I’ve heard many executives and consultants talk about the importance of training and motivating front-line employees in order to improve the customer experience. While I agree that having highly engaged, well-trained, and motivated front-line employees is important, it is very far from sufficient.
In this post, I will make the case that focusing on front-line employees is generally NOT the most important place to start if your goal is to significantly improve the customers’ experience.
In order to make this case, I’m going to refer on one of the most important lessons from military strategy. In the early 19th century, Prussian military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz introduced the concept of the Center of Gravity (CoG) of any strategic system (e.g., political, military, or organizational system). The Center of Gravity describes a system’s most critical sources of strength; the elements that are most influential for stable and successful operation of the system. The optimal military strategy is typically the one that achieves well-defined objectives by attacking the enemy’s “system” at it’s points of maximum influence or vulnerability.
Col. John Warden, ex-Commandant of the Air Command and Staff College and chief architect of the Desert Storm air campaign, has argued that the Center of Gravity of any strategic system consists of five concentric components — leadership, system essentials, infrastructure, population, and fielded forces. (See: Reining in” the center of gravity concept – Features – US Armed Forces, Air & Space Power Journal, Summer, 2003 by Antulio J. Echevarria, II). This can be shown as follows:
From this perspective, attacking the enemy’s field forces has relatively minor influence versus attacking leadership, essential resources, or communications infrastructure. Instead, Col. Warden’s has argued for using airpower to simultaneously strike at each system component thus overwhelming the opponent and irreversibly shifting the state of their system. This was a key to the success of the Desert Storm air campaign.
The central lesson is that systems change when their centers of gravity change. The experience that customers’ have with any organization is driven by the emergent behavior of a complex organizational system. If you consider the center of gravity of a complex organizational system it looks something like this:
If you want to shift the behavior of an organizational system, front-line employees are actually the furthest component from the organizations’ true Center of Gravity. However, the most critical components of the organizational system are:
- Leadership including the aspirations, capabilities, and beliefs of the executives, as well as, the something called the operating state of the organization. Operating state establishes the context for how the organization works together and includes four dimensions: Power, Identity, Contention, and Learning. Note: Operating state is described in more detail in the post: How Employee Experiences Drive Organizational Behavior?
- Power. Do people have the sense of possibility and the power to accomplish what is important to the organization… and to them?
- Identity. Do people identify with the mission and the commitment of the organization as a whole or do they identify more narrowly with their function or department?
- Contention. Can people deal constructively with disagreement? Can they face up to breakdowns, build alignment, and move forward?
- Learning. Are people open to learning about the changing needs of customers, real strengths and weaknesses versus competitors, and ways the organization must change in order to continually improve the experience
- Unwritten rules that drive the real behavior of the organization independent of the espoused ideals and formalized processes and systems.
- Management systems that define how the organization measures, manages, and rewards performance, as well as, how priorities are determined and resources allocated.
These most central elements create an environment within which processes and technology, along with front line employees and supervisors come together to deliver service to customers.
Most systems are surprisingly resistant to change. Unless these three components that are close to the Center of Gravity are addressed in a coordinated and holistic way, I would expect that efforts to train, motivate, and engage front-line employees will lead to marginal results. As Col. Warden has emphasized, shifting the state of an organizational system requires a coordinated, simultaneous intervention on each of the concentric components.