A story of broken bottles..

Freixenet, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalunya

An interesting observation of the work I have been doing over the years in client environments, is that it appears that the same or very similar issues keep re-emerging time and time again. These often are issues that everybody seems to agree on that are materially impacting the effectiveness of the organisation. So, trying to address these issues is an ongoing challenge in the organisation. We see that, time and time again, new projects and initiatives are started to address the issues. External help is called in, ‘best practice’ (there is that word again) is attempted ‘to be implemented’ but the fundamental issues won’t disappear. These seem to be ‘very resilient issues’ (as one client called them).

‘Very resilient’, indeed.

Let me share a story. And this story involves broken bottles.

In one commercial client, there was a real ‘silo’ culture between the various ‘directorates’ (as they called them). This meant that a key part of their strategy, to have an integrated account management plan in place for customers, suppliers and regulators, was virtually impossible.

For years, having these integrated plans was a ‘top priority’. Somehow, though, it never materialised. Because “the way we interact with customers, suppliers and regulators is so different that no integrated plan is possible”. Not surprisingly, a lot of work -like information gathering, data provision and so on- was simply doubled or tripled or even quadrupled-up (if that is a word). An ever-increasing amount of meetings was being held, with ever-increasing numbers of participants to try to coordinate the delivery of the ‘top priority’. This resulted in very high operational cost, a lot of frustration and confusion and huge decision making gaps. But also different prices for the same products or services, a high variation in quality of delivery and on and on it went. Not good at all for a commercial organisation. Consultants were brought it every other year or so and wrecked their good reputation in the process.

Somehow this issue became engrained and an organisational reality. “This happens to be the way our business works”, became a mantra from the top of the house through to all that interact with customers and suppliers. And even those external players seemed to accept this reality. The consequence is that any attempt to change the organisation and make it more customer focused failed year after year.

But, no one ever asked the question anymore why the business happened to be that way.

My suggestion is that this type of issue is so difficult to deal with, because the overarching narrative is so engrained in the organisation that it proves to be very difficult to look at the issues in different ways. The narrative becomes a statement of fact. “Yes, we know that this is a massive issue, but –believe me- we need to find a way to change our organisation whilst accepting this reality”.

So, what can we do to reframe the issue? How do we achieve a breakthrough?

What I find very helpful in situations like this is to take the key players into a totally different environment. Not the office. Not another ‘off site’ in a local hotel or so.

In this example, we took a group of executives to a cava (sparkling wine) producer, near Barcelona in Spain. This was not a ‘workshop’, we did a cava tour!

This producer stores 150 million bottles of cava in six floors of underground storage. That is a lot of bottles. Since those bottles are under pressure, they sometimes explode in storage. You can indeed occasionally hear these loud ‘pops’ somewhere in the sea of bottles. This a well-known problem for sparkling wine producers.

These bottles are stored in ‘batches’ of 25,000 bottles. The batches are stacked in such a way, that if 5 bottles in a row explode, the whole stack is still stable. Once the sixth in a row goes, though, the entire batch collapses. It is difficult to overestimate the mess (and associated product loss and clean-up cost) that 25,000 exploded and collapsed bottles of cava create.

The cava producers solve those issues with special arrangements with the bottle manufacturers, that the suppliers will pay the cost if any 6 bottles in a row were to explode but at the same time work with all bottle manufacturers on bottle design.

In discussing the ‘fun afternoon’, the reframing questions here became: executives, what are your bottles, your ‘core product or services’? Can you see your silos, by any chance, as stacks of 25,000 bottles? And, how do you know that any 5 bottles in a row have exploded (your service breakdowns?), what is your ‘pop’? And, what is your sixth bottle? And how do you know this is it? And what processes and conversations for ‘bottle design’ do you have to put in place within your organisation to avoid this from happening?

It is interesting to see how changing the language from ‘risks’ to ‘bottles of cava’, ‘directorates’ to ‘stacks of bottles’ and ‘delivery processes’ to ‘bottle design’ changes the perspective and how then new options emerge.

In the end, totally unexpected new solutions were identified. And, as a by-product, the organisation now still talks about its products and services as ‘bottles’, service issues as ‘pops’, their directorates as ‘bottle stacks’ and their key business processes as ‘bottle designs’.

Do you have experience in creative reframing? And, did it work? Did the new metaphors stick or not?