Drumbeat as competitive advantage

Author: Miguel Van Damme

When multiple instruments produce a harmonic and cohesive drumbeat, it is sweet to our ears. We tap our foot on the ground. We clap our hands. When instruments follow different drumbeats and enter in dissonance, the sound is unpleasant, it’s a cacophony… The same applies to the different instruments of an organization: teams, committees, departments, etc.


The Drumbeat

The Drumbeat is the rhythm set by the leaders to an organization. It is the pace at which an organization breathes and grows.


A startup will typically have a “weekly” drumbeat. Priorities, products, roles & responsibilities evolve at that weekly beat. It certainly is chaotic. The truth is that a startup will change from one week to another. As such, startups outpace many of the larger competitors by their velocity of execution.


At the other end of the spectrum, large corporations have a yearly or even multiple year drumbeat. Employees have a “yearly” evaluation. Budgets are made up “yearly”. Et cetera. Many corporations now aim to change their internal drumbeat to stay ahead of competition. They approach it by implementing “scrum” – an agile work methodology that doesn’t fit at all the “yearly drumbeat” of corporate governance processes. This causes a lot of internal tension. The corporate decision-making processes (finance, HR, IT, etc.) aren’t matching the agile teams. It’s a cacophony.


Consulting Drumbeat

Consulting firms typically adopt higher frequency drumbeats, enabling increased client impact and accelerated people development.

  • Projects: Consulting projects have 2 types of drums. A weekly team meeting and a bi-weekly steering committee. Combined with an “output-mindset”, these weekly drums ensure fast and qualitative delivery of projects.

  • People Development: No yearly evaluation processes. Great consulting firms provide their people bi-weekly informal feedback, end-of-project feedback, as well as a more structured formal career and development advice every 6 months.

  • Processes: Consulting firms limit formal processes to staffing and people development. They keep it simple to ensure flexibility to respond to client needs.


Accelerate the drumbeat in a corporate setting

KBC is an iconic example of successful Digital Transformation in Belgium. It’s the typical case study in the country’s business schools. KBC managed in a few years to build an integrated omni-channel and digital model. Clients became important promoters. They love the fluidity of the services. KBC has gained market share and achieved record profitability.


One of the most overlooked aspects of KBC’s success is the internal digital transformation drumbeat. A rhythm that few other banks could follow. KBC solved the drumbeat issue by putting most digital transformation initiatives outside the main “tanker” organization, into small agile “speedboat” teams. The crew of speedboats were typically highly motivated people complemented by selected consultants. The tanker imposed a quarterly drum to the speedboats. The speedboats were working in “scrum”, demoing bi-weekly. Every 3 months, it was “corporate” showtime and the speedboat had to demonstrate output, progress. In between the demo’s, the speedboats were not dependent on the yearly drumbeat, they could make decisions autonomously, move ahead!

Other large banks took different approaches. They brought in agility at the core of the tanker by rolling out massive “upskilling” (aka agility) programs. The results were terrible. Employees who danced the yearly drumbeat for ages suddenly had to learn a new dance move. The corporate “top-down” processes however didn’t change. This dissonance resulted in company-wide depression syndromes and other burn outs.


The drumbeat imperative

As the digital and sustainable transformation waves are hitting all industries, companies need to significantly change their internal drumbeat to gain in agility and responsiveness. For existing large companies, a big bang approach rarely pays off. Think about launching speedboats instead and building slowly a drumbeat as competitive advantage.

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