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January 31, 2014
A different playbook for digital
By: Mark McDonald

Every company has a playbook in one form or another. A playbook contains the strategies, approaches, programs, actions, etc., – the ‘plays’ that the company executes in its operations. Playbooks can be formal documents called playbooks, but they are also business process workflows, standard operating procedures and cultural values that shape a consistent response – the play.

A playbook reflects a plan; an approach or strategy defining predetermined responses worked out ahead of time. Sales and customer service are common areas where playbooks shape service. A playbook works in a predictable environment where it is possible to clearly sense and consistently respond to stimuli.

The challenge with a traditional playbook is that the digital world is too much of a competitive, dynamic and customer driven world to work well with static strategies. Leadership teams need a different type of playbook in response to dynamic digital competition.

The idea of a playbook is not new but the nature of the playbook is changing. While every sport has playbooks, most corporate playbooks follow a NFL football cadence with individual plays that start, ploy out, then stop to reset the players and respond to the situation.

NFL football is a great metaphor for the competitive landscape of the industrial economy. The focus in that environment is on positional excellence, coordination, divisionalization and execution. Similarly other sports like gymnastics, track and field, skiing and golf live in the realm of individual performance and set plays. These things are important in the digital world, but the technical means have changed and so should the metaphor.

Digital is a continuous contact sport

Different sports require playbooks that reflect their dynamics. The same goes for companies. The digital world is more akin to soccer, basketball, water polo or hockey than a NFL game. Flow is critical in these sports. Play is continuously transitioning from offense to defense. Perfection is less the goal than execution, successful innovative and determination.

Consider the area of customer service. Traditional customer service playbooks – aka scripts – predefine the service experience through a series of ‘if – then’ conditional statements. Scripts serve a purpose; they reduce variance, raise service quality and service efficiency. But consider the customer service plays executed by companies like Nordstrom’s or Zappos. Rather than holding personnel to predetermined scripts, the customer service plays are a set of values that define expectations and ethos for service. The results of the different plays are clear.

The team with the best coordination, communication, collaboration and engagement usually wins because there are always multiple ways to score at any time and in any situation. Compare that with other sports where individual performance in isolation is the measure of success and you get a sense of the differences related to being digital.

Characteristics of a digital playbook

Change the sport and you change the playbook. The same logic applies for a business playbook. Leaders looking to ‘be digital’, as opposed to ‘feel digital’, recognize the difference including a different playbook. While there is no single digital playbook, there are characteristics of plays that take digital competition into consideration. Those characteristics include:

  • Expanding the rostereveryone is a player on the digital stage and therefore everyone plays a part in your playbook. Customers, workforce associates, suppliers, intermediaries, third parties, leadership, boards all are people who can play a role in digital success. The company with the broadest view of their players by definition has access to more capability and capacity than peers who restrict their vision of who matters to their success.

  • Applying simple plays to more than one situation – traditional business rewards specialization, digital performance requires simplicity. It is better to have a few simple plays that you use in multiple situations than always having to call in the special teams. For example a major bank had different approaches for opening accounts, in part because of regulatory requirements. Creating two plays to do the same thing drove unnecessary cost and complexity until they were replaced with a single play applied to multiple situations.

  • Focusing on information orientated plays – plays based on information are more adaptable and digital than process/rules based workflows. It is surprising how often we have to change the process rules, but how little the information changes. Concentrate the playbook on the information required to recognize when a play should be engaged, which play to engage and who to involve.

  • Recognizing the requirement to improvise – no playbook can possibly contain every possibility and permutation so why bother? Organizations need to formally recognize that front line staff call many of their own plays – operational audibles that result in compelling experiences and make interesting jobs worth doing. Eliminating discretion for either one relegates customers to being ‘walking wallets’ and the workforce to being just another resource input. Neither is desirable in the digital world.

  • Democratizing the playbook – engage the workforce in defining future plays as they have the first-hand experience needed to create and sponsor meaningful change. Social media often plays a role in recognizing and popularizing ‘proven best practice.’ After all, whose advice do you trust more, a peer who says that this worked for them or a system that says this should work for you?

These characteristics describe a playbook reflecting the dynamism inherent in the digital world and the information intensive realities of digital success. The playbook becomes more of a guidebook, a way to shape judgment, values and culture.

Set plays and tight rules have their role in the digital world, and often these plays can be set in systems that are the foundation of operational excellence. But where do you go from there? In the digital world the ‘there’ is creating a distinctive and creative customer experience – an experience based more on plays found in the NBA, NHL or FIFA than the NFL.


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