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?
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.
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.
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.
I have 2 clients who are focused on “accountability” this year, and it’s proving a hard row to hoe for both of them. Why?
Well, first of all, accountability is a somewhat scary term. If someone is saying we need it, then that must mean that we are not being accountable, and that sounds like someone’s not happy with people’s performance.
Worse, if there’s not a way to gauge performance, the people are likely to take a need for accountability as a judgment on their dedication. They’ll confuse accountability with work ethic.
It’s unfortunate that accountability gets this reaction. In Stage 2 companies, accountability is more about making things that used to be managed intuitively into things that are managed objectively. It does make a judgment about how people are working, but not in the way they think – accountability focuses on working on the right things, not the level of effort.
In fact, most of the time I work on accountability, people have a clearer sense of direction and less stress in their jobs.
I can spend lots of time talking about how to make your organization more accountable, but for now, let me finish by answering the question, “How do you overcome the initial resistance to accountability?”
I recommend 3 steps. First, before you bring up accountability, praise the team’s work ethic (assuming it deserves praise…if it doesn’t, that’s a deeper problem…), so that they know that you know they are dedicated. Second, give them an example of people spending more time in an area than they should. (Serving the bottom 20% of your customer base is a fairly typical area.) Finally, ask the team, “Do you have a way of quickly seeing whether the other people on the Leadership Team are succeeding?” If you don’t, then you’re probably spending more time than you should simply understanding how you’re doing, instead of diving into the issues that will make your business better.
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.
Congratulations, Second Stage CEO. You’ve gotten customers, survived cash flow crises, created a vibrant team. And, now, at last, created job descriptions! You put it off as long as you could, because job descriptions are so un-startup. But you’ve realized that it’s time to get clear on what people are responsible for, so that there’s more accountability, and so that it’s clear whether that new hire is getting the job done (or not).
If you’re a young Stage 2 company – say, 10-30 people – your job descriptions can focus on people’s responsibilities – what they do…their functional tasks.
But if you’ve passed 30 people, you’re going to need more from your job descriptions – rather than responsibilities, you’re going to need to focus on competencies.
What are competencies? They are the things that people are able to do – which could mean making copies or putting a design into AutoCAD, or could also mean handling angry customers or juggling multiple priorities. Sometimes competencies are the functional tasks, but frequently competencies are behaviors that go beyond the task. Competencies give a much deeper view into what a person, position, or team is capable of.
Responsibility: process assessments
Competency: recognize errors and problem-solve when one is found
Responsibility: respond to customer inquiries
Competency: empathize with customers in pressure-filled situations
You need to know the functional responsibilities of your people. And if you look at the competencies you need in a position, you’ll paint a much richer picture of who can be successful, and what training your people might need.
I work with a relatively small Stage 2 company that recently changed over 40% of its staff – and is far better because they did.
When I started with them, they had several employees who had been great during the start-up. They handled the relatively focused and simple work that needed to get done, and they were flexible.
But then the company started to leave the start-up stage – client work came more regularly, there was less experimentation…and there was more work! The work got harder and more complicated, and it needed to be done on schedule.
After almost a year of struggling as a company, the leaders realized that many of their struggles were tied to not getting the productivity out of the team that they needed. The employees were still good people and good workers – but the company had different needs, and these people were no longer a fit. And, because these employees weren’t in jobs that fit for them, they were starting to create a negative culture.
This wasn’t an easy decision. Some of the workers were friends. Some had helped build the company. And, truthfully, the decision took probably twice as long as it needed to because of the loyalty the leaders felt to these staff.
But when it became clear that the business needed new team members, the leaders made the decision, and gave the old staff generous severances.
Then they found the right people for the environment, taking their time and thinking about what they needed.
The results are dramatic. The team is happy. The finances are strong. The work is interesting and fun. It really is a different company – because it’s a different team.
In Stage 2, the team is what is most important, not the quality of the work. I know it’s not easy to make personnel decisions, but there are huge dividends for Second Stage companies that take an active approach to Talent Management.