James Allen: Founder's Mentality®—How and Why to Fight Micro-battles

As a company rapidly grows, it's all too easy to become lost in the complexity. To energize the organization and gain the benefits of scale, successful leaders translate their strategy into a set of micro-battles. James Allen, coauthor of The Founder's Mentality, shares how companies can take six steps to execute micro-battles and establish a functional agenda for sustainable growth.

Related article: Why CEOs Should Commit to Many Small Battles Instead of a Single Big One (HBR.org)

Read the transcript below.

JAMES ALLEN: Growth creates complexity, and complexity is the silent killer of growth. And so the issue is, how do I grow, remain an insurgent, but gain the benefits of scale and not get lost in all the complexity that comes out of growth? And this is where micro-battles become so important.

What we say is, then, what you need to do is translate the strategy into a set of micro-battles and then create a core team around them. So with micro-battles, we talk about six steps. Step number one is to define that micro-battle. Now, this is hard, because a good strategy comes away with must-win investment priorities, but those aren't really yet micro-battles.

And what do I mean by that? A good strategy will say, we need to win with product x in China. And that's clear. It's a huge profit pool, and we need to dominate China in that profit pool. But it doesn't say, what do I do next. So a micro-battle is saying we've got to win in China; what are the stores and channels that we're going to try to dominate early on in that; and how do we create a cadence of cocreating solutions with those stores so that our customers get the best possible product that we have?

So a micro-battle may be, to win in China, in our first six months what we want to do is dominate this channel by winning always in these stores where we know our target consumer will be. And that's the micro-battle we're going to fight.

Step two is then assign a team to fight that battle. And this gets interesting because you then have to say, okay, who are the core franchise players that are going to lead this battle? I want to give the front line ownership for the battle. So who are those people? Mary and John. Now, Mary and John need help in this battle.

But we have a customer analytics group at the center, an e-commerce group at the center. I don't want them at the center. I want them to help Mary and John with this battle. So we talk about embedding central resources. Now they're in the battle. They're not staff reporting separately, gathering information for the front line. They're staff directly supporting the people that matter in the battle.

Then you think about the other functions. Who do I need in supply chain that could help me? I want their name, I want them part of this battle. And then who is the executive committee member that will sponsor this battle?

The third thing is, what are the rules of engagement? I talk about empowering these guys. Lots of organizations talk about freedom within a framework. But what the hell does it actually mean?

Well, now I'm going to define it: How often do these guys need to report to the center? How much deviation from plan can they have before they have to come back and talk about what's going on?

Step number four is, now we're going to break that battle into 30-day cycles and we're going to review them. So every four weeks, you have to come back with the results on that battle that you're fighting. And the point is, we're trying to increase the cadence of the company, but also bring in a culture of a bias to action.

Then number five is, it's about learn, learn, learn. Now we've got all these battles being fought with 30-day reviews. What are we learning about what's going on? First, you want the franchise players to talk to each other. So we're recovering the lost art of peer-to-peer learning. How do we get people learning from each other again and talking about their experiences?

But also, we're learning as an organization. We're finding common patterns. So step six is, what are we now learning about our culture, what can we begin to change about our operating model, what is happening with the functional agenda?

Bob, you're in charge of supply chain. We've now run 25 micro-battles and not a single one of those teams is asking for your new flexible supply chain. Why is that? What is going on? Why is your agenda so at odds with what the marketplace needs? And now we can have that conversation.

The idea of micro-battles is to move vertically. Let's start fighting individual vertical battles. Let's get a cadence of winning in the marketplace and use the evidence of what's working and what is failing to begin to reset our functional agenda, reset the role of the center. But we're not doing it top-down in a horizontal way. We're empowering teams at a local level to learn and come up with what we need to do at a central level.

And what we found is, this is massively energizing for CEOs and leadership teams because it gets the organization moving.