Let Go of the Dock: You Really Can Cross the “Line of Chaos”


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As a kid, I was enthralled by my father’s description of the "Crossing the Line" ceremony that is performed by sailors when they cross the equator. The photographs he showed me of the crew dressed as King Neptune, Queen Amphitrite and their court of Tritons presiding over the Pollywogs being turned into Shellbacks enhanced the mystique of that magical line that separates our world into north and south. Similar ceremonies are held when a ship crosses other international lines, as they were all special events for sailors who were away at sea, often for more than a year. A significant point on the voyage had been reached and it was celebrated.

In today’s demand-driven economies, supply-centric organizations are undertaking their own equally momentous journeys as they attempt to change from being a product-centric organization into one that is focused on its customers. But without a map to guide this difficult transformation, the half-way point can be as treacherous as the Bermuda Triangle. This is the point where so much functional but disconnected change is happening that the business becomes unstable. Far from celebrating passing the "Line of Chaos," change programs often sink without a trace as organizations scurry back to the apparent safe harbor of products, productivity.

When I described the Line of Chaos to a marketing manager of a global IT company, he said: "We’ve been to the Line of Chaos many times, but we’ve never managed to cross it. It’s as if we can’t let go of the dock!"

What is most surprising is that many companies attempt this kind of transformation as it if were a project, often connected with a customer management software implementation. That’s like buying a rowing boat, giving it to the frontline people and telling them to "go find Australia."

Changing from one kind of company to another is a significant undertaking, one that requires two key components.

Change of any kind is a risk, but change of this magnitude must be led from the front. Not just by words but by behaviors that are consistent with the aims of the program. Not only do good leaders have a crystal clear vision of where they are going, but also they can communicate that to their teams and inspire them to achieve it; permitting mistakes to enable everyone to learn.

If you consider all the aspects of an organization that need to change for it to become a new company, it is a very long list, too long for a single project or program to encompass. Change of this magnitude should be defined in a two-dimensional matrix, or framework, that defines what is to change and how it changes as the business transitions from one state to another.

Such a framework enables everyone to understand how to change the way each one does his or her job to help the organization make the transition a reality. But a framework does much more than this. It enables the management team to fully understand what is involved in such a journey, the milestones along the way, the decisions they need to make, the key change points and where they need to prioritize investment—and, perhaps most importantly, enable the team to identify owners for delivering each of these change components.

I worked with a cellular telephone company who wanted to make such a transition, as price and product were no longer sustainable market differentiators. The framework for change was defined and all the capabilities within it were assessed to see where each already was on the journey. The capability gap analysis was then used to define a series of change initiatives: IT projects, process projects, cultural developments, organizational changes and operational tasks—all underpinned by changes in the performance metrics.

The program was launched by the CEO at an offsite meeting for the top 100 managers and was supported and reinforced by his executive team and an all employee communication program. They key to its success was the review process. The CEO reviewed progress against the framework each quarter, celebrated the successes and resolved highlighted issues. Functional executives and project leaders also used the same framework to plan and review their own components. This helped ensured that all employees knew the company was serious about the change and they could make their own assessments of what they needed to do to help make it happen.

The cellular telephone industry is highly competitive and facing declining margins, as prices plummet. My client has bucked this trend and made increased profits through a customer-centric strategy that has maintained the loyalty of its high-value customers and the enthusiasm of its employees. That’s the great thing about a journey to paradise; once you cross that halfway line, there’s no turning back, because no one wants to.

David Rance
David Rance, CEO of Round, is a former customer care director for a national telco. Round is a leader in capability management models and software tools that enable organizations to align at their chosen level of customer centricity.


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