Vena CCO Debbie Lillitos over a grid background.

Q&A: Culture is Critical to Integrated Planning

May 20, 2020 Evan Webster  
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Integrated planning requires open communication, cross-functional collaboration and alignment between stakeholders towards the same strategic goal. But if your culture doesn’t support teamwork, effective integrated planning will always seem like a challenge.

There are few corporate leaders who understand this concept better than Debbie Lillitos. As Vena’s Chief Customer Officer, Debbie is responsible for the overall success of Vena’s customers, a role that requires her to collaborate every day with stakeholders across the business—from sales and marketing to services and customer support.

We caught up with Debbie for a quick recap after her Vena Nation keynote to find out more about the important role company culture plays in facilitating a successful approach to integrated business planning. Here’s what she had to say:

What does culture mean to you?

For me, culture is a set of values and principles that guides behavior at an organization. Over the long term, these behaviors create norms and assumptions that influence how people communicate and treat each other. It’s also about how they treat their physical spaces, how they represent themselves, how they represent the brand and the personal policies that guide their professional interactions. It’s multifaceted for sure, but that’s how I think about culture.

Here’s an example: At my last company, we’d just acquired this new customer in the U.K. and they flew me over to meet them. I remember being awestruck after stepping into their office because it was immediately apparent to me who they were and what their culture was all about. The energy in the office, the way everyone interacted with me and the general feeling of the place was all just so electric. They had these spaces that were dedicated to innovating new product offerings, and it became very clear that innovation and embracing change were a big part of their culture. It’s like a thread that runs through the fabric of the entire organization.

How do you build a culture that supports innovation, collaboration and agility?

It starts with a management philosophy that engages employees. You need to speak to people in a way that opens their hearts and minds, gives them the freedom to try new things and encourages them with the intrinsic motivation to succeed. You have to expect that people are going to show up and deliver, learn from each other and collaborate in a positive way. This creates a relationship that is predicated on trust.

When you do that, you end up with a culture that is driven by innovation and one that’s far better equipped to embrace change. This is vital because there’s often some friction associated with change—and business planning in our world right now requires a lot of it. 

If you’re trying to adapt your business within a culture that’s resistant to change, it’s just not going to work out very well. I do think that a corporate culture of innovation, agility and adaptation can be learned at an organization, but it starts with the tone that’s being set from the very top.

When you say that culture can be learned, what do you mean by that? And how does it affect integrated planning?

If you want your strategic plans to be supported by the entire organization, you need to give everyone the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way. If people are able to recognize that collaboration is important and that their voices are being heard throughout the planning process, they’ll be much more motivated to participate because they understand the meaning behind their actions. All of this is a reflection of your culture, as well as the values guiding behavior that I mentioned earlier.

When it comes to integrated planning, it’s important to foster that collaborative culture and to get cross-functional leaders to contribute. The first step is getting their attention and making the planning process visible. You need to find ways to cut through the noise at your organization and align every department’s actions toward the same strategic goal.

The second step is about clearly articulating why that goal is important. People need to know how and why their actions have an impact. That has to come from the top down, but recognition also plays a part. There’s a lot of evidence out there suggesting that if people are recognized for their contributions, they’ll be more likely to repeat that action again. Over the lifetime of a company, that really translates into a high level of productivity and operational agility. Building a corporate culture that embraces change, aligns teams and promotes innovation is fundamental to operating an agile and resilient organization for both today and tomorrow.

What role does technology play in the integrated planning process, and how is that reflective of culture?

In order to tear down barriers and engage people on a personal level, you need to make integrated planning as easy as possible for your people. Even if you have their attention and they understand why it’s important, they won’t want to participate if it’s hard for them to do—like sending them an email with 17 attachments and asking them to do four things at once, for example.

Technology is really important because it can help create a frictionless experience. It’s about simplifying the way you engage your people by providing them with the tools that make the planning process accessible. A cultural revolution takes place at companies that leverage the right technology, because eventually those tools redefine the way people work and become critical to the overall success of the business.

I think Slack is a great example because if you were to rip that away, businesses wouldn’t be able to communicate as effectively as they do now. By introducing technologies that improve the end-user experience and ultimately help the business grow, engaging people to participate in the cross-functional planning process becomes much easier.

What advice would you give to business leaders who are focused on improving their integrated planning processes?

The technology must be as frictionless as possible, but you need to remember that technology is only half the story. The experience of your people also has to be the central focus of your business planning initiatives. 

Culture is about creating an environment that encourages people to engage, collaborate and innovate. You can’t enable a successful integrated planning process without a strong culture. It’s like having a Ferrari, but not knowing how to drive it. Even if you have the best technology out there, it’s not going to be successful if you haven’t created an environment that engages and empowers your people every step of the way. 

To hear more from Debbie, check out her Vena Nation keynote on demand—Culture is Critical to Integrated Planning. If you haven’t already, register now for your free All Access pass to Vena Nation today. 

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