Forward planning in the age of disruption – lessons from Patty McCord and John Harvey-Jones

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“Powerful,” by the former chief talent officer at Netflix, Patty McCord, came second on the Washington Post’s list of leadership books to read in 2018  – and it’s becoming an influential text about how to manage rapidly expanding businesses in an age of technological change.

There is much about the book which I agree with, and in fact it is a great read, full of personal stories –  but I want to take issue with one aspect. McCord argues that we are now undergoing a disruptive experience of technological change. Based on this, she contends that no company can look ahead more than six months and that long-term forecasting is virtually impossible in the current era.

McCord is not alone in this view, but it is one I don’t share. It reminds me of an ironic quote by the business leadership guru who inspired me as a young man, the British Industrialist John Harvey Jones. He said: “Planning is an unnatural process; it is much more fun to do something.” That hasn’t changed. It has always been difficult to focus on the future, but it is no less important today than it has ever been to do the detail on forward planning and business forecasts.

It may be easier to do this now than in the past. Is change really any more rapid now than it was? Moving into the computer age, the invention of the internet and the advent of the mobile phone were all major changes which involved rapid adaptation. And technology is not simply a disruptor – it can also help us to plan better.

When I started out in business 30 years ago, there was generally a back-office idea of historic reporting focus. That often led to a short-term and reactive view. But information technology is just that. It enables you to take all the information about the business, from sales to invoicing and analyze it, increasingly perhaps utilizing artificial intelligence. Using this kind of technology with discipline supports better visibility and more accurate business forecasts. These allow business leaders to focus on the road ahead. This forward-looking culture also provides a strong basis for hiring decisions and resource management.

Where business leaders are clear about what the strategy is and what success will look like, then they can work back from that and compare the current trajectory to the forecast to see if they are headed in the right direction. Tuning to the market and reading the road ahead are vital to harnessing the opportunities created by constant innovation in technology.

Netflix of course is a huge success story and has managed to brilliantly navigate the changing ways we consume our entertainment. The ‘Netflix culture deck’, to which McCord contributed, has become a fabled Silicon Valley palimpsest on management. McCord advocates “radical honesty”, promoting transparency and open communication with everyone in the business no matter what their place in the hierarchy. 

For McCord, what motivates people is the challenge of doing interesting work in a team of smart, committed people, and at the end of the day, fluffy initiatives dreamed up to “engage” them don’t really matter. The same goes for a lot of the policies and procedures organizations tend to accumulate – she recommends getting rid of them wherever possible.

Again, that brings me back to John Harvey-Jones, who, despite coming from a different era, would have agreed with a lot of McCord’s advice –he was all about letting people get on with the job, trusting them, having a flat, non-hierarchical structure and cutting back on bureaucracy. This was a message I took very much to heart.  My philosophy has always been Harvey-Jones’ quote that: “no-one goes to work wanting to do a bad job we just put so much red tape in their way that they give up trying.”

And, as far as disruptive change goes, Harvey-Jones was no stranger to that either. He had two destroyers sunk under him in the Second World War and was a spy in the Cold War before becoming a businessman. He had a show on British TV called “Troubleshooter,” where he criticized underperforming businesses and advised them on how to turn their companies around. Technology has changed but people haven’t – and many of the management challenges we face today have echoes in the past.

Plus ca change, as the French say. Every generation has its own take on the challenges of leadership. Technology and innovative ways of using it create constant change and readers will find much to interest and engage them in McCord’s book. But we can also learn from the past – let’s hope Netflix will soon be adding “Troubleshooter” to its list of box sets!

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