Performance Improvement and Whole-system Alignment for a FTSE 100 business

Summary of our work for a complex business, employing 1000+ personnel no longer trusted to perform by global management.


Keywords: Whole System Alignment, Performance Improvement, Sustainable Change, FTSE 100 Company, Cultural Change, Non-Programmatic, Emergent, Minimal Interventions.

The Challenge

This 15-month piece of Organisational Development work focused on performance improvement and whole site alignment for a complex business, employing 1000+ personnel and an annual turnover of £5bn, based in the UK and part of a global company.

The site was no longer trusted by global management to deliver promised results, and the top leadership needed to see substantial performance improvements in profitability, reliability/efficiency, and health and safety within 18-24 months. The recently-appointed site MD had begun to initiate change, via various restructures and shifts in key personnel. However, it was clear that these moves needed to be complemented by further work addressing underlying attitudes and behaviours, and developing greater cross-functional and inter-team working. Moreover, amidst a challenging operating environment, there was concern that middle management had somehow lost the capacity for initiative-taking and problem-solving during the previous few years.

The internal, global Organisational Development team had struggled over a number of months to respond to the MD’s request for appropriate, external help: he wanted consultants who were able to engage and shift the whole site – at a cultural as well as strategic/structural level – rather than focusing simply on ‘leadership’, or offering forms of one-size-fits-all, programmatic solutions. The company was also keen to avoid dependency, seeking consultants able to transfer skills and develop the site’s own OD capacity as they worked.

The Contract

Following an initial meeting with the site MD and a global OD specialist, we proposed and agreed a three-phase process of ‘discovery’, ‘intervention’ and ‘hand-over’ lasting approximately 15 months. Over this time we delivered an average of 8 days per month, with the bulk of these being ‘on site’. We contracted to report directly to the MD, meeting at least once per month. These meetings were not only to account for our activity, but also to share insights (while not betraying the relationships we were developing with staff), bring challenges, suggest interventions and provide personal coaching and feedback.

Informing Principles

Integrated, ‘minimal interventions’ – see Table 1 below

We worked emergently and responsively, rather than programmatically, offering minimal, ‘joined-up’ interventions that tied in with other core work, where possible. In other words, rather than claiming to understand ‘the problem’ completely within weeks and then constructing a ‘grand plan’ to implement over the next year, we suggested interventions step-by-step, learnt from responses and then customised our next moves accordingly – often in collaboration with relevant others. As part of this, we engaged the MD and his extended leadership team in a way that provided just enough structure and planning for trust to develop and for the change work through the rest of the business to be co-owned, with us in support where necessary.

Attending to the behavioural and systemic

Due to the radical nature of some of the restructuring/exiting that had recently occurred, the complex history of the site and the long tenure of some of the middle managers, we stressed the importance of approaching the site’s challenges from a systemic perspective, rather than simply a behavioural one. That is, we recognised that some of the problematic behaviours had their roots, not in individual attitudes, but in deeper loyalties to a larger system and its history.

Table 1:

Programmatic change – the usual approach Integrated, ‘minimal interventions’ – our approach
Top management sets out the A>B route and ‘subcontracts’ to others to deliver, exerting varying levels of control. Repeating process of hypothesis, intervention, sensing, learning and next hypothesis – engaging the leadership along the way to adjust their activities and styles accordingly.
The change initiative is seen as yet another ‘new thing’ to focus on, which can be diverting/exhausting. Encourages people to sharpen their focus on the real work and is often energising.
Works mainly with conscious processes; plans are explicit. Ownership can be low. Works with conscious and unconscious processes – not everything
is explicit or ‘set out’. Ownership is gradual but greater.
Relies on ‘champions’ to drive the change through, raising the level of urgency. Works at the rate of urgency demanded by the evolving business situation.
Often lacks ‘stickiness’ or traction. Sticky – because people choose to change, and they co-create the solutions.
Needs lines of leadership authority to be in good working order Works to strengthen productive working structures – including leadership authority – so can work from any starting point.
Unlikely to effect real culture change as tends to be set out and managed within existing frames of working or ‘paradigms’. Allows new culture to grow in a way that’s organic and shifts existing modes of leadership, as required.
Requires skilful communications work, credible change ‘experts’ and extra resources to deliver. Requires skilful facilitation, open dialogue and careful contracting between OD consultants and leaders to deliver.

Reserving the right to challenge

Even though we were strongly advised that this work was to focus on middle management and not the top team, we reserved the right to challenge the MD and top team as necessary, where we felt middle-management performance issues were in fact related to patterns being set at the top, sometimes in quite subtle ways.

Working intelligently with authority

We leveraged the authority of the MD to gain necessary access to meetings and conversations across the site with great care, ensuring that people could develop trusted relationships with us, and that we were free to hold an independent ‘stance’ on key issues.

“…rather than claiming to completely understand ‘the problem’ within weeks, and then constructing a ‘grand plan’ to implement over the next year, we offered interventions step-by-step, learning from responses, and then customising our next steps accordingly.”

Using the diagnosis as a mini-intervention

Rather than engage in a lengthy and over-analytic ‘diagnosis’ stage, we made this as brief and disciplined as possible and treated it as part of the intervention itself, using it to draw people’s attention to behavioural habits, and to open up spaces for people to ask questions and explore new possibilities. We also took care to tune into existing working patterns and thus avoid people feeling watched and analysed out of situ – and generally ‘done to’ – which might have had resonances with earlier, unsuccessful change initiatives.

Interacting in diverse ways

We were clear about our need to vary the form of our interactions with the site – both to access as much, diverse data as possible, and to expand the spaces in which change could be encouraged. So as we moved from the discovery to the intervention phase, we mixed up formal and informal interactions, work with large groups, teams and 1:1; time ‘on the job’ and unfamiliar, ‘away-day’ environments.

Working as a non-cosy consultant system

We decided to co-lead the project, so forcing us to negotiate any tensions in our peer-to-peer relationship in a way that mirrored the on-site challenge faced by horizontal levels of management. These peers in the client system needed to learn how to better name and address ‘performance issues’ and give robust feedback, regardless of the fact that the majority had known each other for many years.

The Interventions

Our interventions ranged from the formal to informal, the traditional to the innovative, the overt to the subtle. The following list gives an indication of this, without being comprehensive:

Large scale leadership forum

Convening a ‘leadership forum’ for the top 70+ managers on site, which gathered for half a day every 2-3 months, under the strap-line: ‘One Team, High Performance’. We led the design and facilitation of each forum, in collaboration with the MD, while supporting different individuals to co-create and/or lead sessions, depending on the topic. The sessions were designed to ‘work key issues’ and catalyse behaviour shifts simultaneously, while also building leadership skills.

Top Team Off-Site

Designing and facilitating an off-site for the top team to enable them to make difficult strategic choices about priorities for the year ahead and to develop greater joint ownership and mutual support around the resulting ‘plan’.

Leadership Booster Sessions

Creating short, sharp ‘leadership booster’ sessions (90 minutes) on issues ranging from ‘Ruthless Delegation’ to ‘Coaching for Performance’ to support leadership behaviour shifts among the top 70 in relation to live work situations. We co-designed these with in-house staff and coached them to deliver to a more rigorous and ‘edgy’ specification than usual.

Drop-in Surgeries

Holding drop-in „surgery sessions‟ for anyone to bring an issue and receive coaching, so encouraging individuals to step up and take responsibility for attempting to resolve thorny problems.

Coaching for Key Individuals

1:1 partnering and/or coaching for key individuals, critical to delivering essential pieces of work.

Bold Moves

Introducing and then supporting ‘Bold Moves’ as part of the annual plan: bringing stretch, focus and untapped reserves of motivational energy to key work-streams and associated targets.

“Re-set” Away Days

Designing and delivering ‘re-set’ away-days: helping leaders of existing teams to re-frame and re-set their team leadership, bringing focus and clarity to the work to be done while resolving problematic relationship dynamics.

Team Dashboards

Creating team ‘dashboards’ for key teams, allowing them to self-monitor the quality of their attention to purpose and process on a regular basis, and offering short, sharp interventions to help surface sticky issues and move things on.

Change capability-building

Actively sharing our expertise with internal OD/HR staff and a small, cross-site team, charged with ensuring the sustainability of the ‘One Team, High Performance’ culture change.

Attending to the Flow of Leadership

Through all of the above, driving a greater prioritisation of, and respect for, the production function at the heart of the site’s business, so enabling a healthier ‘flow’ of leadership and decision-making.

The impact

Performance shifts

All of the key performance metrics that we were asked to help shift have improved positively – some, remarkably so. In the most recent quarter, the site even out-performed the Global ‘stretch’ target for margin generation turning this from an 8% loss last year to an 8% gain. The availability of key systems is improving and currently ahead of target, and the safe running of equipment within recommended limits has improved, hitting monthly targets within the first quarter.

Cultural shifts

Nine months into our work, all five ‘culture shift’ variables we introduced to monitor performance against the culture change agenda (e.g. ‘moving from victim mentality and passive-aggressive behaviours, to empowered, energised culture – particularly among middle-management’) have improved sharply, shifting from a benchmark average score of 3.9 out of 10, to 6.4 out of 10.

“We‟ve got our fighting spirit back.”

Director of Engineering

“There is much more of a buzz in this business than there was 9 months ago.”

Head of Maintenance

“Your facilitation of that session at the Senior Management Team off-site was absolutely first class… It was the best conversation we’ve ever had together… We would never have got there on our own…”

Chief Technologist

“I’m enjoying my work here now more than I ever have… I’ve got direction, more focus and a sense of really being able to go for things, compared to before when it felt like we were just drifting… so I’m able to give more… The reason I’m excited is that I’ve had some of the changes in my mind for years and now they’re actually happening.”

Head of Operations

“The 90 minute Leadership Booster Sessions have been excellent. I did ‘Inspiring Leadership’ and ‘Ruthless Delegation’. I came away with a lot and wanting more, but the timing was spot on.”

Group Manager

OD Skills Building

OD skills and capacity on site are growing exponentially, and we expect the site to be set up well to continue the above work as we exit the system.

Key Learnings

  • Our relationship with the MD has proved critical to success. He has proved able to trust us without micromanaging; and we have been able to get his attention and/or support for key pieces of work when required.
  • Working ‘emergently’ rather than ‘programmatically’ has enabled ‘stickier’ and more sustainable change to take hold i.e. this has meant developing our interventions in response to how the system has responded to preceding ones, and has enabled particularly focused interventions and very efficient use of resources. However, this has required trust – and therefore depended on the quality of our relationship with the leadership and our steadiness in supporting their risk taking.
  • Being present on the site for a short number of focused days per month – rather than continually – has increased our ability to ‘see’ accurately (i.e. not ‘go native’ and get co-opted into some of the culture’s unconscious habits) and intervene with a certain clarity and power.
  • Given that part of the problem was a ‘victim culture’ with limited responsibility-taking, it was very important that we didn’t assert our authority (or lever the MD’s authority) clumsily, so reinforcing the sense of powerlessness. Instead, we continually opened up spaces for responsibility-taking, inviting people to show interest/take initiative, rather than forcing this. Similarly, we made a point of getting groups to appreciate and celebrate their successes, however small, and this seemed to grow confidence across the site.
  • Contracting as co-leaders of this piece of work, we have had to work hard at our own relationship as collaborating consultants throughout the assignment. Yet we have a strong sense that, in working this ‘parallel process’, we have been able to model tough but compassionate – and highly productive – working to the client. At other levels, holding an equal relationship between our differing gifts and strengths, and our
    male and female energies has also clearly been powerful in many ways, allowing different parts of the client system to interact with each of us differently, depending on the particular issue and context.

Footnotes for potential clients

  • The sort of work we are describing above is rare – hence the struggle this company had to find us! It requires particularly deft and targeted ways of working – and therefore trust between client and provider. However, if you are prepared to invest in getting this relationship right, the ‘efficiency savings’ deriving from this way of working are attractive.
  • Over and above delivering against bottom-line business objectives, there is something inherently satisfying about enhancing the quality of relationships and interaction across an organisation. We believe that the work we are describing here points, not only to a particularly productive way of achieving change, but also to one that is affirming at a very human level. This feels important.
  • The site MD referred to above has offered to provide references to those seriously interested in our working similarly with them. We suggest this occurs only after an initial meeting to explore the parameters of a potential assignment.
contact-pic02-eContact: For more information about this work, contact Nick Mayhew, Director, via
email hidden; JavaScript is required or +44 (0)7753 620811. Conversations with the client quoted above can be arranged, if appropriate.
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