Melinda and Coke
July 14, 2012 1 Comment
Recently I heard a TED talk by Melinda Gates, of Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation. Melinda looked at the operations of Coca-Cola, which if replicated in the field of development, would drive change and realize the Millennium Goal targets. This could eventually eradicate poverty from the world. A very laudable objective, even though she used Coke as an example, whereas I am partial to Pepsi due to my past affiliation with the company.
Melinda’s theme was that Coke’s standard operating procedures (SOP) be replicated at the implementation level, with focus on three key components: using systems that incorporate real time data, using entrepreneurial talent and spirit and last but not the least, marketing to address the happiness aspiration in the context of local culture.
Melinda Gates is an icon. One hopes both she and her equally iconic husband succeed in their mighty goal of eradicating poverty from the world. Along with Warren Buffet, they will hopefully be a great example of how to return what is earned to the needy.
So where is my beef in all this good work?
Over twenty eight years of working in several MNCs and iconic organizations, I have been taught that for something to be successful at any level, we take a certain logical course. It involves the following four elements, in various shapes and forms: Vision, the purpose and the goal; Concept & strategy, as they say, “the big picture”; Implementation, actual middle level management; and execution, doing it right at the work force level.
Vision is a no compromise situation. No vision will always result in failure. You might get a flash in the pan short term respite, but over the long run, a vision is needed to sustain success.
Concept and strategy would look at the playing field from outer space, deciding if the shape of the effort will fit the playing field. Strategy does not worry about potholes and patches, it concludes whether the fit is there at all. Once correctly fitted, you can make changes based on operational feedback, while remaining directionally grounded. Many large companies have failed at this stage. Wrong concept can lead to death, though often you can repair it through timely action.
Implementation is done by expert operating guys. They know the nuts and bolts and their resource capacity. They will form systems and implement through the mire of day to day management. There are thousands of these middle level managers in Coke and many other consumer companies. I myself was such a manager some 20 years ago. The magical mechanic! Things should never fail at this level. The error spread is small. Very rarely catastrophic stuff like Fukushima nuclear plant or Bhopal leakage can be attributed to implementation. Rare! The spread of error is repaired by a revision of system or by changing personnel.
Lastly, doing right! This is where the foot soldiers, the sales, production and system guys play their part. They labor un-ending! One needs to inspire them to do their back breaking work, which is largely a human resource function. They are very important, but a good organization must make them effective.
So where is Melinda pitching herself in her talk? Well, to my eye, she is slap in the middle of implementation and how it’s going to save the day. I am actually a bit taken aback. She is touching on areas, which are core to millions of managers much better suited for the role. Melinda’s strength would be providing a vision and maybe a concept. In my opinion, she should not be drifting out of that area, as that is where the developmental battle will be won and lost.
I would also advise against using Coke as an effective benchmark to her purpose. Those ‘implementing’ at Coke are successful, career driven, high earning and upwardly mobile young managers. In developmental sector, you will always get the Abdus Sattar Edhi or many others driven in their own right. I have a friend like that who works in strange regions of the world. But this level of motivation and inspiration does not just happen, if you look at the bell-curve.
Secondly, organizations like Coke are driven by the profit motive. That is nature’s way. This is where more philanthropically inclined organizations are fundamentally different. Surely the same principles of hard-nosed, no nonsense environment cannot be applied there.
My advice to Melinda would be to go back to the drawing board. Craft a way to motivate those driving developmental work, without a profit motive or a high profile career – get the concept right. That may not be easy, but hopefully with the clever people at her disposal, she may achieve it.