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How to deliver lasting change

Mary Portas Channel 4If you were watching Mary Portas earlier this week, you might have imagined that all you need to do to turn around a high street, is to follow the standard TV formula for a small retail business: find their niche; clear out the crap; make it look great; then have a launch party.

But scratch beneath the surface and what was really achieved? A relocated bench; a couple of new food stalls and the promised recruitment of a Market Manager. All of which owed more to the influencing power of a camera crew than a genuine commitment to any change. It was a huge missed opportunity. So why did so few of the changes that Mary envisioned, actually happen?

Three reasons: the local leaders had a cameo role; few of the really big issues were addressed; and the people on the shop-floors weren’t remotely engaged with the change. Despite repeating several times that the high street should be treated as “one, single business”, Mary singularly failed to do that. Here’s what Mary should have done:

Leadership: You can’t sustain change without consistent leadership. Roman Road needed a committed team that joined together the three moving parts of the “business” (retailers, residents and council); a team that had the accountability, capability and desire to deliver real change; a team that shared a vision and had an agreed plan of action. By talking to all the parties separately, and directing all the action herself, Mary guaranteed that the moment she stepped back from the action, everything would grind to a halt. Are all of your team committed to driving the vision without you constantly cracking the whip?

Big Issues: Mary tackled just one of Roman Road’s big issues: positioning. It served a declining, unprofitable demographic, even though the population had changed to a more affluent, up-market one. But there are other big issues facing high streets. Business rates make them unattractive for retailers. Parking charges make them unattractive for shoppers. Can a high street succeed without addressing these? Possibly. Would it make a massive difference if they were addressed? Absolutely. Maybe they’re in the “too hard for TV” box, but unless you face into, and tackle, each of the big issues facing your business, they will forever hamstring your plans. You don’t need to face them all at once, but you do need to face them. Do you know what your big issues are? And will your plans address them?

Engagement: Roman Road is a fragmented organisation made up of strong, independent individuals, whose first priority is their own patch - not unlike a lot of large businesses. And to create any big change in an organisation like that, everyone needs to believe three things: we can’t carry on as we are; there is a much better future; we can only get there if we all step together. Mary was asking dozens of retailers and stall-holders to make a leap of faith: to reposition their offer upmarket; turning their backs on what they knew and walking away from traditional customers; to push through the dip, in the knowledge that new, more affluent customers would emerge to fill the gap. That’s a lot of belief to expect to come out of a few, snatched conversations.

Getting people to change their beliefs and behaviours is a huge undertaking. It needs time, commitment, continual dialogue and serious encouragement. What are the beliefs and behaviours your people will need, to push through the pain and deliver your vision? And how actively are you and your team fostering and cultivating them?

BOTTOM LINE:  High streets are like a big business, which means there will rarely be one “quick fix”. If you want to make change happen, there are three things you have to do: allow your leaders to shape and own the strategy; tackle all of the big issues head on; and continually engage all of the people to work towards a shared vision for their future. Only then can you hope to make a lasting change.

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