One of the classic sayings “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough”.
Accepting the status quo is as good as turning off onto the motorway of mediocrity for business, but doing the opposite can also create a parallel problem – initiative inertia or overload. An unplanned dichotomy where you’re intention is to do good and create momentum but you end us pushing people into a state of inertia, not understanding which initiative comes first, which is flavour of the month, which is strategic,which is tactical – and so on.
Heading an big business takes energy and organisation. You have to de-clutter yourself from the distractions, the small stuff and keep focussed on the road to excellence. When you do that, you can more clearly prioritise the “must do” initiatives from the “nice to have” initiatives. I use a priority matrix to help me understand the big long term picture from the short term stuff, the stuff that will take resources from the stuff is easy to do, the things that we can do quickly with big impacts to the business.
It’s brilliant to do new things, it challenges people and keeps momentum. But always health check on whether your latest greatest idea may slow down people, drain resources or distract them when other priorities exist before you get happy clappy or you risk unintended inertia.
Understanding your competition is an important component of being in business.
Yes, you’re important. Your products, people and services. However, when did you last benchmark yourself against your most important competitor?
What are they up to? When did you last have a good look? It’s easily overlooked in the hubbub 0f everyday. Smart businesses take time out to understand the wider competitive landscape.
Here’s some simple tips for you to get started: -
- Download their last company accounts from companies house. They normally cost £1.00 a set. You can have a look at whether they’re growing, their cost structure, their profit, stocks, gross margins and cash situation.
- Is one of their executives speaking anywhere? Go listen to them. Hear what the culture is, how they motivate employees, how they see the market.
- Are they advertising? What are their key products? How do they compare against yours? What products do you have that you could position against them? What media are they using?
- See what keywords they may be bidding in on google adwords. What keywords might people be searching for in response to their ad that you might be able to hijack in google either through pay per click or organic search. Get a blog going quickly to bag some easy clicks or implement a PPC campaign. Seek advice if needs be.
- Get on their mailing list. Always good to hear what things they are saying. What tone are they using? What calls to action? What offers? Are you missing any tricks?
- Ask your customers. It’s surprising what they know. They may have been to a recent launch, had a titbit off of a sales rep or spoken to the CEO by phone. People will share quite readily if asked.
- Prepare a SPOT chart. A rectangle split into four. In each box write one of these words. Strengths, Opportunities, Problems, Threats then detail all of yours down under these headings. Then pretend to be your competitor and do the same thing and compare.
- Visit their website. Look at their news sections, special offers, announcements. What messages are they sending? To which markets and customer profiles? What product is on the homepage? Does this mean they might lose focus on some secondary products which might be your primary product offer?
- Follow them on social media. Check out this post I wrote on “The CIA in Social Media“.
- Allocate time to this. The clearer you understand where they are going, the easier it is for you to adjust your own strategy.
Ah, little Johnny riding his bike without stabilisers, quick grab the camera! A familiar tale to many a parent. The funny bit is when the Johnny sees you with the camera, looks at you awaiting approval, loses his balance and falls off!!
The metaphor works for business too. If you spend too much time looking at what’s closest to you, rather than what’s down the road, it’s easy to fall of your methaphorical bike too. Short term distractions are exactly that, distractions, and shouldn’t demand too much of your time.
It can be the same with competitor gazing. If you spend too much time trying to beat them using their methods, all you’ll become is a cheaper version of them, rather than a business with a more unique proposition. Spending all of your time trying to grab the camera time with a customer, salami slicing your pricing and margins until they are wafer thin.
So, as you think ahead for 2011 consider how to keep your eyes focussed on the road ahead and avoiding the distractions, which consume time, profit and energy.
A quick analogy to share with you tonight. It was used by one of the psychologists that ran a workshop for the team today, it relates to taking time out.
Two lumberjacks were felling trees in the forest with a traditional two man saw, after a full morning, they set to fell the largest tree in the forest. Working furiously, they struggled to get the saw moving and expdended huge effort trying to make progress through the trunk. As the afternoon progressed they continued to work, making little progress as the night started to fall. Another passing lumberjack, stopped for a moment, seeing the tiny progress they were making. “Did you sharpen your saw? ” he shouted over. The two lumberjacks ignored him and carried on, with the same intensity of effort. He walked towards them and repeated the words, “Did you sharpen your saw?”
The moral of the story is this. Rather than continuing to work with a blade, which had become blunt, the two lumberjacks needed to stop, sharpen their saw and then get back to cutting the tree. By doing this, they would have saved a lot of effort and got the job done.
The story was used today as a metaphor for businesses that don’t take time out and take stock. Instead, carrying on being busy, sweating processes as hard as they can and potentially repeating failure or ignoring problems. By stopping to “sharpen the saw,” you may be able to step back, take a different look at your problems and come up with a different solution. The point being, it may be time neutral. If the two lumberjacks had stopped to sharper their saw, they would have stopped working for half an hour or so, however the tree would have been felled before dark.
With a huge amount of pressure on businesses right now, it’s important to stop and think. The stepping back/out of the business for half a day or a day can be time well invested. Giving people a chance to talk, to re-connect away from the processes, hustle and bustle. So my question to you is, when did you last sharpen your saw?
Had a timely reminder today. When you’re planning something, start with the end, at the beginning. What I mean is, be really clear about what you want as your end results before you start on something. It can save so much time and also avoid unnecessary work. This works well with advertising agencies for example, the clearer you can be in your brief about desired outcomes, the harder they can search for the answers and the less time you spend, going back and forth. In my experience, the more clarity you generate for agencies/delivery partners, the harder they work at achieving it. Often agencies can be frustrated, when a client doesn’t really know what they want. It’s a common complaint.
In addition, when tackling a project, defining the clear outcomes, gets everyone there quicker. You may also be able to take some shortcuts, work on quick wins and stick the metaphorical ball in the back of the net faster than you thought. It worked for me today whilst working on some strategic plans, defining the “what” before the “how” really focused the discussion down and allowed us to really rationalise the KPI’s, concentrating on the one’s that really matter, not going mad on measurement and spending all your time managing the worlds biggest performance dashboard!
So, my reminder today was to really focus on desired outcomes first (what), make them tight, specific and measurable, then figure out how to get there.
Short is good. Not for everything, granted. All depends, of course on the audience, what it is your communicating, it’s technicality, lot’s of different factors. My point is this. Attention spans are shortening, drastically, business documentation – where possible – should follow suit.
In Japanese, there is a saying called “Ketzuron”, it means conclusion, in other words, get to the summary, fast! Which brings me to your business plan. Can it be shorter, more concise, something that people live and breathe? My experience is, the bigger an organisation becomes, the bigger the business plan, the bigger the plan, the less effective it becomes as people consign it to a drawer until the day before a management meeting or review.
If you can radically overhaul your plan, simplify the wording or make it shorter, you are more likely to make it matter and have a better chance of people living and breathing it. Try it, see what happens.
I’m often asked about my reading habits. Which books I rate particularly. Having a quick delve into the extensive library of business books I’ve got, here’s the books that I rated, kept and re-read: -
Will Schutz – The Human Element. One of the best books I’ve ever read about self-awareness. Got recommended to it by business psychologist Steven Sylvester whom I worked with a few years back. Really allows you to more fully understand why you behave as you do and what interventions you can make. Quite focussed on the workplace, which is why I liked it so much. I readt this book on holiday every year without fail to remind me of my failures!
Seth Godin – Meatball Sundae. We all know that Seth is the daddy when it comes to social media, strategic thinking and common sense marketing Got sent this by a prospective digital supplier a couple of years back. I read it on holiday in 2008. I came back from that holiday and got started on re-inventing our digital strategy at work, I also decided that I would get into it myself. My blog was born soon after. He writes some great stuff, this is a good book to start your Seth journey with.
Good to Great – Jim Collins. I read this book when we looked at implementing the EFQM model at work. Recommended by one of the delivery consultants. If you want to know what makes the difference between leaders and businesses that makes it big vs. others in their same field, this book examines those differences. Nearly all the Top CEO’s have read this book and have based some element of their business delivery on it’s content. The content of this is more for large businesses, however, I think everyone could benefit from reading it.
Blue Ocean Strategy – W. Chan Kim & Renee Mauborgne – I really liked this book, it talks about strategy in much simpler terms than Good to Great. One thing that always stuck with me when I read it was the principle about “making the competition irrelevant.” Whatever your business size, you can take the basic framework of Blue Ocean strategy and apply it to your own business. There’s lots of bits in there that can be good basic hygiene factors of your business strategy.
Nuts – Kevin Freiberg. The story of Southwest Airlines crazy recipe for success. Southwest were the pioneers of the low cost airline in the USA. They forged the way for businesses like Easyjet and Ryanair to start. This book will show you how customer passion can differentiate you in the market. What’s interesting about it is that it is not a book of theory, but actual action, makes it more meaningful.
These are just five of the – literally hundreds – of books I’ve read. All my professional development I’ve done myself over the years, simply by reading regularly. Over the years, reading has become harder because we’re all so busy. However, you must reserve the time to do it. Social media is bitesized, everything is short, because attention spans are short and you never tend to delve into things too deeply, books allow you to do that. I do all my book reading before bed or on holiday, when I’m not distracted by a buzzing Blackberry or other attention sapping device.
Do you have any books that you would recommend to others? If so, please leave a comment with the details and short description of “why?” if you are able to run to it.
When did you last get away from the office to talk?
By talk I mean, with the phones, laptops and blackberries switched off. Just you and your team in a room, concentrating, reflecting and sharing insights about the business.At a time – arguably – that businesses should be doing more of this, they are doing less. Why? Because recessions put us into “fight or flight” mode, we become obsessed by the here and now and not the future. Leaders think differently during recessions too, I saw some fascinating evidence recently from a business psychologist which showed how constraining this can be on a businesses abilty to perform. Tomorrow I’ll be taking some members of my UK team to do exactly that. To re-connect, talk, concentrate, think and reflect. By doing that, you can get everyone back on the same page (hopefully of the same book), re-set the clock and get everyone energised and refreshed for whatever challenge you’re facing.
I’ve always found it’s important to change the setting for such meetings. To get away from the office, provide a new landscape and an unfamiliar setting, it contributes to creativity and reduces tension which may be associated with the workplace. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune, you can borrow premises from people you know or do a barter deal with someone for an under-utilised space. It’s amazing what you can learn by just taking some time out.
Big companies need processes. As your small business grows, you’ll need better processes too. They become the framework by which your company operates, its convention. However, they aren’t the be all and end all because sometimes processes overrule common sense. We can all remember the famous Little Britain sketch when “the computer says no”. The bigger you get, the worse it can get as the process rules all. If you ever deploy an SAP system, the first thing they ask you to do is to review the way your business runs and run it the SAP way, using best practice processes (according to them). However, all businesses grow from understanding their marketplaces or by creating differentiation in customer experiences, not by “out of the box” process management, you risk ending up being like everyone else. Rigorously review your processes, chuck the out of date ones in the bin and don’t assume that because you implemented a process a year ago, that it’s valid today.