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How small actions can lead to big results

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 15 Nov 2022

The principles of ‘everyday actions’ can transform business performance and help teams through financial challenges. Mitali Kelly ACA explains how.

Pie in the sky, jam tomorrow and wishful thinking are familiar concepts in the life of the chartered accountant. Prudence and professional scepticism are the weapons in our defence. After all, if it sounds too good to be true, it normally is. 

Ever-diligent ACAs and FCAs spend much of their time challenging whether the actions are in place to deliver the lofty ambitions and optimistic assumptions that are so casually tossed out by the corporate machines. So, what if we had a new methodology to break the big goals down into everyday actions and track the progress in real time – with visibility and accountability?

That’s the exam question that we set ourselves at the performance improvement and technology business Black Isle Group. We enlisted the help of the Olympic team psychologist, Sarah Broadhead. She coached the teenage taekwondo star, Jade Jones, to win gold in London 2012 and Rio 2016. So, what can we learn from how Broadhead and Jade achieved their audacious dreams?

First, Broadhead told us to focus on the process and not the goal. Then she said break it down into small achievable everyday actions and stick to them religiously. Successful people consistently do what others only do occasionally, she told us. Next create a coaching culture where there is constant review and clear accountability and visibility of how you are progressing.

In the lead-up to the London Olympics in 2012, Broadhead and Jones compiled a list of key everyday actions they would take each week. It covered what the teenage athlete would need to do around sleep, diet, stretching, strength, technique, and many other things to move towards her dream of winning gold.

A dozen specific actions each week translated into more than 50 small steps each month and more than 500 every year. Broadhead told us that by focusing on the everyday actions, they removed the anxiety of the daunting goal of gold.

At the end of each week, athlete and coach would review their progress and agree their next set of small steps for the following week. On this eight-year journey to double gold they were constantly being distracted by things that could push them off course or break the new habits they were embedding. But the everyday actions brought them back on task.

So, how does it work if we take that methodology and apply it to addressing performance in business, especially in the hybrid world of work? We decided to try just that. We set up a business improvement process focused on everyday actions, backed up with a technology we called ‘Nudge’. The technology helps individuals stay focused and keep track while providing visibility and accountability for bosses and their hybrid teams.

We started by working with teams to identify and create clear, simple big goals that they could all buy into. Next, we worked with the individuals to find the right everyday actions to help them deliver the desired results.

Each one had the Nudge technology downloaded onto their smartphones and PCs. The tech constantly worked to help individuals avoid distractions and stay focused on the everyday actions they needed to carry out.

We blended the Nudge tech with 10-week focused sprints. Then we gave everyone in the team a coach to recreate Broadhead’s weekly reviews with Jones. Hey presto, the world changed, and performance soared.

Take, for example, the managed IT and solutions provider, VCG. Following an acquisition, they were faced with the challenges of bringing together two teams and two cultures while coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. They wanted to accelerate sales, increase employee engagement, and try to achieve several behavioural changes across the business.

We brought the VCG team together to establish clear goals and to motivate and inspire them for their 10-week sprint. We worked with them to help create the right ‘everyday actions’ to achieve their big goals. We coached their senior leaders and helped them peer coach their colleagues in the business. 

We rolled out our Nudge technology so that the VCG team received daily reminders to keep them on track. This brought visibility – especially in the hybrid world – and meant they could track progress in real time. They described the reporting suite and the data they got from it as “gold dust”.

The results even took us by surprise. VCG put a stretch target on attracting new business into their sales pipeline and over-achieved that by 360%. Employee engagement went through the roof. They created a performance coaching culture, just like Sarah Broadhead and Jade Jones. 

The group head of sales at VCG, Jeff Wheeldon, said: “The numbers were superb. But the standout for me is seeing the inter-team coaching and support. That is what makes a team succeed together. Sales, marketing and pre-sales – all need to coexist for the success of VCG and the customer experience. There is no doubt this approach achieved much more togetherness.”

The team at VCG felt that miraculously they had aligned their culture, strategy and people.

Many business leaders are now realising that we need a very different approach to managing teams and maximising performance in the post pandemic world. This is essential in meeting the unprecedented challenges of the current economic climate and the new hybrid world of work. 

Instead of nagging our people, we need to nudge them. Instead of distracting them, we need to focus them on the small steps they can take every day to shift towards the big corporate goal. 

To do all that we need new thinking and new ways of approaching the age-old dilemmas of turning ambitious plans into reality. Imagine if we could lead this change in the accountancy profession showing others the power of everyday actions in our own firms and the benefits that our clients could achieve.

Dare we dream that with this kind of process we could see less pie in the sky, jam tomorrow and wishful thinking?

Mitali Kelly ACA is a portfolio FD and business consultant who works with the performance improvement and technology company, Black Isle Group.

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