By Nilofer Merchant

When we work with teams, we often find that members agree in principle, yet may not support the direction of the company.

How often has this type of scenario unfolded at your smaller business: The company decides to move sales (or marketing, or finance, or any other unit) in a new direction. An announcement goes out, a meeting is held, heads nod in agreement. Then day two merges into week two and that soon becomes month two. Somewhere in there you realize that no one is supporting the new direction. And there's no talk about it -- life goes on just as it did before. It's as if all the planning, meeting, and strategizing never happened.

First you're mad, then you blame yourself, then you wonder what you could have done to get the point across and keep things on track.

Thucydides, in his "History of the Peloponnesian War," wrote about the solution one general came up with in ancient Greece: "...burning their boats so as to have no hope except in becoming masters of the country." This legendary military decision eliminated all possibility of retreat. The troops knew there was no way out but through, and performance occurred because the situation narrowed the options to perform or die.

Now, business isn't basic training and you can't act like a Marine drill instructor at Parris Island to motivate your employees (much less burn down the office), but you can set the stage for excellent performance. How? Here are nine ideas any smaller business leader can start using immediately:

  1. Specify the Destination
    Your team needs to know what the new destination is and how to get there. How you communicate that influences whether you'll get there. Why that destination? Why is it important? Make sure the goal is worth pursuing, announce the new move, and make sure there is a specific launch -- a particular date and even an event will help your team remember that a large change occurred.
  2. Make the Move Necessary
    Those who want to hang onto the old boat will burn up with it. There must be a penalty for clinging to the old. For example, the point of demarcation might be a change in procedure. For example, changing the form of ID required to enter the building; after a certain date, you can't get in without the new. Mark the change with tangible and intangible elements to reinforce the desired behavior in all areas of the company.
  3. Dismantle the Old Infrastructure
    Don't continue to support the old business. If you've decided to let go of your router business, consider selling it, renaming it, or some other way of making it clear that things have changed in a fundamental way. Don't feed the old systems by providing them a large slice of the budget, mentioning them in company-wide meetings, or including them in sales off-site. They're gone -- bury them.
  4. Talk About the New
    With every meeting, there should be a conversation that acknowledges and brings the new product or department into focus. You've got to reiterate how important these new people, new roles, new products, or new processes are to bringing in revenue. Relate them to current operations; spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about the new. As a leader, you signal to your team what's important to you (consciously or unconsciously) by how much time you spend on it. If you tune in and talk about it -- the team will, too.
  5. Only Hire in the New Focus
    Look for people that match the new way of doing business, the new line of products. If engineering needs to regroup around Linux, don't hire lots of experts in Ajax or Perl. Make sure that every new hire extends your reach into the new space by providing knowledge and capabilities that will help you get where you're going.
  6. Reward People Based on the New Focus
    Compensation can sharpen performance. Salespeople in particular have an amazing ability to focus on their compensation plan. Use the plan to guide behavior so that your company reaps the rewards and gets the kind of results you wanted when you first determined what the new destination would be.
  7. Minimize Maintenance of the Old
    In the midst of a large change, it's easy to spend too much time and money on a product you're trying to move to life support. Determine the appropriate level of maintenance so that customers are taken care of, but don't spend a dollar more. Refer them to new models and services so that they migrate to what your organization is fully involved with.
  8. Create a Crisis
    Recently, an executive I know brought in Bain consultants to tell their board of directors why their current business has limited growth. The executive needed a third party to carry the message and signal loudly that the old business wasn't performing. This was a big company, but the idea holds true for smaller businesses as well. The board got the message because they saw the "suits" walking around holding meetings, which sent the signal more loudly than she could have done herself.
  9. Put a Process Behind It
    A process concentrates thinking and sends a subliminal message to the team that "this is valuable and it's here to stay." Make sure the team knows you think the new services offering is important by using a process for reinforcement. Eliminate support for the ad hoc methods that provide patchwork results. Stick with what's measurable and repeatable.

Your team certainly picks up what you say in meetings, on the phone, in e-mail, and over the course of the day. Additional input comes from what you do. Show people you're serious about burning the boat and taking a measured risk on that shiny new product, process, or initiative -- your revenue depends on it.



Nilofer Merchant, CEO of Rubicon Consulting, is a global high-tech industry thought leader and trusted strategic adviser for companies such as Adobe, Symantec, and VMware. She publishes and speaks frequently on strategy, innovation, and leadership.