Three Minutes That Changed My Life

In 2001, TOTAL, the biggest energy company in France, had invested $150M+ in building an innovative electronic procurement system that would save ten times that amount by consolidating thousands of suppliers and millions of SKUs (Single Keeping Units) into a single, digital catalog.

If successful, TOTAL would streamline their entire purchasing process and reduce their cost of transactions.

But instead of watching what should have been a sure thing, executives at the company watched with angst as the project sank.

Nobody knew why.

TOTAL hired me after two separate consulting firms tried and failed to rescue their project. They wanted to figure out what was wrong with their prototype, and I had a working knowledge of electronic catalogs, a completely new technology back then.

There I was, a barely 30-year-old project director, kicking things off with 15 senior executives from procurement and IT, in a large board meeting room of the company’s headquarter in Paris La Défense.

Thirty minutes into our first meeting, things weren’t looking good. Our conversation went nowhere. Everyone was tense, and people were arguing and talking over one another. You would have found less stress inside a pressure cooker.

They were out of hope and out of time. They needed this project to succeed.

That’s when it hit me: They were arguing because they weren’t on the same page. Each member of the project had their vision of success and what they needed to achieve results.

On a hunch, I handed out a sheet of paper and a pencil to everyone at the table and asked them to draw precisely how they pictured their project.

It was one of the most nerve-wracking 3 minutes of my life.

Consultants are supposed to come in with an action plan and get results. Instead, this felt like stumbling around in the dark.

But I knew I should trust my instincts. The executives at the table were skilled business professionals and expert engineers. They were way more experienced than me in business at the time. They had the expertise and the connections for their project to succeed. So why was their strategy failing?

I gathered everyone's sketches and posted them on the wall.

It was just as I thought: everyone’s vision was different.

Those conflicts at such a high level of leadership had nearly caused the project to collapse. This was a turning point for the project and the company.

In the next that followed, I continued to work with this client to get this initiative moving. Only, in a way that I didn’t anticipate.

I helped them build a strategic narrative that sold the project and the changes to everyone else in the organization. Then, with everyone aligned, we solved the technical difficulties that everyone blamed for dragging the project down.

But I was different. When I finished my contract with TOTAL, I knew that I couldn’t go back to solving issues the old-fashioned way.

From this experience, I learned a few leadership and strategy principles:

  1. First, your strategy is just as good as the ability of people to understand the same thing.
  2. When you feel stuck, turn the process on its head and first represent what the end-product, solution, or business process should look like.
  3. It’s crazy what impact a little bit of drawing will have.
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