I was in a meeting this week with a client, and they were talking about the gigantic case they take to trade shows – which is called “The Coffin” and may have cost an employee a finger (the story wasn’t clear and I didn’t want to ask). The person who bought it, and still saw it’s utility, countered the jokes and jabs by saying, “Well, actually, it’s light if you have a forklift.” I’m not sure if it was a joke or a legitimate argument, but it got me thinking…
There are a number of pitfalls that will trip up people who don’t have a lot of experience with strategic planning. One of the more regular ones – especially in retreats where people are asked to free their thinking – is not taking into account limited resources.
All kinds of amazing things are possible to dream up if you assume you have unlimited time, effort, strength, brainpower, flexibility, etc.
That case is light (if a forklift is available where we’re going, and we have the money to pay for it)
That metal is flexible (if we have a sledgehammer and the strength to wield it)
That market is accessible (if we have the VP of Sales who knows the right people and can use their trust to benefit our product)
That new initiative is going to be easy for people to support (if we have a culture that is very adaptive and a leader who consistently pushes it)
Options that look good with unlimited resources often look terrible when limitations come into play. So it’s important to take resources – money, bandwidth, expertise, relationships – into account when choosing a strategy.
Overlooking resource constraints is just one form of a broader category that undermines strategy – the hidden assumption.
There’s no way to avoid hidden assumptions – we all have them lurking in our blindspots. But there are things you can do in your planning to reduce the likelihood that assumptions will lead you into a bad decision:
- Include people with different perspectives in your discussions – and listen to them all
- Ask, “Why is this a stupid idea?” or “Why would this fail?”
- Think of other decisions that ended badly and were driven by hidden assumptions, and assess if there are similarities
- Clarify the criteria that you use to evaluate your options
One of the things that separates good strategists from poor ones is the ability to see what’s missing and hidden. It’s a hard skill to develop – it takes knowledge and experience and inquisitiveness and discipline.
But it’s a really valuable skill. If you reflect on the worst decisions you’ve made, they are usually built on top of a hidden assumption that turned out to be way more off base, and way more important, than you’d have imagined…if you’d known to think about it.
Small businesses are often dealing with situations in which performance has not met expectations. It’s not really a failure, per se, but there has to be a change. A restart.
It might be the European division, or the HR department, or the implementation of the new CRM. When the gap between where the initiative is supposed to be, and where it actually is, is big enough, a restart is needed.
(Hmmm, you say, how will I tell if my situation is “big enough” to merit a restart? The answer is different for every situation, but basically, it comes down to whether the business can handle the underperformance for however long into the future you want to look. A failing overseas office in one company might continue to bump along if the rest of the business can prop it up, while a similar office in another company is a crisis because it’s sucking too much cash that other parts of the business also need.)
When I’m faced with this situation in one of my clients, I work along 4 paths to do the restart:
– A credible though possibly uncertain understanding of our value, and an informed belief that people want what we offer, and a vision for why it makes strategic sense to “play that game” as opposed to focusing on something else
– A leader or leaders who can inject the energy needed to change things and break new ground
– The funding needed for the plan…and the mistakes we’ll make as we learn the flaws with the plan
– A story that refocuses the team from the failure and the pain, to the vision and the hope
As a leader, you know what these kinds of situations are like. Not clear. Not simple. Not easy. But if you have those 4 pieces, you’re well on your way to a successful restart, even if the results don’t come right away. And if you don’t have those 4 pieces…then that’s the first thing you need to work on!
My daughter is a huge Harry Potter fan, and she has been smitten by the frenzy of the release of Harry Potter & The Cursed Child. So last week I found myself watching Harry Potter 7 Part 2 with her. And in it, Hermione was recommending that she, Ron & Harry be more careful and plan out their return to Hogwarts, since that journey was likely to lead to a conflict with the forces of You-Know-Who.
Ron, feeling some urgency, dismissed Hermione’s request, saying:
“Hermione, when did any of our plans work? We plan, we get there, and then all hell breaks loose.”
Fortunately Harry, who is an intuitive strategist like most of the Second Stage owners I know, comes up with a short-term plan….”We’ll figure it out when we get there and we see what we’re working with.”
Let’s highlight some of the lessons about strategic planning that are contained in that little scene:
– Planning doesn’t work on its own, because things won’t happen the way you expected them to
– A good plan starts with an assessment of the current situation – assets, needs, opportunities
– There are times when good execution is more important than good planning – specifically, when a lot is uncertain, or you don’t have a lot of resources that you can put toward a plan (this is why planning is less important in start-ups bootstrap start-ups)
There are also some undercurrents to Ron’s statement – the stuff we can read “between the lines”:
– Planning helps get you ready for the battle, even if the plan doesn’t work
– People who fight the battle can use that experience to develop better plans – and do them faster
– When you’ve gone into enough similar experiences, you can rely on your intuition more than needing a plan – it’s likely that the situation will mostly look like something you’ve dealt with in the past, and the stuff that is new will be minor enough that it won’t overwhelm you
You Second Stage muggles have your own version of wands and spells – the experience you have that enables you to solve problems as if you were waving a wand, the insight and service you give your customers that can (truly) be like a spell, all the assets and resources you have built up to solve some of the world’s problems in a way that (if you step back from it) can seem magical to someone new to it. And all of those things will be made better, and more powerful, with the right amount of planning.
In the last week, I’ve had a couple of strategy meetings where the simple idea of going with the flow came up.
In the first, a decades-old company is finding that it’s not as easy as it used to be to get customers. They are facing the prospect of having to cannibalize their current customers to sell something that will have broader appeal – the plan being that the new sales will outweigh those lost from the cannibalization.
The go-with-the-flow idea? “Sell what they your market is buying.” After about 15 minutes talking to a salesperson, whose first reaction was to tell me all the reasons that customers aren’t buying the legacy product, he then said, “You know, there’s one big prospect on the East Coast who would be really interested in this new version we’re talking about.” And from there, we’re off…selling what the market is buying.
In the second meeting, we were debating which of several initiatives should get funding support. We were looking at 6 different programs, with varying degrees of success. Some were clearly “popping” and gaining traction; others were struggling though everyone thought they should have lots of potential.
The go-with-the-flow idea then? “Go in the direction of what works.” The path of least resistance was to double-down on the ones with traction. We didn’t abandon the others, but the question of where to put the discretionary budget we had available was answered pretty simply.
Sometimes business isn’t a struggle. Sometimes the market gives us the answer, and we just have to listen…and go with the flow.
There’s a cost to growth
Here’s a universal truth that doesn’t get enough airtime among business leaders – and that many leader teams, therefore, don’t fully appreciate:
Growth must be funded.
I started working with a company recently that developed a BHAG of doubling in size over the next 5 or so years. The first year went well – but last year was rough, and they’re now feeling pulled between the commitment they made to their BHAG, the desire they have to distribute profits at a level they’re accustomed to, and the need they have to correct some operational issues.
They have a newfound appreciation for the fact that the decision to grow often comes at the expense of the ability to harvest profits.
What does it mean that growth must be funded? Here are a few of the things that you’d need to invest in to grow – that you wouldn’t need (or wouldn’t need as much of) if you weren’t growing:
- Expanding your training and talent development efforts
- Developing new marketing programs
- Hiring more salespeople or programmers – and if they’re hard to find or need training, then you need to hire them before you have the revenue to support them
- Expanding into new facilities or adding equipment
There can be many more, but you get the idea.
On top of those tangible investments, you’d have two more hidden costs: the time that your team spends solving issues associated with the growth, and the inevitable inefficiencies you’ll have the first time you do things.
This isn’t to deny the wonderful benefits of growth, which include more people and customers to make your stuff better, more resources to solve problems and offer rewards, and more impact and influence on your markets and community.
But as you develop your BHAG, realize that you’ll also benefit from having a Big Heavy Accessible War Chest. And that’s why I often recommend that the first 2 years of a growth strategy focus on increasing your profitability and building your reserves. The path to your BHAG will be a lot more fun and manageable if you have the money to deal with the challenges you’ll face.
You don’t need to hire every position with the same approach. Sure, some companies have the same hiring process for everyone, and it often involves spending 6 months on each hire and only hiring A+ people. In theory, that’s what you should do, but in practice, there are some hires that deserve more effort and some that deserve less.
How do you tell when to invest more or less? I’ll be talking about that on my webinar this month – the 3 different approaches to hiring, and when each one is appropriate.
For this column, I want to focus in on the highest-investment approach.
When does a hire deserve a heavy investment? The primary drivers are (a) the impact the position can have on the organization, and (b) the experience your company has with hiring that specific type of position. In other words, you should invest more heavily in your recruiting process when you’re hiring:
- Executive or key manager positions – because the impact of that position will be a multiple of the costs of even an elaborate hiring process
- New positions – because you don’t know what you’re looking for, and because you need to train your organization on what the new position will do
What does it mean to invest heavily in a hiring process? You should spend more time…
- Planning the position before even starting the recruiting process
- Choreographing the hiring process – who to include when
- Building a bigger candidate pool
- Interviewing candidates
- Confirming your final choice
It’s OK not to go all-out on every hire. What’s important for growing companies is having the wisdom to know when a more extensive recruiting process is needed, and having the discipline to invest the time needed when it is required.
If you do that, you’ll avoid the costs of a bad hire, which can be dramatic – around 2-3x the person’s compensation for a manager, and 5-10x the person’s compensation for an executive.
Making Better Goals with a Strong Annual Planning Process
Although it seems like just yesterday that the days were hot and we were at the local swimming hole, this is the time to start thinking about annual planning. Some of my clients have small, simple businesses and handle their planning in an afternoon. Others are larger and more complex, and we spend 4 days over the course of 3 months.
No matter the extent of the process, they all have the same underlying process:
– Assess the environment and identify areas that have potential to improve the performance of the business
– Select the areas that have the best potential impact, and create initiatives to address those areas
– Define and justify the investments needed for the initiatives
– Develop action plans
– Launch the initiatives with managers and staff
There’s a rich set of best practices and tools for each of those steps. For example, many people like to use the SWOT framework to assess their situation. But I’ve found that reviewing hits and misses often provides better insight into areas of improvement.
On my Monthly Strategy Slice webinar, we’ll be looking at a small slice of the annual planning process – how to make sure you have a strong set of initiatives to focus on. On the webinar, we’ll talk about tools to evaluate your initiatives along 4 dimensions:
– Are you focusing externally (e.g., developing new markets), internally (e.g., reorganizing), or a combination of both?
– Are you focusing on initiatives with short-term payoff (e.g., a marketing campaign to existing customers), medium-term payoff (e.g., hiring an important new position), or long-term payoff (e.g., launching a new product)?
– Do you have a mix of initiatives that will have a big (transformative) payoff and smaller (incremental) payoffs?
– Do you have a mix of initiatives that have different investment profiles – some requiring relatively little investment, and others needing heavy investment?
We’ll talk about how to evaluate annual priorities, and how to apply the evaluation tools to your business on my webinar – please join us if you want to see these in action.
I’m going to be talking about sales process on my webinar this month, and I want to focus in on the most interesting part of the sales process for this article – creating a “mash-up” of assertiveness and empathy to engage a prospect about the needs they have.
But before I do that, I first have to talk about an important part of the sales process. If you want to get paid the value you deserve for the expertise you have, you have to make sure that your discussions with prospects start with a collaborative dialogue about their needs. If they’ve already defined their needs, and they’re just talking to you about a solution, then you will not get the value you deserve.
The problem is, though, that most prospects think that they’ve already defined their need.
So, how do your salespeople provoke prospects enough to change their thinking – to throw them off the path they’re already on for a solution, and get them to think more about their needs? To do that, your salespeople need to be assertive – they need to prove that they know as much about the prospect’s situation as the prospect does, and it will pay off for the prospect to listen to the salesperson. But your salespeople need to do that carefully – if they’re too assertive, then they’ll probably be dismissed. So they also need to be empathetic.
And that’s the hardest challenge your salespeople have today – how do you be assertive enough to get people to talk with you, and empathetic enough that they want to talk with you? That’s the sales process mash-up that every growth business needs to figure out.
We find the answer to this challenge in the playbook of a Trusted Advisor. Trusted Advisors have independent perspective that the person values (that’s the Advisor part) and the connection and understanding that reassures the person (that’s the Trusted part).
I’ve worked with several clients recently to create “Trusted Advisor Tools” for their people to use in sales discussions to build trust and provoke prospects to question how they’re thinking. I think every business needs these tools.
The salespeople usually see immediately how valuable these tools are and are enthusiastic to start using them. And many are actually relieved because they haven’t known how to push back against prospects in a supportive way.
We’ll develop some sample Trusted Advisor Tools on my webinar – please join us if you want to see these in action.
If there’s one thing in Stage 2 companies that does not take a lot of thinking, it’s identifying who your “High Potential” staff are. They come to mind immediately whenever I ask leaders who they are.
But, as much as it’s a no-brainer to get the most out of the people who offer the most, Stage 2 companies do a consistently horrible job of actively developing their High Potentials. Why? Because the Well-Oiled-and-Balanced Wheel is easy to ignore (and besides, it has a lot of weight to carry and can’t afford much “down time”.)
The first step I’d recommend in developing your High Potentials is to come up with a model that you can use to identify your High Potentials. Since it’s always obvious who they are, why would you need a model? Two reasons.
First, you need a program to develop your High Potentials, both to get the benefit of the full value that they can give you, and to keep them engaged and hopeful about their future at your company. And in order to have a program, you need to explain to people who is part of the program and who is not.
Second, you also have people who are Good Potentials. Most of them will never make the jump to High Potential – but some of them will. And to do that, they need a model of what they’re aiming for – what a High Potential is.
I have a 1-page model for talking about High Potentials. It’s a graphic that you can put in front of High Potentials to talk about why you value them so much and how you want to continue to develop them. And you can show it to Everyone Else to explain in simple terms what it takes to be (and be treated like) a High Potential.
If you want to see my model and learn some tips for using it, sign up for my upcoming August Strategy Hour webinar (even if you can’t make it you’ll get a copy), or go to the Contact Us page and reach out to me to request it.
Stage 2 companies must already have a clear and compelling value proposition if they’re successful enough to have grown out of start-up, right?
Well, yes and no. They do have enough traction in the marketplace to show that they have a value proposition that works. But it’s actually unlikely that the company has a systematic way to communicate the value proposition. And if that is the case, it will find that revenue growth is harder and harder to achieve – and in a competitive market, the company may start to lose ground to other companies who are communicating their message better.
What should a value proposition look like? When I started out in marketing, I worked with an excellent marketing agency, who explained that the “brand positioning statement” should follow a classic formula of, “For [market segment], Our Brand is the [product category] that [customer benefits] by [points of differentiation].”
So, for a clear and compelling value proposition, you need:
– A clearly defined target market segment or customer profile – is it marketing directors who work with global brands, or owners small businesses in cities, or…
– A definition of the product category – the marketing agency I worked with explained that orange juice could be defined as a breakfast drink or as a health drink, so picking the product category has a big impact on how the product itself is perceived
– A description of the customer benefits – what are the pains you alleviate (lost revenue, production downtime, etc.) and gains you enable (new revenue sources, talent retention, etc.)
– The points of differentiation – choosing from all the ways that your product works or the ways you deliver your service, what are the ways that set it apart from the competition?
Once you have your value proposition, make sure you reinforce it with everyone in your company, and you use it to focus your marketing and sales messages.