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.
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.
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.
Not all strategic decisions need the same amount of analysis. This is something that many founders understand intuitively. But it’s also something that becomes more complicated as a company grows.
Why? Because the decisions get bigger and more complicated, what worked for a Big Decision in the past often doesn’t work for the Big Decisions of a bigger company. In addition, the “decision environment” gets more complicated, with more potential participants and more dynamics among them. Who do you include? When? How? Who provides input and who participates in the decision? How is the decision actually made?
What qualifies as a Big Decision? Something where the payoffs are extraordinary – say, it could have an impact of 20% or more of a company’s revenue, or it could impact more than a third of the employees – and/or where the risks are extraordinary – say, it could take 20% or more of a company’s discretionary resources to implement.
Decisions fall on a continuum – as the stakes rise, so does the need to treat the decision more seriously.
And how do you do that? As the decision gets bigger, you should add more information, more structure and process, and more focus and energy on the decision before its made. If you don’t, you can be pretty sure you’ll be spending more time than you’d like or expect after the decision.
Did you ever see the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup ads that showed one person with a chocolate bar, and another with a tub of peanut butter. They run into each other, and discover that chocolate and peanut butter are “Two great tastes that taste great together.”
Click here to see one of the ads.
Those ads remind me of budgeting and strategy – two great processes that go great together!
Now, if you’re an early Stage 2 company, you may not be doing either. If that’s the case, you have a chance to leapfrog over many later-stage companies, because many do either budgeting or strategy, but not both.
Strategy is a qualitative process in which you assess your situation and draw conclusions about what parts of your business have the best opportunities to develop or worst problems to fix. Budgeting is a quantitative process of allocating resources based on the conclusions you draw in your strategy process.
If you have strategy without budgeting, then you haven’t really determined how you will handle all the commitments you want to make. Later, when it comes time to spend money, there will be other things that also need money. If you haven’t decided during your budgeting process what gets money and what doesn’t, then you will make a tactical decision. If you’re lucky, it will still be a good investment. If you’re not lucky, you’ll find you’ve spent your money on the wrong thing.
If you have budgeting without planning, then you will just get more of what you’ve always had, which is usually 10-20% better…until one year you realize that it’s not 10-20% better, and you’re not sure why, and you’re not sure what to do about it. If you haven’t decided in your strategy process what deserves investment, you’ll find yourself realizing too late that “more of the same” only works for a limited time. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a new path without too much investment. If you’re not lucky, the weak area of your business will become a quagmire that costs you a lot of money.
Just as the Peanut Butter Cup combines chocolate and peanut butter in one convenient package, the Business Case combines strategy and budgeting. They’re not hard, but they’re not easy either – there are a few tricks to making business cases work for a Stage 2 company.
So, you’re thinking about what life will be like at your company when you’re gone. Congratulations. Really. It’s a sign of maturity when a leader has the courage to imagine being out of the picture, and the foresight to care before it’s forced to happen.
Having worked with dozens of Stage 2 leaders, what recommendations do I have for you about succession? A few thoughts come to mind immediately when thinking about my clients.
First, those of you who are strong leaders… we love you, and it’s amazing what you have accomplished and do accomplish… but this may be the biggest challenge of your career. The strength that you have in your role means that your shoes are going to be hard to fill. And, strong personalities have a hard time handing things off, so it’s never going to feel like the right time, and your successor is probably going to seem far from ready when you start the transition.
Second, having a healthy company is important to managing a succession. You want a healthy company to retain or attract the best talent. And, successions take resources, because transitions always put a burden on an organization. (Think about how many coaches have a “transition year” when they start even if they’re good and have good players.)
Third, start as early as you can. Succession is best managed not as one big event (“OK, here’s the company…don’t screw it up”), but as a series of small hand-offs. Most of my work on succession is on choreographing the series of small hand-offs based on the departing CEO’s capabilities, the incoming CEO’s capabilities, the needs of the business, and the needs of the transition process itself.
Fourth, don’t look for another you. He or she is going to be too hard to find. Use this as a chance to build up your company’s strength in a new area. (You’ll need to do some strategic planning to think about what area that should be.) I had one client hire an experienced sales and marketing exec because they realized they were weak there. I had another hire someone strong in operations because they were going to need to tighten up that area if they were going to be able to grow. Was the new exec everything that they needed in a CEO? No. But neither are you! You have a whole eco-system around you that complements and supplements your strengths. You may have forgotten about it because it’s designed around you, but no CEO can be everything – and the search for another you is based on flawed thinking that one person can lead your company.
The good news is that, if you plan out and use a succession process, all of these issues are manageable.
As your company grows in Stage 2, you should use your sales process to drive more value – yes, for your company…but also for your customers. The only sustainable growth comes from win-win sales, so your sales process will benefit you and your customers.
One of the most important ways that your sales process can increase the value you bring to and get from your customers is by uncovering what the real need is. Oftentimes, customers don’t know what they don’t know, and by managing the sales process well, you can help them realize what they really need. In doing that, you also make sure that you’re paid for any premium value that you give them.
Price is a function of value, and the surprising fact that you need to know is that value is established when the need is defined, not when the solution is defined. If a customer comes to you and tells you what they need, then they have already set the price in their mind. On the other hand, if a customer comes to you and asks you to help define what they need, then you create the value together.
If you’re like most Second Stage companies, it’s hit or miss whether you’re talking to customers about the answer or the problem. It takes a clearly-defined market strategy, and a disciplined sales process, to ensure your conversations consistently focus on the need. That takes some work, but it’s also the best way to grow your small business in Stage 2.
As a small business emerges from the start-up phase, and becomes a Second Stage company, the sales process can and should be formalized.
It can be formalized because you now have enough experience with sales to know some standard steps that you usually follow.
It should be formalized because you need to start building consistent expectations with your customers, you need more consistent information for your team, and you need to start to build up systems around your sales that will need some standardization.
I’m not suggesting you go overboard on this – just some general guidelines or steps that you’ve learned help you.
How do you create a (somewhat) standard sales process?
As a first step, think about the customers or orders that your team handles smoothly. What usually happens when those orders come in?
Then, think about the customers or orders that are a hassle. What usually happens with those orders – and what do you notice doesn’t happen with those.
When I asked these questions of a 20-person manufacturer last year, they realized that most of their sales followed 4 basic steps – but also that complex, unclear orders (which happened to be their highest-value work) needed a different process. They outlined the two different processes, and when I met with them 3 months later, they said, “We’re handling all of our orders much, much better. And the customers are a lot happier.”
If your small business has grown into a Second Stage company, your team and your customers will appreciate you starting to understand and standardize your sales process.
Once you have segmented your customer base, the question is, “What can I do for my best customers that will drive value for them and us?”
The answer to that question should be captured in an Account Plan, which outlines the relationship and opportunities you have with a key customer.
Here’s what I recommend you include in the Account Plans you write for your Second Stage company:
– History and highlights of the relationship
– Background on relevant people you know at the company
– Description of why they work with your company and why they think you’re valuable
– Immediate and next-year opportunities that you’ve identified, as well as the 3-5 year potential for the relationship
– Likely relationship and engagement for the coming year
– Plan for additional activities to expand or enhance the relationship and engagement in the coming year
You’ll be surprised at how much you learn about your customer and yourself when you write an account plan.