Rewriting the code Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2008
 For Vince Burkett, 2007 was a year of not having a choice. After a series of acquisitions that brought five software companies together to form Ventyx, Burkett had 1,200 people and five ways of doing everything, and that needed to change.

“It was a challenge to try to create a way of doing business that was uniquely ours and behaved like one company,” Burkett says.

This was vital not only for the sake of Burkett and his employees, but more importantly, customers only wanted to deal with one point of contact instead of five.

While change was necessary, it’s not easy to get people to accept new processes and procedures, so before you can start, you have to first get buy-in.

“One of the key parts of the process is not to skip straight to the change and try to sell people on the benefit of the change,” says Burkett, who was named president and CEO in January after previously serving as chief operating officer. “Back up and establish why the change is even necessary in the first place, and really make sure you don’t skip past that. ‘Let’s look at the facts and circumstances, and now let’s look at the marketplace and what’s happening on the financial side of the business — can we all agree that an altered course is necessary?’”

Without a reason to change, people simply won’t. “If you go straight to, ‘This is the change we’re going to make,’ and try to sell the value without the recognition that, ‘Yeah, we need to change,’ then you get a lot more resistance than you would otherwise,” he says.

With a motive for change established, Burkett was then able to begin making the companies into one cohesive unit by aligning systems, constantly communicating and creating metrics.

Align the systems

For Burkett, the first step to driving change is to assess your infrastructure.

“Are you aligned in business practices and policies to support a one-company environment?” he says.

You and your management team have to look at everything from employees’ incentive plans to budgeting strategies to expenditure approvals. If policies support individual departments or segments, then modify or rebuild them. For example, if one part of the business needs help from another, are there barriers to sharing resources?

“It seems like it’s always easier to identify what the right answer is — you have to get this product out. The three best resources to do this [quality assurance] testing are over here. Let’s go get them and get it done,” Burkett says. “That part’s typically easy, but what you end up having to seek out is what are all the things that make that reaction difficult? Nine times out of 10, it’s internal stuff that we’ve put in place ourself to make that difficult, and those are the kinds of practices and policies you have to challenge.”

Once you’ve identified problems, then prioritize what to attack first.

“When you get into prioritization, look for those things that are most important to act like a common company,” Burkett says.

Then start working through them, but you can’t do it by yourself. “If you want people to come together from different places, then you have to have representation,” he says.

For example, Burkett asked representatives from each of the companies that constitute Ventyx to work together. For example, when it came to establishing an office dress code, with five different ideas of what a dress code should be, he told the representatives to go lock themselves in a room, talk it out and come back to him with a recommendation that would be best for the whole company.

Also, remember that different policies require different amounts of time, depending on importance and complexity — something like harmonizing health benefits might take six months, where the dress code may take a day or two. Sometimes the group may not reach a consensus, so be prepared to step in.

“That’s a process we’re going through with every policy — where we have gaps, trying to get decisions and some semblance of consensus made, and if not, somebody has to make that call, and I’m prepared to do that,” Burkett says. “Even if we can’t get consensus, before I make that call, I can certainly, at least, report that a lot of people understand how difficult the issue is and why a decision had to be made.”

Communicate change

When you have the infrastructure aligned, then you have to take your message of change to the employees.

“The single biggest thing we can do to synergize the culture is be deliberate about setting up communication points so people can get more aligned,” Burkett says.

First, make time for your people. “Immediately make sure that you get on the schedule and get in front of people’s minds,” he says.

Burkett scheduled forums with his people to communicate his message, which he says has to be simple.

“With complex products, you could build a message that’s complex and bold, but when trying to translate that to 1,200 people, you have to really appreciate and recognize that the message has to be something everyone can grasp onto,” Burkett says. “Keep things tremendously simple and don’t wrap them with buzzwords.”

Sometimes, you need to check yourself to make sure you’re, in fact, keeping it simple.

“Part of that translation and the test I would run is, do I think I could go to any individual and they could play back for me the message I delivered to them?” he says. “If there is a concern that there are too many words or depth, then I haven’t kept it simple enough.”

Burkett also applies another test to gauge whether his message is simple enough.

“The second test is, can people immediately translate that to an experience or reference point in their work?” Burkett says. “Simplistic is about something that can be internalized.”

Internalization allows people to buy in to the changes you are communicating.

“You want to at least give people an opportunity to say, ‘What am I going to do differently tomorrow?’ or, ‘Would I do anything differently tomorrow?’” he says. “‘If I were in the same set of circumstances in negotiating a contract with a customer that I was in yesterday, did I get anything out of this message that would guide me to do something different or to validate that I did it the way the company would want it to be done?’”

If your message doesn’t allow people to internalize, then it’s not effective and they won’t buy in, so the change won’t be successful.

“If you can’t leave people with enough definition around what does a one-company that operates on a track record of proven performance mean to individual decision-making when you’re out in the field, then there’s probably too much at a philosophical level as opposed to an executable level,” Burkett says.

“You have to have both. Certainly, you’ve got to talk about the philosophical principle around why is this important to us, and that’s got to be half the message, but then the other half has to be, ‘This is how we put that into practice. This is how we’re going to make decisions and present ourselves to clients and treat each other internally.’”

Be mindful that people process messages differently, so be patient instead of forceful.

“If you don’t respect the fact that people are intelligent and people have their own internalization process and have to work through the process, then you might get there by will of force, but you may do more damage than is necessary, and you certainly won’t create as much momentum,” Burkett says.

Lastly, it’s not enough to communicate your message and call it a day. After initially communicating changes, Burkett then scheduled follow-up forums.

“After people have heard this, they go back to their lives, and they go home for the weekend, and they’re on their drive home, and they start internalizing and thinking about it,” he says. “Questions come up, and clarification is needed, and different points of view are created.

“If you don’t have those follow-up communication infrastructures, then you miss the opportunity to have that reinforcement, that clarification, that exploration. ... It’s critical.”

Create metrics and get feedback

When you’re making changes, it may seem that you’re moving along, but it’s important to have metrics to ensure progress.

“The first place you look is, how’s the business performing?” Burkett says. “We measure our business a lot. All of those things are somewhat telling around, do you have traction around your business or do you have trouble points?”

Burkett says financial metrics are most important, so to ensure they’re met, he established “proof points,” — 15 to 20 things that, when he looks back at the end of the year, demonstrate that the company has moved forward in its one-company initiative.

“You know exactly what you need to hit in revenue and earnings and the associated underlying cost, but the thing about it is, there are different ways to get to those financial numbers, so the financial numbers in and of themselves aren’t enough,” Burkett says. “In defining our proof points, we said, ‘OK, in order to hit those financial numbers, what sort of outcomes have to come along with those that will result in us not only hitting those numbers this year but to have sustainable momentum.’”

For example, one of the smaller companies that constitutes Ventyx has a product from which a large client of one of the other Ventyx companies could benefit. In the past, that smaller company hadn’t been able to sell to the client, so a proof point is if it can sell this product to that client, it demonstrates strength as one unified company because it hadn’t been successful on its own.

In addition to objective metrics, you have to add a subjective, human touch to the numbers by getting feedback from people. Take questions and comments during communication forums. Meeting with your top management also helps identify issues because one manager may speak about something and others may add that they’ve heard it, too.

“If the feedback is pervasive enough, then you’ve got to at least consider that there’s something there,” Burkett says. “Recurrence is an indicator.”

When you get feedback, don’t just ignore it — do something with it.

“Be prepared to make course alterations based on feedback you get from people,” Burkett says. “As new data emerges, sometimes the nature of the change may manifest itself some. One of my obligations is to recognize that the destination of change may alter a bit from what I thought it was going to be, so I have to be prepared to be flexible when the circumstances and the data warrants.”

As more time passes, more evidence of successful change will continue to surface. For Ventyx, victories so far include centralizing administrative functions and marketing organizations and getting everyone on the same intranet system. Additionally, the company completed another acquisition in February, so Burkett recognizes he still has a lot of work ahead of him. Despite the challenges, he offers some advice.

“The first thing I’ve had to do, and anyone similarly situated had to do, is to resolve themselves that you don’t have a choice,” Burkett says. “It’s their job and obligation to see the integration and see the emergence of a single company all the way through. Yes, you’ll get fatigued and frustrated, but, at the end of the day, keep your eye on the principles that the clients we’re servicing, if they wanted to deal with five companies, we wouldn’t have had any reason to put these companies together. They want to deal with one company that does business in a common and productive way.” <<

HOW TO REACH: Ventyx, (770) 952-8444 or www.ventyx.com