Musings from a past life on atelicity and building culture

As a former consultant, I’ve always been intrigued by the ambivalence that punctuates the conclusion of a consulting engagement: more than once my colleagues and I found ourselves caught between the exhilaration of having delivered ambitious outcomes and the melancholy of seemingly unfinished business. “Comes with the territory”, we’d tell new consultants less familiar with the odd blend of unsatisfying fulfilment. In professional services, consultants are placed to accelerate their clients on a path toward sustainable transformation; by design, once progress was being made, it was time to step back and return the client space to move forward.

For a consultant looking to break the cycle of highs and lows, the opportunities in data at reecetech are tantalising. Data has been the lifeblood of decisioning at Reece for years. Our branch network is adept at wielding their decision-support p̶a̶r̶a̶p̶h̶e̶r̶n̶a̶l̶i̶a̶ tools; much is made of how curated data enables our people to create tailored ‘Works For You’ moments for their customers. It’s easy to overlook a 100-year-old Trade retailer when contemplating organisations serious about technology, but across Reece there’s an understanding that embedding data in how we work is table stakes.

Consulting and delivering change from within are fundamentally different problems. When joining reecetech I was attracted to the impact intelligent data-use could have on shaping Reece’s next chapter. But I equally find myself deliberating how to construct a practice that can consistently drive real change for decades.

When every corner of Reece is up for innovation

At reecetech we have the space to imagine and experiment with how data and intelligent technologies will be deployed in ways not currently done — like fully instrumented cylinders that upgrade themselves over their lifecycle. And, because we are not a purely digital technology company, we’re presented the unique challenge of developing flexible data infrastructure that keeps pace with opportunities across both digital and physically operated domains.

Simply put, getting the right supplies to our customers at just the right time makes or breaks our customers’ business on any given day — the joint coherence and timeliness of our data takes on a different level of significance when intermingled with physical operations. It’s no use having all our source systems agree that we have 100 cylinders in stock if a quick check reveals that there aren’t any around. Our ambitions aren’t just limited to optimising our physical operations; as businesses seek to meet more of their customers’ needs seamlessly, we’re also exploring digital ecosystems that help our customers thrive. Supporting this agenda requires establishing a culture that empowers teams to bring about the innovation that will keep Reece at the forefront of delivering excellent customer experiences.

Photo by Michael Walter on Unsplash

Things that have a beginning needn’t have an end

A shift I’ve had to make personally is to see change from an atelic (i.e. without end) perspective, rather than the telic (i.e. with end) approach I’d become accustomed to. Think of a fitness bootcamp: many consultants are familiar with a “rubber banding” effect that takes place at the end of a professional services engagement — where an organisation snaps back from the heights of what a team achieved during the engagement, to somewhere between that and where they started. It is to be expected; because consulting is in many ways like a bootcamp with known deadlines at the contractual end of an engagement, teams push hard to meet those milestones. The culture (and rewards) underpinning the surgical-strike nature of such delivery teams often, is accordingly finely-tuned: performance-oriented, metrics-optimised and well-anchored on the time-bound, transactional exchange.

But for a company of our vintage that looks to evolve over the coming decades, delivering a feature in September instead of June is less consequential than it would otherwise be in a consulting engagement. And while no one celebrates a three-month delay, what truly matters for our teams is whether our people and customers are objectively and sustainably made better off by the things we’ve built. This places an emphasis on orienting our management practices toward building up the people that will deliver and support real change day in day out, rather than simply producing a string of deliverables on set dates.

Build them, and it will come

Building people up is both simple and difficult. What’s simple is that most of us harbour a common set of uncontroversial and noble aspirations: to grow, to learn, to contribute to others, and be recognised for our achievements. What’s difficult is creating the environment and cultivating the behaviours that allow each individual to genuinely fulfil their aspirations.

Sustaining a culture of building people up places demands on a leadership team’s behaviours, both large and little. Large gestures, like delivering on corporate promises — such as training funds, or title and salary bumps — are often hygiene factors that build trust in management and underpin a team’s belief that their aspirations can be met. But ironically, it’s the little gestures of a leader that speak volumes: do they make good their word to return your phone call? Do they speak kindly of others in their absence? Are they present in a conversation? Each nuance forms the basis of the narrative: does the leadership really care about building me up? A misalignment (in either direction) in the behaviours large and small breeds distrust, and conversely when these behaviours are aligned positively, teams feel valued and enabled.

Ultimately, culture is revealed in how consistently a team behaves over time, particularly leaders. Consistency is key — reflecting on the mannerisms of the people I have most admired, what stood them apart was the care they showed even when there was nothing to gain. In contrast, leaders who show concern only when they need something leave people feeling unsafe and second guessing the leadership’s motives. At its core, leadership is a discipline, and every member of a team can be a leader: what it takes is a willingness to repeatedly show up and make things better for others.

Matters of people and culture are rarely straightforward. Striving to build people up isn’t a panacea for every challenge. People have to be ready for the hard work of building themselves up too — sometimes circumstances, long-held beliefs, and ingrained habits stand in the way of progress. Sometimes, people just aren’t ready. Fortunately, Reece’s multi-generational values feed a uniquely atelic mindset at reecetech — it’s changed my relationship with unfinished business. The work of weaving intelligent data-use into our DNA is never done, yet the best part is witnessing every day the distance our teams cover.

Econometrician, always curious, loves growing people, and helping businesses use data. These days I lead Data & AI @ reecetech, but all views here are my own.