By | Deepa Prahalad | Thinkers 50 | Design Strategist & Author
My visit to Jaipur Rugs will always stand out to me as an example of strategy implementation at work. It is one of the world’s largest producers of handknotted rugs, bringing together over 40,000 artisans from six states in some of India’s poorest regions. Their award-winning rugs are exported to over 40 countries (including a large distribution centre in Atlanta) and are regularly featured in magazines like Architectural Digest. In recent years, Jaipur Rugs has created highprofile design collaborations with international brands and Bollywood stars, and expanded its product line into other home furnishings. Many of the most beautiful and unique designs, however, are created and named by the artisans themselves.
While visiting two of the weavers’ villages, I was completely drawn into their world. I was shown how to create the knots and observed the collaboration and friendship among many of the women. As I asked more questions, several artisans pulled out sketches of ideas they had and asked for feedback. Two women insisted I visit their homes, showed off the new Western-style toilets outside their very simple (but spotless) homes and invited me to stay overnight on my next trip. The meticulous work processes and the social mission were on full display – as was the respect and familiarity between managers and weavers. Communication, ownership, accountability and pride were visible at every level.
Despite the vast amount of time and resources devoted to strategy in most companies, this remains the exception. Business leaders today face significant new challenges – they are expected to deliver financial results and demonstrate a positive impact on society. The sobering “strategy implementation” gap reflects in part the increasing complexity – and scrutiny – of modern organizations.
But it is more than that. The implementation gap is also a symptom of a deeper problem – a lack of trust inside companies and with society at large. While the narrative of business as a force for good has taken root, widespread cynicism and mistrust of business leaders’ motivations and ethics has grown as well. Surveys on global workforce engagement are discouraging in most industries. Companies cannot close these gaps with internally focused metrics alone. Explicit attention on creating transparency and inspiration is essential to boosting the success of strategy implementation.
Why transparency matters
It is a long road between creating a vision and actually bringing it to life. Therefore, transparency must begin with the strategy setting itself. Be clear about the problem you are solving and the impact of doing so. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small one, but it must be easily understood and seen as important. Many strategic visions have noble intentions and impressive teams behind them. However, the story on the scope of the problem is often so big that even good solutions can seem inadequate. People don’t believe that everything that they buy into can or should change the world. But they do need to see that it can do what it promises and how their lives will be better as a result.
Creating any new product today – whether for consumers or enterprises – requires asking for an unprecedented amount of trust. This can be more of a barrier than getting people to spend. Looking at consumers’ lives, emotions and behaviour means coming into contact with their fears and vulnerabilities as well. Companies need to spend time and effort to understand how to protect and deal with that information and communicate that effort to their networks. As technology has evolved, particularly, the most hotly debated issues are now ethical ones. Bill Gates wanted to “have every computer in the world running Microsoft software,” while Google’s blunt manifesto of “Don’t be evil” has now morphed into “Do the right thing.” All stakeholders must have confidence in the products and values of a company in order for implementation to succeed.
Furthermore, the statistics on successful innovation are not great anywhere in the world. Like people, companies need a community of friends to offer suggestions, call out missteps and help them change course and refine their offerings. Only trusted companies are likely to have this luxury in a crowded marketplace. The true value of transparency and emotional connections can sometimes be seen most clearly when innovation falls short. Samsung had an unexpectedly brisk recovery from its disastrous Galaxy 7 release in large measure because of the constant communication and timely compensation of their customers.
Great companies have always done more than talk about their products; they have put forth a worldview that shows people who they are. Coca-Cola, for example, has done a better job at delivering Coke to the far reaches of the earth than many governments have done at delivering clean water. No one questioned Bill Gates’ command of global health issues when he started the Gates Foundation – most were simply relieved to have his voice and resources focused on the issue. Inspiration can also come in the form of the narrative about personal motivations and passions of business leaders. This can be a challenge to reticent individuals, but this level of communication often allows companies to have a voice on issues far outside their own industry.
The issues that companies have set their sights on today require an unprecedented degree of collaboration. Delivering great consumer experiences today often means combining the capabilities of many companies. When it comes to business trying to address larger societal issues such as sustainability, security and poverty reduction, this trend is only amplified as NGOs, governments and citizens are brought into the fold. The ability to share and synthesize information across all of these entities demands that the objectives, methods, and code of conduct for all parties is widely understood.
Addressing the fundamentals
Although there has been some erosion of trust from recent scandals, anecdotal evidence suggests that consumers are quite forgiving. People understand that the world is becoming more complex, that companies are under constant earnings pressure, and that innovation is really hard work. The mistakes that are hard for companies to recover from are largely from poor conduct. Consumers are not looking for perfection – they are looking for decency. Transparency and inspiration come in the form of the many quiet decisions and judgment calls a company makes about its own values. It’s Apple saying that it will not accept apps for pornography. It’s SC Johnson going beyond the industry standard to be more open than required about the ingredients in its products. It’s the Tata group retaining every single employee and hotel contractor after the 2008 Mumbai attacks while the Taj Mahal Palace hotel was being rebuilt.
Many of the common challenges in strategy implementation – communication, commitment, and accountability, are rooted in trust. The focus on frameworks must be supplemented with explicit attention on creating transparency at each stage. I saw this in bold relief, looking at the beautiful finished carpets in the Jaipur Rugs showroom. Multiple women had worked on each carpet over a period of many months in their own villages, with very little managerial oversight. Any uneven knot was corrected right away. Everyone was empowered to suggest new designs and create. The product and the mission had become inseparable in the hearts and minds of everyone involved – founders, workers, and consumers. The success of the strategy implementation was not in achieving the original vision, but in far surpassing it.
About the author
Deepa Prahalad is a speaker, design strategist and expert on emerging markets innovation. She coauthored Predictable Magic: Unleash the Power of Design Strategy to Transform Your Business (2010) and consults for corporates and start-ups. Deepa mentors leading social entrepreneurs and serves on several international nonprofit boards.
Some portions of this piece are adapted from an earlier blog in the Harvard Business Review.