“It is better to seek forgiveness than permission!”: what SBU leaders can learn from the amazing FiBras story…

by Didier Marlier on Sunday September 26th, 2010

I often hear well intentioned leaders blaming their circumstances (often called Executive Board) for the impossibility to run the business as smartly as they think it could and should be. Here is a story I came across during the month of August when working in São-Paulo. I share it as I find it remarkable, as much from the SBU’s leadership team’s side than from the Executive Board’s side.

FiBras is a Brazil based SBU from the French Specialty Chemicals group, Rhodia. A few years ago, for strategic reasons, it had been decided to prepare FiBras for any potential strategic move, as it wasn’t fitting the company’s strategic direction anymore.

As can be expected, some of the local managers expressed strong feelings about this: one thing is a rational, fact based and strategy-driven decision to be made remotely, another is having to live with it and keeping 1’200 workers motivated during the very unsure transition phase towards potentially “being divested”.

So, conform to the Kubler-Ross chain of reaction (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance), the FiBras leaders, were stunned, angry, then tried to negotiate with the Board, realized the decision was firm and decided to move on. But rather than moving on by choosing a victim’s attitude, letting others take their destiny in hand, they decided to take advantage of that situation to do something outstanding and different.

They first decided to create a powerful dynamic on top of the announced separation: they developed a real sense of union amongst their people bringing a “commando attitude” in the culture of FiBras: based on a strong Purpose (demonstrate how good we can be, either to Rhodia or to a potential buyer), the SBU became agile, fast and started to show results.

As a consequence, three amazing things happened:

– FiBras leaders were intimately convinced that the traditional “silo” organization was very detrimental to their purpose. However, being part of a much larger multinational, they knew that it would be an uphill battle to seek to change the central organization. So from the outside, FiBras continued to be organized in conformity with the traditional organization map. Inside, the picture was totally different. FiBras chose to truly put in practice what many preached but few truly applied in the Malcolm Baldridge, EFQM and other models, during the craze of Process Re-engineering: to be a process driven organization. In order to lower the functional barriers, all walls in the administrative space were torn down and people grouped in islands following their belonging to strategic processes rather than to departments. The pride of the leadership team is their “cockpit”: a simple boardroom but on three walls are large charts with plenty of indicators, monthly updated for the leadership team meeting, and they mainly refer to three themes: main financial results, external environment (customers and users), processes performance. The way the leaders use all this information allows them to very quickly have a global picture of the business, to understand all cause-and-effect relationship and to make decisions. All the indicators have been presented to the top 120 leaders of FiBras, invited by their first executive, in order to assure that all of them understand the impact of each person and each area on the main indicators.

– As R&D was centrally run and therefore had probably little time and resources to allocate to a potentially divested SBU, FiBras chose to very carefully listen to the market. A B2B business, they started to create intimacy with the end users, and in some cases ended up knowing them better than their own clients did. Becoming a true B2B2C, they developed carefully and selectively some new products which are now starting to gain very high recognition especially in the garment and sportswear business (intelligent fibers). Rather than blaming a then centralized corporate function, FiBras chose to put their money where their mouth was and came up with some of the most innovative products Rhodia has come up with in the recent years.

– Finally, as a way to support this move closer to the end user, FiBras wanted to test the social communication tools (Facebook, Orkut, Twitter, blog). Guessing that the corporate function may have had some apprehension and that the approval process may be too slow and demand too many concessions, they created an internet domain with their main product brand. In order to gain public recognition (in a similar way to Intel’s famous “Intel inside” tagline) they launched internet campaigns and competitions for people interested in fashion and sportswear to create innovative clothes with their fibers. The results were outstanding for a B2B chemical company. As an example, FiBras has today 7’500 followers on Twitter (at the same level than the top 10 B2C textile companies) and sports stars sign up to talk about their great experiences with the new fibers on Youtube…

Times have changed, and, during the recent convention of the top 300 leaders of Rhodia, FiBras were referred to as an example from entrepreneurship and out of the box thinking.

As the saying goes: It is better to seek forgiveness than permission! And I hope this tale of success will encourage many of us to take a stand, believe in our intuitions and find a smart way to become more entrepreneurial whilst respecting the fact of being part of a wider enterprise.

In amazing South Africa with Gerd Leonhard and his team of the “Future Agency” for our first “Disruption Experience” with a leading Telecommunication company, doing just the same: thinking entrepreneurial and out of the box. Have a great week all!

Didier

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2 Responses to ““It is better to seek forgiveness than permission!”: what SBU leaders can learn from the amazing FiBras story…”

  1. Thanks Didier for sharing this outstanding example! Beside other aspects, I find their “Intel inside” marketing strategy particularly interesting; may be compared to Gore-Tex.

    PS: I googled to find their website, Facebook page and Twitter account to know more, but had a hard time finding them since they operate on the web through their brand. If I may, Didier, and for those who are interested, here are the links (hoping Amni is the brand you’re talking about):
    http://www.amni.com.br/
    http://www.facebook.com/amnibrasil
    http://twitter.com/amnibrasil (7’500 followers indeed, compared to 470 for Gore-Tex…)

    Reply
  2. For those who lived the adventure from within, this tale telling is surprisingly precise and sensitive. As usual, we tend to move forward without looking back and forgetting all the way we’ve already made. Thank you, Didier, for giving us this moment for reflexion and pleasure.

    Reply

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