Some would argue that in business the power has shifted to the customer. What role if any does the humble project have to play in helping organisations adapt to the ever-changing yet customer centric world we now live in?
Henry Ford was an indomitable entrepreneur who understood how to create markets before there were any. As a captain of industry and a business magnate, the founder of the Ford Motor Company became a driving force behind what became the assembly line technique of mass production.
He understood that mechanising processes, ensuring that it was linear in nature, incremental in each step, and component-driven could produce a high-end product with consistent look and feel, as well as quality. He also understood that it was possible to build a market for his motor car and set about doing so.
Many organisations used Henry Ford’s so-called ‘blueprint’ to develop organisational structures, leveraging his knowledge to mass produce a homogenous product (or products) of quality, using well-defined and end-to-end processes and structures to develop their own assembly lines with minimal human effort.
As he once said:
“Any customer can have a car painted in any colour that he wants so long as it is black.”
– Henry Ford, 1909).
Basically the producer dictated the outcome for the customer.
While Ford may have provided the blueprint that so many organisations have followed, we are rapidly moving into a very different era on the customer journey. Ever-changing needs fuelled by technology and high expectations for innovation has shifted power away from the corporation of Henry Ford’s era to the consumer. But is it changing the way our organisations are structured and managed?
And what role does the humble project play in keeping organisations ahead of the curve?
Reliable, Repeatable, Measurable, and Certain: Our Structural Consistency
For more than a century, global organisations have relied on manufacturing processes that were organised into reliable, measurable, repeatable and certain processes that delivered consistency. Manufacturing organisation naturally extended to other organisational structures that sought centralised control and consistency as well.
The organisational chart appeared pretty quickly, visually depicting a command-and-control type of approach to governance and quality control, with those higher up the tree given more authority.
What characterised much of the early 20th century was customer demand exceeding supply, enabling organisations to define how the products looked, felt, were experienced, and what attributes customers could have access too – or in Ford’s immortal words: Any colour so long as it’s black.
Agility by a Different Name
Following World War II, a different kind of structural evolution started to take shape and shifted organisations toward a more decentralised model, where decision-making was delegated to smaller, more autonomous units instead of a central control.
Smaller organisations were able to gain an advantage over larger ones in the post-industrial economy, as they were quicker to respond to change and were more dynamic in how they did so. It enabled them to react to customer demands as they changed.
The boom of the 1950s shifted a lot of manufacturing and business. Leveraging armed forces operating models that had been successful in the war smoothed the way for organisations to break into smaller, focused units made up of specific skills and goals – (think platoons, squads, or units). Over the next fifty years, consumerism became the norm as organisations created largely homogenous product lines that customers had to choose from what they were offered, to a large extent.
But in the 2000s, the worm well and truly turned from organisations dictating to some extend what the customer could buy to the customers defining what the organisation will provide.
A Hyperconnected, Personalised World
We are in very different times to those of our parents and grandparents. We are now living in a hyper-connected, personalised world characterised by tech savvy, on-demand services with near-instant gratification that is expected by customers to define their experience, however that may look.
Today’s market disrupters are taking on industries that have been founded in traditional structures and previously dominated by a few who either didn’t move fast enough to personalise their brand (either unable or unwilling).
But it’s not just about products; it’s about platforms, technology, and understanding the mind of the consumer. Uber is a classic example of identifying the needs of its users and building the service around those needs.
Disrupters Driving Increased Project Activity
But what does this mean for the consumer and the organisation, not only in how the assembly line now supports personalised demand, but also in how an organisation must shape itself to deliver to customer needs, especially in service industries? Organisations now have to come up with strategies and tactics that enable them to appeal to individuals who have grown up expecting immediacy and instant gratification.
Global organisations are moving away – by force and by disruption – from the traditional static and siloed hierarchies and a steady state of BAU with line mangers rewarded for keeping the lights on. There is a definite shift in play as more organisations seek to become more dynamic and adopt greater agility, both in how they work as an organisation and in how they meet their customer’s needs and demands.
Businesses are attempting to shift towards a proposition that supports creating and sustaining value in an ever-changing market and this also requires the business agility that high levels of targeted project activity deliver.
Sustainability is the Key – No Matter What Your Project
Whilst new, optimal organisational structures continue to shape up and roll out into organisations, we feel it is imperative that an organisation considers the critical elements that will enable a business to not only successfully deliver projects to keep ahead of the consumer curve, but remain sustainable through this and into the next era.
If we asked our old friend Henry Ford he might have already given us the answer:
“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself”
Management has to Evolve as Much as Business Structure Does
So what is changing then? Management techniques are evolving to support organisations that want to meet and manage consumer and market-changing expectations. For example:
Collaborative leadership: Collaborative leadership is focused on the leadership skills that exist across functional and organisational boundaries, ensuring that people can move forward together, where everyone can engage with anyone to deliver on a shared vision. Elon Musk is a proponent of the lack non-hierarchical communications , but it may not work for everyone, particularly where an organisation has not built the kind of structural scaffolding that enables flat hierarchies in management.
Organisational Agility; In addition to the drive toward a more collaborative leadership is the idea of organisational agility – the ability to bend, flex, scale, change, and do so cohesively. A key to achieving this agility is the increasing use of projects to get business outcomes and the fail fast ethos of delivery methodologies like Agile.
Customer Expectations and the Ability to be Agile
Personalisation is a vital part of marketing and selling to today’s customers, as new generations of consumers make very different decisions about how they buy and why. Personalisation is a significant part of the experience they have as consumers and it will continue to drive how organisations adapt to meet their expectations.
This is not something that Henry Ford had to grapple with. He had a handle over his customers and build his business accordingly. Most organisations these days face very different business conditions.
Our perspective is that he would have grasped quickly the concept of business agility and invested heavily in a collaborative but decentralised management structure that empowered the business through projects to keep pace with changing consumer demand.
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