Planning

Constant Crystalisation

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.

The Value of Home - Turning Newbies into Leaders

The induction. Talk to any HR Professional and they will advocate a well-structured and comprehensive induction for all new employees. Some of us do it well, some do it poorly, or sometimes not at all depending on resources, circumstance, and our individual business culture. But, what can we do (no matter what) to increase the chances of a new employee becoming a long-term success?

In a time when Culture is King, many are grappling with how to translate culture into practical commercial success that is both meaningful and sustainable. It can quickly turn into a buzzword-centric topic which is forgotten completely in day-to-day interactions with peers and customers a-like.

The answer seems to reside in the value of making people feel safe and “at home” right from the start. This is a powerful trigger every single leader in a business can utilise to gain long term performance and loyalty out of new employees (and seasoned ones too!)

Daniel Coyle details an experiment in his book, The Culture Code. Coyle discusses an Indian Call Centre called WIPRO that was experiencing costly staff attrition rates. They took a group of new recruits and simply spent one-hour talking to them about their individual needs to perform better. They also gave them a WIPRO shirt with their own name on it. They found that the people in this group were 250% more likely to still be at the company seven months later compared to those that did not have the “one-hour chat”.

This demonstrated that people valued being treated as an individual and being heard from the start of their employment. It displayed that a business must show that they are there to “Serve You” just as much as the employee is there to “Serve Us”. The results spoke for themselves with staff serving longer and at a better performance level in a notoriously high-turnover environment.

When we feel at home, we feel safe. And when we feel safe our concentration levels are elevated due to less distraction and wariness. It’s like your first day at kindergarten – it’s a scary day with lots of anxiety. But if the teaching assistant relaxes you with warmth, attention, and care then it can turn out to be the best fun you’ve ever had.

Recently, I was struck by this idea when watching a Friday Night AFL match between Sydney and Hawthorn at the MCG. It was a cold wet night where Sydney won in a very close contest. The story of the night was that of Ben Ronke. In his third game, this little fresh-faced recruit kicked a game winning 7 goals and made 10 tackles – a new all-time record for the league. Not only is it almost unheard of for a small-forward to kick this many goals in a game, but no one had ever statistically done this in the history of the league!

The impressive part was in the post-match interview. Ronke was asked “What is it about this club that keeps producing such great young talent?”

He responded by saying “It comes down to the Leadership group, and even the up-and-coming leaders. You go to the club and you just feel at home straight away. They make you feel like you’re at home. That takes the pressure off of you and makes you feel comfortable, and with the support of the older boys – it goes a long way”

Wow! In a moment of pure honesty, this young athlete summed it up beautifully.

If we don’t invest individual effort into an employee we run the risk that they will merely exist in their role, and there is only a small chance of them becoming long term successful performers. To take this further, when a recruit is made to feel comfortable, but without an individualised approach then performance will ease off very quickly and revert to a relaxation mode. This is not sustainable either.

Leaders that show even the smallest of gestures that the business is there to serve the employee as much as the other way around, create an experience that is both comfortable and inspiring. This becomes a potent combination feeding the feelings of belonging. In turn, this creates performers that not only excel, but do it for a long time to come.

 

Flex vs Consistency - How to beat the Management Paradox

Consistency in customer service is more of an aspiration rather than a destination. Even the ultra-positive person must admit that it is physically impossible to serve every customer every day with the exacting consistent standard and experience. However, I hope we can all agree that when it comes to managing staff one of the best attributes a leader can display is consistency. If I think of the worst managers I ever worked for, it would be the ones that were happy and relaxed one day, and then riding me on every detail the next. It would become a constant worry on my mind – which version of my manager is going to rock into work today? From an inconsistent position, it can almost be impossible to have good quality dialogue with your team and progress your business with momentum and rhythm.

So, consistency in leadership is important. But then, we are also told that flexing our management style to individual needs is a positive attribute too. This is where you tailor your communication to individuals based on their experience, their personality, and their ability as well as a given situation. Some people need a good kick up the backside (figuratively of course!) on a regular basis, and some will perform at their best with a soft supportive approach. Then there are times that require urgency, or patience, or assertiveness. I have become a convert to this thinking from personal experience. I initially managed teams with a “one-method” approach because I was just being myself, and treating everyone the same. I quickly learnt that this was a big mistake as some people found me abrupt and harsh, while sometimes I was labelled as a soft touch and even slack or ineffective. To me, I was being consistent, but the reality is that I was not communicating effectively to different people, with different needs, in different situations. Learning how to flex was like switching the light on in a dark room. All of the sudden colours were more vibrant, and food tasted better… well, maybe not, but there was a marked difference in the way my team responded to my direction. Learning how to flex my management approach really was a game changer, and ever since then I have observed the benefits of managers being able to whilst coaching.

The Paradox

Definition: A paradox is a statement that is self-contradictory because it contains two elements that are both true, but cannot both be true at the same time.

Our management paradox is that we are at our best when we are as consistent as possible, but then we must flex to different team member needs and situations.

How can this be achieved? How is this even possible to deliver? Where do we start?

The answer is that it is difficult to achieve, and in trying to overcoming the paradox you will need to learn and adjust almost constantly. But with some foundation techniques in play, we can develop our own way of beating the paradox. You may have already started to implement good techniques and didn’t even realise.

  1. Start by building consistency. Be clear on your expectations from day one (or tomorrow if you haven’t done this already). Be clear on goals, be clear on behaviour expectations, time keeping, housekeeping, presentation, customer service, visual merchandising. The list can be long or short, but whatever is relevant to your business make sure it is communicated with no room for mis-interpretation. Then, live the expectations yourself and be sure to pull people up on the spot forever-more if they fall outside of the expectations set (i.e. immediate feedback). No one is exempt from these expectations, as that would be inconsistent – right!?!
  2. Build and understand your own role. A manager can become everything to everyone. It is a thankless job where you can get pulled into everything where you end up doing everyone else’s job if you are not careful. By setting your job role within your business, with key tasks built into your week and key timings when certain things get done you can once again re-enforce the concept of consistency. Having an element of regime that your staff can become familiar with sets structure. This is a framework that you and your team can work from on a weekly basis. Everyone knows “when” to expect as well as “what” to expect.
  3. One-on-one Meetings. Have a book, a file, or a digital program that holds all of your staff notes. Every time you have a sit-down with a team member it is critical to take notes. Relying on your memory can be a tenuous strategy in such a fast-paced world. Keep records, and be sure to have regular chats with your team (both formal and informal). You will have an initial one-on-one with your team members to set expectations as previously described. Here you can also start to understand an individual’s needs. What they need from you. What type of leadership they need right now. The type of communication they respond well to, and if they need high levels of attention and supervision or if they need space and delegation. Remember, note it all down!
  4. Flex using the three communication types. Once you know how humans communicate and receive messages to and from each other, you can start to sell effectively. It is the same with managing people. There are three main ways humans communicate a message of any type to each other:
    1. Body Language – we use this and notice this more than anything else. Our body language tells someone everything about what we “really mean” and what we “really want to say”. Being aware of our body language, and then using it in the right context when leading teams will help to flex a message to be more assertive, or softer depending on the need of the individual at a given time.
    2. Tone of Voice – second to body language, but still critically important. This is the use of pitch, volume, and pace of our voice as we speak. There are many great examples of leaders that do this well, but the one person that stands out to me in recent history is Barack Obama. He uses the “pause” and variation in pace-of-speech better than anyone I have ever seen. Use your tone of voice to convey urgency, or calm, or confidence, or light-heartedness – wherever is necessary.
    3. The spoken word –It may surprise you that the words we say influence the messages we convey a lot less than the two factors above, but it is true. This is down to the fact that we are all generally born as bad listeners. Listening is a skill, and most of us are quite poor at it. Having said this, the words we use are of course very important. Choosing your words carefully and using the right dialogue for different individuals will help you flex your management style without your team even noticing. Here we are talking about language – some people respond to simple short sentences, while some enjoy intricate elaborate language. Planning your wording before speaking with a team member on a subject can save you a lot of grief down the line, and will help you be effective and efficient with your communication.

I acknowledge that this is the tip of a very large iceberg, and that different businesses will have either constraints or intricacies that are unique and require their own techniques and strategies. I hope that this article assists you to start tackling the paradox, and to one day beat it so that the paradox becomes your asset. A tool in your management toolbox that you can carry around with you everywhere you go.

The Pen and Paper Trick

I just downloaded Brin. It’s a new app and I have no idea what it really does yet. It wants to talk to me, and provide me with a whole host of info. Everyday there is a host of new apps to explore and discover. Another accounting software, platforms that integrate with a whole lot of others, or the category of super popularity – productivity apps! As soon as you get to grips with Snapchat, Instagram pulls out a competitive platform, and the dance is never ending.

Innovation in technology is everywhere around us, and it is moving forward at an expediential rate. It is exciting, a little scary, and sometimes exhausting.

When I speak of innovation with people, the tech version is what people immediately think of for the above reasons. However, innovation to me comes in the form of a good chat, or even just a piece of paper and a pen. Allow me to explain.

My interpretation of innovation is to do things in a new way. A way which we haven’t thought of doing before or have implemented previously. The most confronting aspect of my work is that a majority of people go about their business the way they always have because that is how it has always been done. It can often be very restricting for an entity’s ability to grow or work itself out of a tight spot.

Before I get on my high-horse about this it is important to point out that there are good reasons why a lack of innovation takes place:

Short Term’ism – an everyday battle. Trying to achieve today’s target often means that overall values and long term goals need to be comprised. It is a fact of life and a part of the human condition. This is the easiest of traps to fall into for all of us.

Time – innovation requires an investment in time. To think creatively to build a strategy ready for communication and implementation will use time. Who has spare time? None of us, or at least we don’t if we do not see the value in creative thinking and prioritise this as a necessary task.

Cost – almost 100% of the time implementing new ways of working will take an investment of cash. New materials, equipment, people… etc. This is all that leaders can see when faced with the prospect of change.

Risk – all of the above all have a level of risk. Put them all together and add the fact that your new innovative plans will never come with guarantees. Now you have every excuse to remain where you are and keep doing things the way you always have.

The bad news about using all of these reasons (or excuses) to not start getting innovative is that it is extremely rare (I cannot overstate this) that your competitors, and ones that do not even exist yet will take your business away from you. This may not happen now, or in the next year, but it will happen. It has been proven on many occasions that businesses rely on good timing in regard to the market as the most critical factor for their success. Take seven minutes to watch the insightful Ted Talk by Bill Gross on Start Up Success. Bill uses examples in the sharing economy such as Airbnb & Uber to illustrate his findings. These business models simply did not work five or ten years previously. People tried and failed. The technology was not right, but most importantly the market did not relate to it with the result being that no one brought the concept. The lesson – move with the times, listen to the consumer market with detailed attention, and constantly innovate.

There is a good trick I use to install innovation and creativity into a person and their business. It requires paper. Preferably, A1 or A2 size. A pen, or preferably some coloured markers (however some napkins and a pen at a bar works well too). Then identify a particular problem that needs to be solved. Make it as specific as you possibly can and write it down. You can do this by yourself or with a small group. Either works well depending on the topic.

Step 1 – Brainstorm two or three solutions. At this point stop.

Step 2 – Take one clean sheet of paper and write/draw a picture or mind map of that idea and explore it as much as you can. Think of every which way it would work and how the idea could be activated until it has been developed as much as you can.

Step 3 – repeat for your other initial ideas.

Step 4 – by this point you have probably opened up a few other ideas in areas that you never would have thought of. Take a moment to explore them if you have the energy or time. If not, schedule yourself a time to re-convene and bang out the process again.

Step 5­ – Sleep on it. Allowing your mind space and time so that your sub-conscious can work on the ideas by itself. This is hugely beneficial as the analytical conscious mind finds many reasons/excuses (as stated above) to rule out great ideas. Sleep, exercise, playing games/sport, gardening, or general procrastinating can be useful for this step. Yes, procrastinating can be productive!

Step 6 – Conviction. You need to muster up the guts, the balls, the courage to go for it. This is easier if you grab a piece of paper and pen and write out the process of implementation. I use a quote that works well for me “writing is doing”. Getting thoughts out on paper makes it real and ensures good ideas don’t just bounce around in our brain resulting in never turning into actions.

I have used this method with many clients. In my previous roles with corporate businesses, and with franchisee’s. I use it often myself when I have a specific challenge to deal with, and it is extremely helpful when creating new marketing campaigns and sales strategies. I call it a trick because the process makes seemingly complex and paralysing situations simple and easier to find solutions for.

Maybe I will use it right now to solve my app problem starting with how to use this new app Brin, and figure out how it can be of use for me and my business.