How distributors can stoke innovation and hit their growth goals by deploying teams of change ambassadors to spread the good word.
When the Greek philosopher Heraclitus uttered the words “change is the only constant in life,” sometime around 500 BC, he probably didn’t think we’d still be leaning on those insights more than 2,000 years later. Yet here we are, still quoting him and relating to a philosophical reality that’s relevant both in life and in business, where new disruptions are emerging almost daily.
Those disruptions are pushing electrical distributors to continually rethink and readjust their business models, knowing that the next innovation, idea, or customer preference could put their organizations into a tailspin. “Companies must continuously navigate an ever-changing sea of obstacles — cultural trends, technological advances, and economic shifts — and adapt in order to stay afloat,” Scott Watson writes in Chief Executive.
Citing adaptability as one of the most important attributes for companies operating in the digital era, Watson points out that prior to the 21st Century, major market shifts were rare and gradual. That’s since changed. “Today,” he writes, “disruptive innovations are as reliable as the changing of the seasons, and the corporate graveyard is rife with companies who failed to adjust to the times.”
Assessing some of the steps that companies have taken (or, that they can take) to stay above ground, Watson sees top-down sponsorship as an important strategy for organizations that want to keep innovating, growing, and thriving. “Establishing unwavering support for approved transformation projects from the very top of the organization is simply an absolute.”
Wanted: Unwavering Support
The question is, how can distributors establish that unwavering support internally, and in a way that enables continual improvement and innovation—and all without scaring employees, driving them away (especially in this tight labor market), and/or allowing the nay-sayers to derail those well-laid plans? Dirk Beveridge, founder of Chicago-based UnleashWD and author of INNOVATE! How Successful Distributors Lead Change in Disruptive Times, says staying adaptable and agile isn’t easy, but the extra effort can definitely pay off.
“When we look at customers, employees, the distribution marketplace, and the world as a whole, it’s absolutely self-evident that technology and demographics are changing the way we live, work, and play,” says Beveridge. “Organizations that refuse to acknowledge this are absolutely at risk of losing their relevance.”
The problem, says Beveridge, is that business happens to be pretty good right now, and distributors that have “done things the way they always have” are probably getting away with maintaining status quo. But what happens with that key customer goes out of business? Or, when that online competitor finds a new way to chip away at your market share? Or even worse yet, an economic downturn kicks into gear?
Any or all of these events can impact an electrical distributor’s bottom line, and can be particularly painful for the company that hasn’t been keeping up with—or better yet, staying out in front of—its change management strategies. “Businesses must continuously recalibrate and reinvent themselves,” Ilana Brudo writes in The 10 Best Change Management Activities, “whether it’s innovating the next product, taking customer intimacy to new heights, or driving operational efficiencies.”
That means continually looking for new initiatives and projects to launch in order to improve performance (employees, customers, and the company itself), increase profits, and boost competitive advantage. All of these activities should be supported by a strong team of ambassadors who 1) know the value of embracing change, 2) help drive innovation and new initiatives, and 3) help others understand why change is critical.
Comparing this exercise to the Star Wars franchise, Bruno tells companies to:
- Spot the rebel stronghold. “Rebellions are best nipped in the bud, just ask Darth Vader,” she writes. “Identify your most resistant employees then figure out what it is holding them back.” Some negative attitudes and “alternative facts” can spread like a virus in an organization, creating massive hurdles. “By identifying these common causes for resistance, you can then try to discern them, or alternatively, adjust the transition so that it accommodates the needs and demands of the resistant employees.”
- Embrace your change ambassadors. Look for early adopters, Bruno writes, by seeking out people who keep the latest gadgets on their desks and wear geeky t-shirts as their casual work attire. “These are the best ambassadors of change for you to recruit and embrace as leaders, sources of valuable insights, and spokesmen on your behalf in their teams and department,” she adds.
Taking that concept a step further, Beveridge tells distributors to find the people who would run through a wall for their organizations—those IBM employees who “bleed blue,” so to speak. Beveridge calls them the “loyal opposition,” and says they tend to fight the kind of inherent inertia that can bring organizations to a standstill. “We used to tell them to stop complaining, and to sit down,” says Beveridge. “Today, they should make up about 20% of your team; they’re the ones who can be recruited as change agents for your distributorship.”
Once you’ve pinpointed a core group of ambassadors, Beveridge says the next step is to look closely at the social, technological, economic, environmental, and political drivers of change in your organization. “Spend time feeling the pulse of the macro trends in each of those areas,’ he advises, “and really understanding which of those are making their way into your market and your business.”
Take social media, for example. A platform that some electrical distributors have embraced, and that others continue to shun, social is a real part of the average customer’s life (both on the personal and business side of things). It’s changing the way people relate to the brands they use and the companies that they buy from, and it has quickly spilled over into the B2B arena. “If distributors don’t grab onto that trend and start thinking about how it’s going to change their marketing and sales plans,” says Beveridge, “those distributors are going to be left behind.”
It Takes Follow-Through
To help get everyone (or, at least your change ambassadors) on board with social and other disruptive innovations, Beveridge says leaders have to transform into extreme storytellers who can articulate the “why” behind their motives. In other words, don’t just tell people that beginning Monday morning, everyone on the team is going to have to start doing things differently. Instead, show and tell them why these changes have to happen.
“If your team doesn’t feel that the world around it is changing, it won’t want to change,” Beveridge points out. “The key is to articulate a story that says, the world is changing in extreme ways, and that new external pressures are making their way into your market.”
Finally, Beveridge tells companies to come up with a coherent, strategic plan that helps to fuel the fire for this loyal opposition, while also helping to fan the flames out to the other 70% of the organization.
“Without a plan, it’s really just lip service that doesn’t work,” says Beveridge, who asks distributors how many times they’ve said, “We’re going to do this,” only to have that plan mothballed just six months down the road. “The key is to eradicate that history of not sticking it out, and instead focusing on how to achieve what you set out to do. Without that, you’re going to have a hard time driving change in any organization.”
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