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.
AI and machine learning have exploded onto the business scene in 2017. If you haven’t gotten an email asking you if you want to learn how IBM’s Watson can help your business, you will be soon. And we’re just getting started.
The bots are coming, and if you’re thinking your business is immune, I don’t think you’ll feel the same way by 2020.
What should you be doing in 2018 to prepare?
Many small companies are not going to have the budget needed to use AI. But if you’re in a small company, you should still learn about what it can do and how it can be used. By hearing how AI is being used in your sector, you can make your offerings better and your operations more efficient – even if you don’t spend a dollar on AI technology itself.
You should also figure out your company’s algorithms. AI works through algorithms – coded logic about how to interpret data. You may not have Big Data to work with, but you have algorithms operating in your company…like which customers are better to work with, what products help with what needs that a customer has, and which of your staff to assign to which types of projects.
Back in the old days, this was called Experience, or Tribal Knowledge. Now…we call it Algorithms.
Your algorithms will probably start simple – like which customers are better to work with. But that’s just the start. The real power comes when you think about branches that you can build to make the thinking more complex. For example, once you identify what services help with what needs, then you can identify if customers of one service are more likely to buy another service you offer. Where are the connections and patterns in your business?
Many of the small businesses I work with know these algorithms intuitively – they’re operating all the time in the heads of the staff who have been there more than 10 years. Often the first reaction I get when I bring up the idea of capturing the company’s algorithms is, “Oh, we don’t need to do that. We know that already…in our heads.”
Which is great…but right now, someone is working on coding into a computer the algorithms that are needed to run your type of business. It’s happening. Right now. Believe me.
And the need to document your algorithms will be much clearer – and more urgent – when your staff person is competing with a machine that costs less than a month of that person’s salary and doesn’t need health care. When that happens, you’re going to wish that you’d asked your staff to outline how they make the decisions that run your business. And that staff person is going to wish that they’d been thinking about how to build value on top of their knowledge, rather than clinging to the knowledge itself as the differentiator.
What do you do when knowledge and experience are no longer differentiators? What will the differentiators be? I have some guesses, that I’ll outline another time…
So, I don’t know how all of this will play out. I’m sure bots, at some point, will be able to do most of what we rely on workers to do now…and that there will be needs that bots can’t handle. But while we’re waiting for that to play out, you can use the thinking of AI designers to make your business better and be in better control of your destiny. And you can do that whether you can afford the actual AI technology or not.
Pretend that you’re designing your own bots, give them fun/interesting names (Watson! Alexa! Siri!), and have some interesting discussions with your Leadership Team about the algorithms driving your business.
As a small business coach, I’m always interested when the conversations I’m having in my client strategy meetings are echoed in news from the Fortune 500. And we had one such example last week – ESPN’s transition of their on-air talent from specialists to generalists.
Specifically, ESPN’s President John Skipper said, “Dynamic change demands an increased focus on versatility.”
Many of my clients are professional services firms – they are selling their people’s skills and thinking. Several weeks ago, in a quarterly strategy meeting with a 40-person services firm, the leaders asked me what I thought about a shift they were considering to organize themselves in specialized teams that could create deep expertise in certain areas. Here’s what I said:
- There is a lot of uncertainty in the market. That means that you don’t know what kind of work will come in, or when it will come in. (I am seeing this across my client base.)
- As a result, you have to have flexibility in who you assign to different jobs, because your talent assignments are probably not going to work the way you plan them.
- The only way you can have the flexibility you need to handle work in this uncertain environment is to actively develop cross-discipline agility – you have to make sure that people’s “downtime” is spent developing new skills.
In other words, you need to have a talent base that has a lot of flexibility in what and how it works – which is exactly why ESPN is making the shift they are, to multi-dimensional on-air talent.
Creating a flexible staff is no small task for small businesses. The large majority of small businesses under-develop their talent – that is to say, their talent development is mostly opportunistic and accidental assignments that happen to build new skills. That’s often OK – but it’s less likely to be OK these days, and companies who don’t get better at talent development are going to feel the pinch and pain of less-agile workers more and more, since the market will continue to be an uncertain place.
What’s needed to actively develop your people? How should they fill their downtime? Have your people…
- Explore new areas by looking through trade publications or surfing industry web sites
- Hold regular lunch-and-learns for your staff to educate each other
- Shadow each other doing work that’s new to them
- Sit in on internal or customer meetings that involve new areas for them
Are you developing the generalists your business needs – the ones with the skills and agility to navigate the uncertain environment we all face?
Crafting a dashboard that works
I’m going to be talking about dashboards on the Rising Leader webinar in March, and as I prep for that session, I’m reminded of why you should create a dashboard in the first place.
It may seem obvious on the surface, but a dashboard keeps visible and helps you track two things:
- What in your business will “move the needle” for success
- What you want to focus your attention on
Companies with fewer than about 25 people often don’t need a dashboard (which doesn’t mean they wouldn’t benefit from one). At that size, the team instinctively knows what’s important, and the leaders are close to the action.
Bigger than 25 people, though, and a dashboard is useful. Unfortunately, a dashboard is also harder at that size, for several reasons:
- There are simply more parts of the business – more things that the company is doing, many of which seem important. What is really important to put on the dashboard?
- There become several levels of “frames” that can be used to understand the business. There’s the tactical/trenches level (returning a customer’s email), the “strat-tactical” level (customer service), and the strategic level (the customer experience). Once you identify a part of your business that’s important, then you need to figure out if you measure it at the 100-, 1,000-, 10,000- level, or 50,000-foot level.
- There often is no immediate, easy source of data for issues that are important. For example, most people would agree that employee engagement is important to most companies – but how do you measure that? [Note: there are some pretty simple ways.]
So, crafting an effective dashboard takes thought.
Many companies have an annual budgeting process – they recognize that coming up with financial plans is complex enough that they should spend time figuring it out.
Well, you should also have an annual “dashboarding” process that figures out what’s important to your business and what you want to focus your attention on. Some things will always be important; others will come and go.
If you’re a middle manager or a high-potential employee, you can join the Rising Leader Program and hear more about dashboards this month in our webinar. Visit phimation.com/start to find out more.
Sometimes I’m asked to help companies find the right path for their next 3-5 years – which qualifies as “long-term” strategy for a Stage 2 company. Other times, my strategy work focuses on short-term performance. In either case, it’s useful to have some way to measure progress and check to make sure we’re on the right track – to have a dashboard or scoreboard.
In designing a dashboard, there are 2 main factors: (1) what you will measure, and (2) how you will measure it. I would rather have a precise description of the business driver and an imprecise metric than an imprecise description of the business driver and a precise metric. In other words, it’s more important to understand what to measure than to have a top-quality measure itself – it’s not much help to have an accurate measure of something that doesn’t matter. Or, said even another way, you should not pick your metrics by what is easy to measure – you should focus on what will drive your business, and then do the best you can to approximate a metric if there isn’t one easily available.
As for the business drivers, when you’re measuring short-term performance, the first job is to decide what’s important to track – what’s going to move the needle. In general, the items to track to improve short-term performance are going to be either revenue or costs/productivity. However, I recommend you come up with more specific metrics that zero in on exactly how you’re going to drive those areas. Examples would be:
- Revenues from our top 20 customers
- Revenues from new customers
- Revenues from a particular product line or market sector
- Costs or productivity of non-customer-related activities
- Costs or productivity in the areas of your largest expense areas
For a situation where the short-term performance is OK and the focus needs to be on medium- and long-term initiatives, there are a broader range of areas that are usually represented in a dashboard. Examples of long-term programs include:
- Development of new products
- Diversification into new markets
- Building a new way to acquire customers
- Changing the sales process
- Training and developing your people in general, or the skills in a particular part of the business
- Developing partnerships
So, what do you do if you don’t have a precise metric available? I’ve found that Green/Yellow/Red works fine as long as (a) there is a clear owner of the area that is being tracked, and (b) there is discussion about the status. The benefit of having an actual metric is that good data leaves little open to interpretation. (“Data ends discussions.”) If you’re not working with good data, but instead using something like a color scheme, then you’ll have to make sure you spend time understanding and interpreting what’s going on.
I’ll have some more specific recommendations for designing dashboards during my upcoming Monthly Strategy Hour – register to hear more and ask any questions you have.
Many of you reading this post are 10%ers. And there’s something in the back of your mind eating away at your conscience. You know there’s something not quite right about it, but you tell yourself that 10% has always served you well.
And you might be right. You’ve probably gotten along well enough with your 10%. Then again, you may feel like it no longer has the same effect that it used to. So let’s take a look at your 10% and see if it’s still serving you.
I’m inspired to write about 10% because I met with a guy last week who said, “It’s just what I’ve always done. I don’t really have a reason for it, and sometimes I wonder if it’s what I should be doing. But I’ve never known how else to do it.”
Later on, after our discussion, he said, “Yes, that’s what I want – that would help me, and it would help my team. They’ve always been a bit confused and defensive about the 10%.”
What am I talking about? Let me use his words, “We did a strategic plan back in 2008, but we’ve never updated it. It was helpful and we did some things because of it. But for the last 5 years, I’ve just said that we should grow by 10% next year. And that’s what I say at the start of each year. I kind of know that I could or should have more to my goal, but we’ve been OK just trying for that 10%.”
It’s something I’ve heard many times before. So, let’s look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the “Let’s grow 10% next year” approach to strategic planning.
The good is that it’s an easy way to communicate that you want to grow, but not too much. It says, “Let’s get better at what we’re doing.” It’s also quick – most leaders who use 10% as a goal (I just can’t bring myself to call it a strategy!) need about 1 second to access their intuition and come up with that number. And it’s also good that most leaders who use 10% don’t enforce it – some years they’ll decline 1%, and others they’ll grow 20%, and both are received equally.
The bad is that 10% doesn’t tell anyone how to achieve 10% growth, and, since the person who used it likes a planning process that only takes 1 second, they usually won’t commit the time to strategy and planning to figure out how to get the 10%. And so, they just react to whatever the marketplace offers. That’s not good, but often times 10%ers are bailed out by a strong market, and so reacting is bad but OK.
Which brings us to the ugly, which arrives when a 10%er is managing a business in a market that is seeing substantial change. If that’s the situation, 10% is of no use, and in fact may be counter-productive. Because at the heart of 10% is “let’s change, but not more than we’re comfortable with.” And that can breed complacency that appears to be fine…until it’s too late for any small adjustments to work. And if the only goal you’ve ever had is 10% growth, you and your team are not going to be prepared when you need to lead your company outside your comfort zone.
So, if you’re a 10%er, you have a choice – to be passive or active. Either keep enjoying that comfortable feeling until you’re forced to do more…or lead your team to have a new set of discussions that develop your company’s ability to identify opportunities a little outside your comfort zone, go after them in smart ways, and stay ahead of the market.
Loch McCabe of Shepherd Advisors uses an interesting frame for thinking about your company’s health and growth. What would it take to double your revenues – and then double them again? Loch recently spent an hour with me describing his process for creating Exponential Growth, as he calls it.
Those kind of results aren’t easy to achieve, but there’s definitely a formula that works, and Loch is good at describing that formula. (And he’ll be sharing it during his upcoming workshops 10/22 in Ann Arbor and 10/24 in Saginaw.)
What stands out for me in Loch’s process is the focus on customers and markets. At the heart of Exponential Growth is customer-based strategy – using insights about your customers to identify the “leverage points” that will give you outsized returns for the investments you make.
From there, he goes beyond your current customers to look at emerging market trends. An important part of exponential success is being able to ride the right market waves, and Loch’s process highlights which ones to jump on.
Loch has asked me to talk about the organizational-development aspects of Exponential Growth during the workshops. So, when you get the strategy part right, what does it take from a leadership, teamwork, organization, and culture perspective to manage and execute that growth.
Let me give you a sneak peek of my thoughts here…
Organic Growth is more accommodating of cracks and stresses in your organization. Don’t have the right VP of Ops? Haven’t solidified your sales process? Don’t have a solid pipeline of talent? With Organic Growth, those issues are OK – they’ll need to be addressed, and will be over time, but they won’t create any serious risk.
Exponential Growth, on the other hand, forces and enables you to get your house in order. It magnifies the strengths and weaknesses of the organization. It offers a carrot and a stick for dealing with your issues – solve them and you see big results; avoid them and you’ll feel the pain.
Honestly, Exponential Growth is not for most people. It requires strong leadership, solid teamwork, effective operations, and a dynamic culture. Of course, that’s what most companies are aiming for – and struggling with. And that, I think, is the opportunity that an Exponential Growth vision offers. It’s like saying we’ll put a man on the moon – it’s a rallying vision to get people to break out of the patterns they have and address the issues that can linger and smolder for years and years if the goal is just Organic Growth.
What could a game plan for Exponential Growth do for your company? If you find it intriguing to think about, you should talk with Loch or attend one of the workshops to find out more – see the links above, or let me know you’re interested and I’ll connect you.
I like SWOT assessments (you know – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) for getting people’s thinking out of the day-to-day and into a creative, strategic “space.” Unfortunately, I often see SWOT assessments that are just marginally useful.
Here are some tips on how to get more value out of your SWOTs.
If you can take a bullet and put it on someone else’s SWOT without changing it, then you’re not specific enough. One of the favorites to put under Strengths is “Our People”…which is also a good example of a bullet that is not specific enough to be useful in the planning process. What is it about your people? Their experience? Their deep knowledge? Their ability to be generalists? Once I know what’s special about your people, then I can create some possibilities about how to leverage that into a better advantage.
Work hard to look at the future. We live our lives in the day-to-day, so it’s hard to look ahead several years. And that’s why it’s an advantage to do – because most people don’t.
Put “the hard stuff” on the list. Every business has issues that it doesn’t like to talk about. The problem customer. The problem owner. The problem staffer. Without knowing the details, I can tell you that those issues consume a large amount of resources. So they need to be on your SWOT – though it will probably take some diplomatic phrasing. (For example: “Some customers are easier to work with than others,” “Owners are not always aligned on decisions,” and “Spotty follow-through.”)
Make sure you have bullets that cover the whole breadth of the areas you’re involved in. Often, leadership teams focus more on certain areas, and that bias comes through on the SWOT. But the non-focus areas are often the places where there is the most opportunity, especially for companies that are developing from the lean-and-mean start-up to a more complete and sustainable enterprise.
So, here’s the question to ask about your SWOT to see if you’re getting the value out of it: “Does it give us insight into where we should commit significant resources over the next 3 years to improve our chances of success?” If it gives you that, then you’re getting the value you should. If it doesn’t, then you should take steps to upgrade it – which I’ll cover in my next post.
My 11-year-old son started playing hockey goalie this year. At a recent goalie clinic, his coach said something I think applies to business leaders…
“Goalie is a hard position. It’s hard to be in your stance through the whole game, it’s hard to shuffle across the crease while you follow the puck, it’s hard to move out to challenge the shooter. But those are the right things to do – those are what will help you make the save. You can play the easy way, but you won’t be successful. So, I want you to remember a simple phrase to help guide you while you’re in practice and in games…If it’s easy, it’s wrong. If it’s hard, it’s right.”
Let me review some of the easy things that I see business leaders do:
- Make important decisions before understanding the consequences
- Make important decisions without involving the people who will carry them out
- Focus on feel-good marketing activity rather than figuring out their marketing ROI
- React to sales opportunities rather than focus on the ones that are best for their business
- Hire someone that they like
- Keep someone they shouldn’t have hired
- Avoid the hard decisions during strategy meetings, so that the decisions are left for people in the field to deal with when they’re faced with a problem
- Assume they know what their customers or markets want without asking them
- Don’t question their own biases and blindspots
In every one of those situations, it’s hard to do the right thing. It would be nice if they weren’t hard, or if there was a magic wand that would make them easy. But that’s not how those situations work. And what happens if you handle them the easy way? Things take longer, you create more problems, you spend more money. In short, the easy way is actually not the easy way.
So, here’s the key message I want you to remember as a business leader: When you’re in a complex or important situation, the hard way is actually the easiest way in the long run, if you’re aiming for long-term business success.
I know it’s not easy, but please do the right thing. It’s what your company, customers, markets and communities need from you.
My sons love Legos. They love building the kits based on the instructions that come with them – and they love building their own creations out of a bin of parts that is the resting place of all those well-made sets.
When my son is building a triple-winged rocket, or an army base, it’s very clear that the creation process is not connected at all to the sales process. Yet, for some reason, when we are working on an innovation in our business, for some reason it’s much easier to think that the creative process is inherently connected to the commercialization process.
But it isn’t.
Being a business owner, I sometimes think as I watch my son and his Legos, “What would it take to make this little hobby a business?” My mind first goes to customers – their feedback, engagement, and money. And then it goes to logistics – managing the schedules, inventory, work flow.
You need creativity, customers, and control to commercialize innovations. The creativity part comes easily for Stage 2 companies – but if you don’t have customers and control, you’re just playing with Legos. Which, I can tell you from watching my sons, is engrossing and rewarding…but is not a sustainable business model.