When I joined a large consulting firm I was tasked with realising the idea I had raised during the interview process — to build a more efficient ‘ghost structure’ alongside the current one that would meet the needs of partners (and ultimately their clients). Once we had proven this to work we could encourage others to adopt the new and improved and let the old slowly die from under-use.
Our first step was to listen to what partners said was working well (so we wouldn’t touch this) and what was not working well (which they said they’d back ideas that improved this). One of the first things we found that was not being done well was tracking new opportunities with current clients. This was something all the partners wanted to improve on so we set about upgrading this, fast.
We discovered that all partners both tracked and discussed new client opportunities, but did so in small industry groups (ex, energy or consumer markets) in their line of business (audit, tax, advisory). This meant there were 10 separate industry databases in each of the three lines of business, in other words, 30 databases doing the same thing in the same company with no sharing of data.
This also meant that 30 people were responsible for inputting data into 30 different databases. Many of these were in excel but some were more sophisticated and some of those used the same technology but had different licenses that had been negotiated separately (with the same supplier) with multiple different contracts and invoicing. This amount of duplication was baffling.
No-one objected when we offered to reduce this waste, whilst also increasing partners’ awareness of new opportunities across the whole group, (as long as we designed a few protections to ensure partners’ relationships with key clients were not jeopardised). No-one was attached to this wasteful system of duplication and they were ready for something more efficient and more effective.
Duplication (of systems, processes and even jobs) is a huge problem in organisations of any size. Thirty databases all tracking the same thing may sound crazy but it’s relatively sane compared to what goes on in some organisations where systems can be duplicated hundreds of times. No-one designs these systems to be chaotic, they emerge overtime. Addressing it takes purposeful action.
We quickly integrated the common fields across all 30 databases and stripped away the rest. We ran it with a pilot group who were delighted with the light-touch interface and ‘good enough’ functionally (as we explained we could add to it later if needed). With the necessary ‘protection mechanisms’ for partners’ client relationships in place we were ready to roll it out more widely.
Then we hit the other source of waste in organisations: Bias.
We had built a light-touch database and interface and had all the partners in one industry group across all three lines of business using it (no mean feat). Then IT got involved. Instead of seeing our ‘ghost structure’ as a way to get partners to work together in a more collegial way (sharing key information) for the benefit of themselves, the company and clients they saw this as a threat to them.
Appeals to board members resulted in the only logical decision they felt they could make — this was an “IT project” so it should fall under the CIO’s authority. Board members hadn’t understood the technical arguments; underestimated the progress made in getting partners to share information about their clients; and had forgotten our mission to build a ‘ghost structure’.
To my amazement the CIO even admitted that they’d built a central database for this purpose three years before but no-one used (and IT never found out why). But this time time it would be different. IT set out to meet everyone’s needs this time around and decided that something this big and specialised would have to be custom-built.
Instead of buying commercial components that could be deployed more quickly IT built everything themselves, (ironically, as they had the last central database that no-one used). By the time this one was launched — many months overdue — the agreement we had with partners to share information had expired and they found the “meets all needs” functionality of the new system too hard to use.
So, quietly partners dusted off and started using their old industry databases by line of business again because no-one could interfere with how they did things here. Everyone knew it was wasteful (we now had 31 databases!) and could see the opportunities being missed. But no-one knew how to convince the board to build what the partners needed, rather than what the IT team wanted.
This experience has stayed with me for years, as failure often does. Since then though I’ve become aware of just how much waste there is from duplication (multiple teams doing the same thing) and bias (teams doing things that suit them best, not the end users) and how this drains organisations. Fortunately, I now know the way to address this in a reasonably simple and clear way.
Click to watch this short video to learn how to remove the waste from bias and duplication in your organisation. https://powermaps.net/adapt#duplication