Prioritising objectives against a North Star goal to create digital transformation
How can companies prioritise their business objectives against a North Star goal, create mission groups and achieve digital transformation? We interview Isabelle Campbell, Commercial Finance Director at the Financial Times.
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Jenny Stark: Hello, and very warm welcome back to the FT Strategies podcast, bringing you the latest thought leadership about digital strategies in the business world. I’m your host, Jenny Stark, and in this episode we’re going to talking about mission alignment: how companies can prioritise their business objectives against a North Star goal, create mission groups and achieve digital transformation. Here joining me today is Isabelle Campbell, Commercial Finance Director at the Financial Times. Isabelle, thank you so much for joining us.
Isabelle Campbell: Hi Jenny, thank you so much for having me.
Jenny Stark: Let’s clear up a few basics before we start. Briefly, what do you do at the FT?
Isabelle Campbell: Well, I’ve been at the FT for eleven years now, and I’ve done a few different things all within the world of finance. I’m an accountant by background and my role now within Commercial Finance, which I’ve been in for about the last three or four years, is all around partnering the commercial side of our business. So I particularly look after our editorial department, our largest department, obviously where all our content is coming from, I look after our product and technology and data teams, as well as our events business and our specialist magazine titles. And then I also look after our global financial planning functions, so, that is pulling together the forecasts and plans of all areas of the FT globally to assess our short and longer term profit goals and how we achieve those.
Jenny Stark: Many companies struggle to align their day to day actions against their wider business goals. The FT does this quite successfully through its North Star goal. What’s the secret?
Isabelle Campbell: We as an organisation came to realise that our North Star goal was lifetime value, so LTV. This is really what we decided to unify ourselves around. Not just acquiring customers but thinking about how we can have customers that are fully engaged with our product that will stay with us and continue to pay the subscription for our product for as long as possible. We look at engagement a lot - how engaged our subscribers are, so how often they come to us to read our content, how long they stay on the site while they’re reading it and how much they consume while they’re there. We came to realise through data analytics that this is what really demonstrates the lifetime value of a customer. We decided that that was the thing we needed to focus on as our North Star goal.
Not just acquiring customers but thinking about how we can have customers that are fully engaged with our product that will stay with us.
It’s not so much what the goal is, but it’s the clarity around it because it helps you focus on what you need to do to get there, but it also helps you focus on what you’ll no longer do. For us it meant that the number of projects that we were working on across our teams - across our product teams, our marketing teams - it means that they need to be reduced so that we can focus on the biggest opportunities rather than having a spread of smaller things that we’re working on. This has the impact for people of sacrificing projects. You know, there are lots of passion projects around the business, things that are of local importance to teams, but instead when you distill what this North Star goal is, you can hold everything up against the lens of that and that common goal.
Jenny Stark: It sounds like this metric is like a magnet that aligns all the iron filings in the same direction, and the method for doing this is something you’ve mentioned in the past, called missions.
Isabelle Campbell: So, as an organisation we came to realise that in order to achieve our goals we needed to take a more unified approach to understanding what we as a business were really aiming for, and to really think about how we really intended to get there, making use of the investment funding we had available to achieve this growth. We have discreet departments across the FT, so I’ve already mentioned the ones I look after, editorial, product and tech, etc. We also have B2B, we have B2C, data, we’ve got finance and our support department. Within each of those departments we have different commercial and marketing expertise. What that means is that our understanding of our customer is really spread broadly across all these different disciplines. So when we were thinking about the things we wanted to achieve, we realised that really we needed to bring together all these different experts and all this knowledge that we had into multi-disciplinary teams to ensure everyone had the same focus and clarity. Clarify of what we were doing in terms of achieving the goals that we had. That’s essentially what we’re doing with missions - we’re distilling our North Star goal into smaller goals via these missions.
What that means is that our understanding of our customer is really spread broadly across all these different disciplines.
Jenny Stark: How exactly does the FT use missions on a day to day basis?
Isabelle Campbell: We have mission control groups. These are essentially different areas of the business. We’ve organised them into three different mission control groups. So we’ve got one for retaining customers, acquiring customers and we’ve got one which we call transform, which is all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes almost, to ensure that we are able to do that, so, the insight and the analysis and things like that. These groups work in quarterly goal settings. They will go through ideas, take some ideas into discovery, decide what the priorities are for a quarter. And that’s done, as I say it’s cross-functional, everyone needs to decide that something is held up against that North Star goal, you know, that lens, and says yes that does contribute to it or no it doesn’t. And then we have a process of going through and agreeing with our board members.
It’s cross-functional, everyone needs to decide that something is held up against that North Star goal.
So we set up what we call a Subscriptions Council made up of a subset of the board and they give regular reviews, which allows a forum for escalation if needed, and advice. So that might be an example of where a mission control group such as retain comes up with what they think is the thing that they want to focus on and take into discovery, but actually when they go into that review with the Subscriptions Council it’s decided that no, that’s not the thing that we want to focus our time, our resources, our effort on. And that’s where that group exists, to be able to help to snoop that out and assess why that might not be the thing to focus on, and help to pivot to something that’s more aligned with the strategy.
Jenny Stark: How do you create transparency and good communication to stakeholders and employees in the business?
Isabelle Campbell: The crucial thing about it is that everybody understands what it is and that comes from the top. It’s really important that we have people engaging in this and demonstrating that this is what’s important to us. So, we had a programme of education around what lifetime value was and educating people on why engagement is important. So it’s so often talked about when we have town halls with our chief executive, with our editor, we have commercial town halls and we have communication to people to understand, we have a part of our microsite that explains what lifetime value is and how it will impact different areas of the business. It’s really a culture thing as well, to demonstrate that this is important to the CEO. He recognises and demonstrates that this is where we’re aiming as a business.
It’s really important that we have people engaging in this and demonstrating that this is what’s important to us.
So, a couple of practical things we did around communication was having a newsletter. We were telling people what we’re doing - these are the missions, this is what we’re doing. And then just regularly communicating to people to say hey, look what we’ve done, look why this is a good idea. Also, demonstrating where things hadn’t gone so well and not being afraid to say you know, we’re learning from this, it’s an iterative process.
Jenny Stark: And presumably, having clear definitions is also very important.
Isabelle Campbell: We spent quite a bit of time doing definition setting when we started because there’s different definitions of when someone becomes engaged, or whether we’re re-engaging someone after a point of being disengaged. There was lots of practical things that we needed to do around ensuring everybody understood. It’s important to spend time setting that out and ensuring everyone was able to relate to a common set of definitions and knew where to go for that clarity.
Jenny Stark: What would you say to someone who’s trying to create digital transformation in a company that’s traditional and resistant to change?
Isabelle Campbell: It’s really important not to just impose change upon people, but to demonstrate why we’re doing it, and how those decisions are being made. So we’re very clear about what our hierarchy of decision making is and we’re very transparent about why this thing might not have been prioritised but this thing has been. It can be quite a culture shift to suddenly put the breaks on things where people might have had ideas and might have had free reign to start exploring something and actually now we’re saying, no, that doesn’t hold up against our North Star. That communication is so important. Just to foster trust as well I think, you know. People who are resistant to change can often be a little bit suspicious of it, so I think it’s important to acknowledge that.
It’s really important not to just impose change upon people, but to demonstrate why we’re doing it, and how those decisions are being made.
There’s usually, if you look for them, champions at some level in most organisations who will take forward and fly the flag of change so it’s important to try and find those people so that they can bring along those that are a little more resistant.
Jenny Stark: Lovely to have you, thank you so much Isabelle.
Isabelle Campbell: Thank you Jenny, it’s been a pleasure!
Jenny Stark: That’s it for this episode. To listen to more FT Strategies podcasts, or to find out more about FT Strategies, please visit www.ftstrategies.com.
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