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Sunday Soundbite

Only the CEO can save retail now

Exceptional is the new normal in retail, meaning s**t happens more often than business as usual. Trying to organise a business that cannot take events into account is like trying to stack custard, as Henry Normal once said. You just keep adding to the mess.

Retailers know this; we all know this because we jump onto the motorway every morning even though every day there will be a problem that will cause delays.

We can get away with it because everyone knows the M25 is a reasonable excuse for lateness. Retailers can’t. A lost opportunity is a competitor’s gain.

More speed is needed but how to do this when normal business turns into a series of unforeseen events? You can’t innovate to embrace the future if you are permanently on your hands and knees cleaning up the custard.

The answer is not simple and will not respond to the current ‘12 ways to change your life’ approach to problem solving. I maintain this is bigger than tech, for all its ability to manage exceptions through data. The other problem is culture.

The pressure to deliver change

What was it Peter Drucker said? “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Everyone claims that their particular fix is the answer and technology makes bigger claims than most, but in truth, great technology only delivers for organisations able to harness it. Tech projects stall or fall not because the tech is no good, well, that’s sometimes the reason, but more often than not it is down to culture, culture that prevents a digital transformation happening fast enough or deeply enough.

The chief custard stacker has to be the CEO, and if they don’t have the will power, force of personality and lots of courage, the business will not change. How many retailers do you know that are already three years into a transformation process that you already know will not deliver? I bet you and I could agree on at least five in the UK.

And even as retailers put many of the pieces in place to change, two problems keep coming up – culture and events. The changes made are simply not deep enough, and the world keeps throwing up more events to make those changes obsolete.

Overcoming the challenges of culture and events

Faced with both these problems, there is only one answer for any good strategist, and that is to build them in from the start. Here are five ways to at least mitigate the twin hurdles of culture and events.

Be overambitious and write a plan that you know cannot be delivered. Then share it as widely as possible and let everyone have their say. You may at least end up with a plan that can get delivered, because you have taken everyone’s naysaying into account.

Do thorough research into all the things that happened in your business over the last year that you did not expect. Then you can build them into the business and usual process you are building.

Spend more time than you had originally planned with the people you know are going to be most resistant to anything you recommend. You know who they are. You may prefer to gnaw off your own arm rather than collaborate with them, but it’s got to be done.

Keep it simple. Just because it’s obvious to you what needs to be done, you are not sharing the planet with as many clever people as you might have hoped for.

Make a big fuss about any early successes, no matter how small. These might actually filter up to the higher ranks and cause a change of heart over time. If you can change the CEO, they might then be able to work on the shareholders.


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