The Future is Agile

When he took over as CEO of Adidas, Herbert Hainer said his biggest challenge was to turn a supertanker into speedboats. ‘It is,’ he says ‘the fastest one who will win the race.’ I’m no megabrand CEO, but I agree – there are lessons in his statement for all of us…

For the past few weeks I’ve been talking about our focus on the customer journey, and what that’s meant for GDS International. Part of it has centred on the importance of communication. Another part has looked at how we need to change as a company to reflect that new focus. We need to be a tighter, more connected company.

We need to be agile.

This thinking is neither new nor exclusive to business. Charles Darwin said: ‘In the long history of humankind those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.’

Collaboration and agility require close connections. They blossom where different people with different responsibilities are united under a common goal, and suffocate in bureaucracy.

From supertanks to speedboats...

“…from supertanks to speedboats…”

That is where we are taking our business. Dedicated, multi-skilled teams closely connected with each other and our customers, and incentivised – as a group – to deliver products to (and beyond!) our already high standards.

This new way of team working is exciting, but it’s for nothing without a focus on the right products.

Jørgen Vig Knudstorp is a former consultant with McKinsey, now CEO of Lego. When he took over the company was in deep trouble – not because it was doing too little, but because it was doing too much. Jørgen turned Lego around, and summed up his learning thus: ‘in my experience, companies don’t die of starvation. They die of indigestion.’

Lego was spread too thin, and that is a very real danger for anyone and everyone with ambition. The warning lines are everywhere (don’t run before you can walk, eyes too big for your belly, don’t bite off more than you can chew) but… so is opportunity.

We are being realistic with our resource based on one question: how many products can we deliver brilliantly? That is the space in which GDS plays. We’re not a volume company; we’re a quality company. That hard-won understanding is at the heart of all our decisions today.

That is why every one at GDS must be connected to each and every one of our customers. That is why we must be agile. After all, as our operations director asked the other day, ‘if it’s not good for our customer’s journey, why are we doing it?’

We have had to make some tough decisions at GDS over the past few weeks in pursuit of agility – decisions we all understand, decisions taken for the undoubted common good. But that doesn’t make them easy.

Last week I had the unenviable task of letting a number of staff go. How do you tell someone they no longer have a role to play at your company? Even if you know the decision is the right one for the business?

Two of the people we said goodbye to have been with us for many years; others, no less valued, have made a big impact in a shorter space of time. Their contribution to the growth of the company has been huge, and I’m personally as well as professionally proud to have worked with them all. A few weeks back I spoke of the idea of an organization being like an extended family; I still believe that, which is what has made this so difficult.

I believe in the changes we’ve made. I believe they will lead to a stronger, better business – one that continues to offer opportunities for its entire staff. And one that is more focused, more connected and better able to deliver strong results – both for us and for our customers.

My heartfelt thanks go out to all that have contributed to the GDS story so far. But now it’s time to look forward to the next chapter.


About Spencer Green

Spencer Green founded GDS Publishing Ltd in October 1993 to specialise in industrial, government-led publications for the burgeoning Chinese market. The company launched over forty business-to-business titles, was name-checked alongside Tony Blair on China’s national news as ‘best for Chinese business’, and – following a move into India – deemed to be ‘of national importance’ by the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade. In 1998, GDS Publishing became GDS International and launched its first conference, Enterprise China. The hugely successful Enterprise series of conferences was rolled out across China and Latin America in the next two years. In 2000, GDS International launched its first Senior Executive Summit under the ‘Next Generation’ banner. This became the catalyst for nine years of 25% year-on-year growth... and 40% growth in 2010. In 2011, GDS held over 70 Summits for C-level Executives from a wide range of industries and across the globe, and eight digital marketing conferences. Today, GDS International is determined to become the world’s no. 1 business-to-business media and services company. It’s going to be an exciting journey! Spencer is married to Emily. They have two children, Finlay and Maya, and live in Bristol, UK.
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