The way to Practical Strategising
What is your strategy? You need to have a Point of Difference. When was your last Business Review? Running a small business means that you will likely be bombarded with these types of questions inferring what you need to do to run a successful business. They are fundamentally good topics to engage with, but unhelpful questions in themselves. Conversations that start like this can cause anxiety, especially if the business owner does not know the answer, or even worse, if they know the answer but cannot articulate it very well.
This is a great way to undermine all the hard work and smart decisions a business person is currently doing. And, don’t get me wrong, I am continually repeating the importance of having a strong operational and marketing strategy to my Business Students at RMIT. I am borderline brutal regarding this, as this allows them to understand the base rules of the game in business.
The problem occurs when there is a mis-understanding of how strategy fits into small business. When organisations grow into larger entities, there is a need for designated scheduled Strategy Reviews. There is a need to invest higher levels of time and resource into this due to the complexities of a larger business. It’s like sailing a row boat compared to a 50 ft yacht. They are both boats but one is straight forward to captain, the other requires a larger skillset. For a Small Business strategy is still very important, but it takes on a slightly different guise.
Recently, I came across the Nyquist Method (not to be confused with the Nyquist Stability Criterion of the same origin). Harry Nyquist was an Electrical Engineer at Bell Labs (1934 – 1954). Bell Labs was responsible for some of the most influential society changing inventions of the Nineteenth Century including transistors, lasers, and solar cells. At one-point Bell Labs performed an internal study on the 10 most prolific Engineers at Bell Labs. They were trying to figure out the ‘secret sauce’ of these Engineers and why they were constantly coming up with amazing new inventions. What did they have in common that made them so successful in their work? After going through their graduate history, academic methodology, and every other factor they could think of a very minor detail accidently emerged. The only thing in common that these ‘Super Engineers’ all did the same was how they spent they lunch break! Not what they ate, but who they ate with.
What transpired was that each of them would happen to sit with Harry Nyquist, a quiet diminutive regimented engineer. Good at his work but practically invisible amongst the cluster of talented eccentric engineers at Bell Labs. What happened in these lunches turned out to be the highest impact activity at Bell Labs. What was it that was special about these casual conversations? What did Harry do that was so ground breaking?
Harry Nyquist had two defining characteristics:
1. He was warm and friendly. Easy to talk to, inclusive, and placed people at ease when he spoke to them.
2. He was curious. Super inquisitive and relentlessly asking questions that stimulated thinking and further conversation.
The Nyquist method was to simply open up discussion with talented engineers. This helped them get through whatever obstacle they were stuck on. Performed in his spare time whilst on lunch. He was interested, enjoyed the discussions, and set these engineers alight with new ideas and solutions to the problems they were facing in their work. He ‘unstuck them’. After a Harry Nyquist chat, the engineer would be clear on what they needed investigate and action. He didn’t even realise the effect of what he was doing. The sheer genius was lost on all until this discovery was made.
This struck a chord with me. I am constantly talking to Small Business owners and managers about the need to spend time strategising to make their lives easier. But, they don’t have time. They don’t know how to do it, and they don’t have time to learn how to do it.
This is very common, so people do their best and get on with it. They make decisions on the fly, go where the work is, and roll the dice. This chaotic approach works, at least to a certain extent. The downside is that the business can become over-reliant on the market. There can be a need to take on work with clients you don’t enjoy working with, or the need to adhere or adapt your business to gain further sales. There tends to be a limit on growth and profit ability, not to mention how stressful and time consuming this approach can be.
So how can we implement easy, quick, and effective Strategising into our business? Firstly, strategising is just a fancy word for Problem Solving. A strategy is the ‘how’ to moving something from point A to point B. It is a list of actions that need to be done to achieve goals and overcome obstacles.
Secondly, Strategising is not a meeting. It is not a review. It is not a yearly, or quarterly thing. This is where many get paralysed. Being able to schedule meetings for review, ideation, and action planning is truly great (I am a big fan), but it is not necessary.
What is necessary is to channel your inner Harry Nyquist…
1. Be warm and smother your people with safety so they will speak up and be willing to discuss the deepest hardest challenges they are facing, or what they see as the biggest issues to address for the whole business. This enables people to speak their mind, and voice solutions without inhibition.
2. Be curious. As a business owner this is the primary function that we all share in our Job Description. Be relentlessly curious. Get to the core of obstructions and assist your team to think deeper and wider than they want to. Be the platform that sets them off on a new journey of discovery and action to move their own individual work forward as well as that of the whole business.
3. Do this regularly. Constant crystallisation of the problems at hand to form actions and remedies is my definition of strategising. Never ever letting things go, and always turning over the possibilities and discussing how the team can ‘move the dial’ for the business.
I liken it to a Professional Football Coach and his team. They have a Game Style and Set Up at the start of the season. Then they constantly adapt and change this as the season wears on. Injuries, form, ladder position, weather, travel, and all sorts of other variables are negotiated. The Coach and his staff (along with players) are constantly talking, assessing, discussing, and deciding on a new approach and new plans to play the next week, the next quarter, the next few minutes. When done well there is an intensely honest and open communication loop with direct action in aid of moving the team forward to win.
When the year is passing you by, and the opportunity to gather your troops is not happening, then don’t despair. You have an opportunity every day to habitually Strategise. Tackle the small things first to build confidence and garner momentum. Then develop from there. If you find yourself setting meetings and reviews to set longer term goals, then you have taken the next step. If you never find the need to do this, then that is great as well.
As long as you are strategising every day. This will be a determining factor to outcomes as well as the ease that these outcomes are achieved with.