The old black is the new black. Huh..?

Getting back to basics. We hear it all the time. In fact it’s almost a fad. Deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra said. (He also said “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” which has served me well more than once).

Everyone advocates getting back to basics. Problem is hardly anyone really knows what it means any more. And even fewer actually do it.

Terry Leahy is a name you may know. Sir Terry, as he is now, was the CEO of Tesco from 1997 til last year, overseeing one of the most extraordinary corporate transformations ever seen. He’s just written a new book Management in 10 Words and makes no apology for obsession with the basics. As he says in his introduction…

“…I have been struck by by how basic, simple truths about life – not just business – have been forgotten by clever people who mistake ‘simple’ for ‘simplistic’. We have allowed ourselves to think that, because the world in which we live is complicated, the solutions must be complicated as well”.

 There are a couple of problems with those simple basics though. First they aren’t glamourous, trendy or fun. Boring really. Who wants to be bothered with the basics when you have just invested zillions in the latest release of your ERP and loaded on a whole bunch of sexy business intelligence middleware? Why would you let that old simple stuff distract you from the annual trip to the industry facefest in Barcelona?

The other more fundamental difficulty about the basics though is that they are hard. Simple and easy aren’t nearly the same thing. And although it’s easy to talk about what will make your business sing like King’s College Choir, getting everyone to read the music, let alone croon in tune, is an oeuvre majeure in itself.

So the next time you are looking at the agenda for your (or your client’s) strategy breakaway ask these questions:

Do we have clear lines of reporting and accountability?

Does everyone have absolute certainty about what they are expected to deliver?

Can we measure performance in unambiguous terms for every person in every team in every unit?

Do we genuinely and fairly discriminate on that measured performance, challenging and rewarding the producers and helping and sanctioning the laggards?

Of course there’s much more to organisational success than these few things. But as far as the basics go, that’s probably 80% of it. And without these essentials, your strategy isn’t going anywhere anyway.

Getting back to Terry Leahy, he recounts how everything they did as they changed Tesco was underpinned by the Steering Wheel – their version of the Balanced Scorecard implemented at every single store everywhere as the cornerstone of all the basics.

Incidentally, as Leahy tells in his book, the Steering Wheel was devised and implemented by my colleague William Gordon, who worked directly with Sir Terry as his transformation leader on each facet of Tesco’s re-invention. Way to go William!

So, the basics. Always in style.


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