The seasons, the tides, sunrise and sunset. The rhythms that surround us give reassurance to our lives.
When they’re interrupted, we hit problems. Take the climate emergency. Much of this is down to our interruption of the natural rhythms of nature. In the same way, every organisation has a cadence and tempo. Like a beating heart, a predictable and well-conceived rhythm establishes a culture of consistency and execution throughout the organisation. It’s when this changes that problems occur.
Many businesses are struggling with disruption to their rhythm due to the pandemic. And this can have a knock-on effect on culture. It’s particularly important to maintain a regular daily, weekly and monthly drumbeat despite the challenges around us. Because without a regular rhythm, it’s impossible to make progress.
I’m a keen runner. Like everything I do, it’s my aim to get better at running with the same level of effort. Reading about running technique tells me that long-distance runners typically have a cadence of 180 steps per minute. They achieve this through subtle changes to their stride length, foot placement and body position. By regularly practising and fine-tuning my technique, I’ve increased the distance I can cover in the same amount of time and I feel less exhausted!
Likewise, it’s important to make sure everyone in your company understands why working rhythms are important. Success will depend on total buy-in. The whole company needs to practice their working rhythms together otherwise inertia and negativity easily set in. I see this all the time. Organisations that lack rhythm just bumble along. Yes – they’re busy. But busy going nowhere. Everyone arrives at 9 am, gets on the bus, travels around the block, gets off eight hours later right back where they started. There’s no destination. No sense of how to make the bus go faster.
Rhythms build a framework in your business that ensures people keep important things front of mind. Whether they’re daily, weekly or monthly, they can be a constant reminder of goals and your contribution towards these – day in, day out.
This reinforcement can be phenomenal. I interviewed Horst Shultz, founder of the world-leading Ritz Carlton Group, recently and what he said stuck in my mind. They’d come up with 24 behaviours relating to excellent service that they wanted to encourage. So, they decided to reflect on one of these every day. Managers were told to catch and praise people doing these things. The constant repetition gave structure and kept their focus where it mattered.
Have you ever searched on-line for ‘how to build a habit’? Do it now. Bet it doesn’t tell you to do something once and then forget all about it. More likely, it will suggest you break it down into small, achievable steps. That’s because hitting even the smallest goal generates serotonin in the brain. You want to do it again the next day. Mark off your progress in a diary, tell a friend so there’s some accountability. Work out what you want to achieve and then find a regular rhythm to get you there. This works for so many things in life – losing weight, getting fit, learning an instrument. Why would business be any different?
I describe much of what I do as ‘agile business’ coaching. And central to an agile approach is rhythms and sprints. The agile methodology allows a business to evolve, adapt and grow according to the conditions it finds itself in. It was originally used in software development but many of the principles can be applied in all parts of a business. It’s particularly relevant in the times we find ourselves in now, where the COVID-crisis has necessitated rapid change. Businesses need agility to cope.
Agile was born out of frustration. ‘Waterfall’ development wasn’t working. A dev team would come to the business and ask, can you describe in infinite detail what it is you want us to build? The business would say yes. They’d build it. And then it wouldn’t be right. Because, fundamentally, the business couldn’t know from the outset what it was that they wanted.
Instead, the agile approach focused on two-week sprints, building something of value. This went to the business. The business gave feedback. Then the dev team would iterate and keep moving forward. Less set on a final destination, the software would evolve and the business would end up with a better-finished product.
Agile can be taken right across a business. Instead of focusing on an annual horizon, look further ahead to what is highly achievable in three years’ time, your ‘3HAG’. Where do you want to be? Where could your business get to? Then work out what a year could look like. Not as a fixed point but as a stepping stone towards your 3HAG. And then the next 90 days. After that, recalibrate. Does your three-year goal still look right? And does your one year number make sense? Are you in the right place after 90 days? This is not about a fixed endpoint for success or failure. If you have a great first quarter, your numbers might go up. If it’s terrible, you might want to recalibrate downwards.
This approach will allow your business to be flexible and responsive. It’s how many of my clients have weathered the recent crisis. They’re not getting hung up on missing an annual plan.
I was chatting with Verne Harnish, best-selling author of ‘Scaling-Up’ over the weekend. He asked me what I was doing in terms of long term planning for clients in the aftermath of COVID. What did I think a reasonable time horizon was? I said that because most of my clients are working towards a 3HAG and these three years evolve every quarter, nothing much has changed over the past six months. But what they can do is adapt the next 90 days and work out the plan for the immediate horizon. So they may not be doing longer-term forecasting, but they’ve worked out a reasonable goal over the next 90 days and focused on that. This is critical to survival.
Quarterly rhythms are so much more effective than annual both in terms of goal setting and performance development. Take annual appraisals (my pet hate!) If you’re thinking of introducing them, don’t! Get rid of them if they already exist in your company. They’re useless. An annual horizon is too far away. Who can remember what they’ve done over a whole year? What’s the point of telling someone that they’ve underachieved for 12 months? People dust off their appraisal from a year ago, vaguely remember the conversation, realise they haven’t looked at it since and generate some ad hoc evidence that they’ve done what they committed to. Sound familiar?
Maintaining a rhythm is all about setting a realistic pace. Recognise that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. To make real progress, you need to work out a sustainable level of effort and then maintain it, day in, day out. This should be applied to your daily huddles, weekly meetings, monthly milestones and quarterly priorities. Work out where you want to get to, what you need to do each week to get there and whether this is sustainable.
Some people will be overly optimistic. Others the opposite. Work it out between you and find a middle ground. And make sure, when you get to Friday, that you’re celebrating success rather than feeling disappointed. If your team have worked hard, they need to feel they’ve made progress.
Once you’re in a regular daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly rhythm you can use this to prioritise the things that matter. I tell my clients to work out their three to five KPIs for each quarter and then their individual priorities. Taking on fewer things allows you to focus on getting these priorities delivered quicker. Remember the concept of WIP (Work in Progress). If this goes up too much, delivery starts stalling.
Decide your focus for the next week, month and 90 days. Commit to these things, get them done, do no more than necessary and move on. Because by the time you get to any destination, your assumptions might have changed, the world might have changed, you may have lost some people or some customers. Don’t work to an annual plan – too often, this results in a lack of momentum. Get things done now.
Allow your teams to focus on becoming more efficient and adjusting as they go along. Ensure this review process is built into any rhythm you adopt. A good post-mortem every quarter will review objectives. Did you set the right goal? Did you achieve it? Have you celebrated success? What could you have done differently? Learn to repeat and each quarter, get better.
Bring rhythm to key aspects of your business and you’ll start to build real momentum. Net Promoter Score® is a big one. I suggest building this into the regular rhythm of your week. Instead of leaving it to the end of the year and ending up with an unwieldy amount of data, break it down and take a chunk of customers at a time. Then you can use the results to guide your approach. Take the feedback you gain and report back to your clients, giving them regular updates on the changes you’re making as a result of their feedback. By measuring your clients’ propensity to refer and repeat on a regular basis, your business will be stronger.
Measuring staff engagement is another area that benefits from rhythm. If you’re not doing it yet, you should! Use a tool like FridayPulse to keep tabs on how everyone’s feeling in your business. Knowledge is power!
One of my clients uses the phrase ‘casual success’ to describe their culture. They’ve seen phenomenal growth in recent years, taking many of my recommendations and successfully integrating them into their business. Whilst it may look like it from the outside, I can tell you there’s nothing casual about their success. They’ve worked bloody hard at it. And rhythm played a central role. All-day, every day they’re iterating, changing, modifying so you never really see the shift. It just happens – gradually and seamlessly.
Dominic has spent 14 years working in sales, marketing and business management within the IT sector. He has held executive positions at Peer 1 Hosting, IT Lab and Rackspace. At Peer 1 he built the UK business to £30m run rate in 5 years. He won many awards for creating a great place to work. At Rackspace Dominic built the UK company from four to 150 staff, and increased annual revenues from £595,000 to £25 million in just four years. Under his management, Rackspace was recognised as one of the most outstanding workplaces in Europe, and won several service awards for its Fanatical Support TM. Dominic has a BSc in Agricultural and Food Marketing from Newcastle and a MBA from Sheffield Business School. Dominic is also a regular public speaker on creating great places to work and achieving continuous client satisfaction and an assessor on the Sunday Times Customer Experience Awards.