constant frustration. Vast sums of money are being invested in change programmes, and in return this lavish spend should equate to a smarter, faster, and more cost-effective operation. That’s not beyond the bounds of reasonable expectation right? And what about the legion of consultants on hand to advise, direct, and implement, surely they share the same concern?

The answers are most likely yes in both instances, but with a caveat on the latter point. That’s because with consultants there can be a possible conflict of interest. Not that I’m in any way calling into question their professionalism or integrity. Rather the simple fact is that many consulting houses exist on the back of repeat customer business.

That means maintaining an on-going conversation, which in turn demands having something to talk about. Something exciting usually helps, and a new proposition that offers enormous potential and fantastic outcomes. Not banging the same drum again and again about deficiencies in the underlying infrastructure – even if this is where the greatest gains for the business are to be made.


But who is best positioned to change this situation? Yes, there will be brilliant minds in every organisation, alongside people with encyclopaedic knowledge of how the business is run. But getting the basics right is not just an operational or functional concern, as it’s also about overcoming the challenge of perspective.

By this I mean the depth of context available to any decision maker, and how in-depth knowledge of the ‘what’ can often rob the owner of insight into the ‘what next’. Hence the value of independent expertise: of a fresh pair of eyes to appraise the lay of the land – an objective, subject matter expert with no agenda other than combining best practice with operational realities. Someone who can review the state of play and make practical, objective recommendations for ensuring the existing infrastructure is fit for purpose based on broad experience built through experience of many different businesses – distilling all of that knowledge to help you arrive at the best possible outcomes for you.

Importantly, this is not the narrative you’d expect from a consultant filled with abstract views on the need for a ‘clear vision’, ‘effective leadership’, and ‘measurable accountability’ etc. Rather it’s pragmatic, actionable guidance based on years of experience and a clear understanding of what’s needed to make business transformation work.


Obviously, as a member of the Business Transformation & Technology Practice at Eton Bridge Partners, you’d expect me to promote the role of exceptional talent in getting the basics right. But looking at the senior positions we’ve filled over the last year, and the reasons why our clients hired them, I do sincerely believe that having access to the right independent expert can make a huge difference. A person able to identify gaps and ways of filling them, of building reliable investment roadmaps, redefining and fixing  ‘broken’ processes, and ultimately in keeping high-profile change programmes on track and able to deliver.

This is what we offer our clients, as well as advice and guidance on shaping their specific needs – and we’re available and ready to react whenever needed.