Are you in an adaptive state?

The world is changing all the time and we don’t work in isolation – we work with suppliers and customers, partners and competitors, laws and regulations making up our business environment.

Changes that affect the environment will affect us – and will have an effect on us.

We have to be alert to the changes as in every business there’s a need to adapt and adjust to the new circumstances.

Ignoring those changes, as many business leaders seem to try to do, is just storing up problems for the future. That’s pretty obvious if you think of laws and regulation where failure to adapt to the changes is likely to lead to a fine or even imprisonment for those who fail to comply.

We have all heard that ignorance of the law is no defence so we keep watch on those changes, but do you watch for other changes in the environment?

If there’s a change in your supply chain, are you ready to respond? Do you have multiple sources of supply for key items?

Whatever business you are in, technology is affecting it. Recently I was helping a membership organisation where they had failed to adjust their membership processes.  A few years ago, we would expect to submit an application to join a society through snail mail and then wait a week or so for the membership pack to arrive, but now we expect to apply online and receive immediate membership. The membership organisation had not adapted their methods and membership applications were described as “laborious”

If your competitor is introducing a new product, are you ready to react and provide even better service to your customer? Are you watching the market, or better yet leading the market!

There’s a book by Marshall Goldsmith – What got you here won’t get you there – and applying just the title to your business thinking will help you move to an adaptive state.

Don’t worry, be happy!

I see a lot of business owners and leader who find work very stressful.

I’m reminded of this quote from Reinhold Niebuhr:

“Lord, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Business owners feel responsible for everything and everyone in the business, but they often worry about things they cannot change.

Worrying about the wrong things – those things you cannot change – does you no good, does your blood pressure no good and most importantly does the business no good!

If you’ve done all you can for the customer, you can’t change the decision they are going to make next week or next month.

If you’ve done the research and created the marketing campaign that you all think will work, you must try it to see if it will work. Worrying about it won’t change the outcome.

So what will your worrying do?

If you are worried, it’s like an infectious disease that you will pass on to the team. They will worry as well. If you are worried, you may not (will not) be focused on the things that you can change – where you will make a difference. If you infect the team with your worries, they won’t be focused, will second guess themselves, take longer and probably make more mistakes.

Taking longer and making more mistakes leads to an increase in workload. Extra workload can mean more stress and more worrying – it’s a vicious spiral.

The business leader who appears not to be worried takes away a lot of stress. The team look to the leader and if he’s not worried then we don’t have to be.

Think of the captain of a sports team, or a leader on the battlefield. They are confident and positive, not worried and negative. Sometimes that is just an act – they really are not confident, but they won’t let it show because that damages the team.

So ask yourself “Can I change this thing I am worrying about?” and if the answer is no, move on!

Perfection can be the enemy of progress

There are times when perfection must be achieved but also times when it is the enemy of progress.

If you have a product or service in development that is not yet perfect and you continue the development until you reach what you regard as perfection, you may just find the market has been taken from you by an inferior product. They call it “first mover” advantage or first to market advantage.

There is also a strong probability that the product (or service) is not quite what the customer’s want or need. You’ve used your knowledge and experience to build this, but if you don’t have customer feedback it is easy to go down the wrong road.

That’s an obvious example, but the same principles can easily be applied to your internal projects. I was responsible for the roll-out of a new IT hardware system. We were a relatively small company, and were not using IT professionals – it was mostly down to me. I had a plan for the roll-out but as with any plan, things did not work quite as expected! In this case, a printer that had worked perfectly in one environment decided not to work with the new system.

In the perfect world, I would have setup the printer and everything else in a test environment before deployment. I’d have found and resolved the problem. That would have taken an impractical amount of time (I had a day job, this was a set of additional responsibilities) and money.

In the real world, we deployed the new system and the printer failed. We could have reverted to the old system (that was my ultimate backup plan) but managed to find a workaround that let us operate. We had the new system running within the day, the operations and the customers were not hampered and the business could benefit from the new faster hardware.

If you’ve got a backup plan, and failure won’t affect the customer, roll out the project and fix it when you know what’s wrong.  If you’ve got a new product, get it to market in beta or prototype form. Don’t wait for perfection!

Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear 

The other day as I was driving home, a car in the nearside lane pulled out as I was alongside it. I don’t know how they missed me!

I was reminded of the legend you often see in car door or wing mirrors: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear”

The same is true of deadlines; they are always closer than you think.

If you plan to complete something that will take five days work and you want to complete it in 6 months time it is very easy to think “Ok, I’ve got plenty of time to do that” and do nothing.

Before you know it the deadline is only 3 months away. Apparently, half the available time has disappeared but progress on the project is still zero.

If you factor in the other commitments on your time – the things that you have to do every week, and every month – the time you have available for this project can be very limited indeed!

Take your six-month deadline and deduct from that any holidays – personal or public. That’s a couple of weeks. Then take away your normal committed hours – for the sake of ease let’s assume you have one day a fortnight available for the project.

Six months is 30 weeks or 150 days, but you are on holiday for 10 days and busy for 135 days.

Your available time at the outset is 5 days to complete a 5-day project, so you don’t have a moment to lose!

Completing a project on time and on the budget – whether that is a time or an expenditure budget – requires, first of all, a sensible assessment of the available resources. If you really don’t have the 5 days, you are not going to complete the project. You may have to reduce other commitments to make the time/free up the resources.

A really useful second step – especially with more complex projects – is to have milestones that have their own deadlines. You can review progress on an interim basis and adjust the project plan based on those reviews, either by additional resource or by extending the timetable.

Satisfied customers can be bad for your business

What do your customers think of you – do you know? Have you asked them?

If they think you are great and rave about you all the time, that’s perfect.

If your objective is to satisfy your customers you may fall short from time to time, and even if you don’t you are vulnerable to losing customers to competitor activity.

A satisfied customer is some proof that you met expectations. You satisfied them. You could probably replace satisfied in their responses with “OK” as in I am OK dealing with them

If your customer is only OK dealing with you, they are only one bad experience away from leaving you. You were OK until you messed up this last order, so now I am going to go and find someone else who is equally OK in the hope that they won’t mess up.

Equally, if they are only satisfied with you, how much of a special offer or an incentive will it take for a competitor to poach them? Probably not that much of an effort, after all, your customer thinks you are only “OK”.

How different is the situation when your customer is a raving fan?

You are in a much better place. Competitor activity will not attract them – they probably won’t even notice it – and because they are your fan they will forgive the occasional mistake.

How do you create raving fans?

First, set the expectation in the business – in every department – that you are always going to go the extra mile for every customer.

Second, talk to the customer. Ask the customer “What can we do better?” and “What will it take for you to become a fan?”

The things that you think matter to your customer may not matter at all and things that you don’t even notice may irritate and upset your customer. You will only find out if you ask!

Not every question needs an immediate answer

There’s a temptation to give an immediate answer to any question that comes your way. If you can answer quickly and completely, that’s great. The person asking can get on with whatever it was that they were dealing with and you can go back to dealing with what is on your desk.

Or is it great?

You’ve been distracted and it takes some time to regain your focus and get back to where you were. That’s especially true if you are dealing with a complex issue.

The person asking the question has also been distracted – possibly for even longer that you were, as they’ve given the problem some thought and tried to resolve it themselves before looking for assistance – or have they?

Some questions are just laziness.
Some questions are just seeking reassurance.
Some questions are just social interaction.
Some questions are serious questions around difficult problems.

If you are interrupted with a question, which category is it? If you can answer it immediately, it is probably one of the first three.

Laziness is when the information is available, the person has previously asked and had the answer. They can’t remember or have not referred to the previous example.

Reassurance is something we all need from time to time, but if this is a long established well-trained person, it may be time for you to “look in the mirror”. They don’t feel empowered to make that decision and need your stamp of approval.

We’re all social animals and there will always be a level of interaction, but it should not be a cause of distraction. If that becomes a pattern, make a point of giving the questioner some additional time in the coffee break or over lunch.

If it is the last category – a serious question around a difficult problem – you probably should not be answering it immediately.

If you can answer the question immediately, did it really need to be asked?

Was it a productive use of your and the questioner’s time?

Giving Feedback

There are few things more important in running a successful business than the review and feedback you give the team around you, yet many business owners are guilty of doing the minimum possible.

I think it’s a fear of confrontation, or perhaps of causing offence

If you don’t give your team their reviews you are not just following bad practice, you are damaging the business.

If you are not happy with someone’s performance and you don’t tell them, it is never going to get any better. On the other side of the coin, if you are really pleased with what they are doing and don’t tell them, don’t be surprised when they leave for another job where they feel more valued!

You can and should use the review process to set objectives and measure progress towards those objectives. I like to set objectives that are measured on a weekly or monthly basis – if you like the objectives for the day job – and set some that are more strategic, probably cannot be achieved overnight but will benefit the business longer term.

The review should not be confrontational and you should not be giving or causing offence but we are so used to concentrating on the negative and the things that need improvement that we dive straight into them. That’s where it is easy to be in a review meeting where the reviewee is defensive and the reviewer frustrated. When we become defensive we close up, physically, and mentally. We stop listening!

You can adapt a model we use in the speaking world.

Use a feedback sandwich. Very simply, say something nice to start with. It will relax the reviewee and they will be open, attentive and listening. You can then move on to the things that need improvement, and if you treat it as “needs improvement” rather than “you did that wrong” you’ll have a better chance of keeping their attention.

Finally, close with some more positive messages. Don’t worry, the reviewee will remember the negative far longer than they do the positive – so you don’t need to rub it in.

It’s not about Fred

Is there a bit of your business that you hate, yet it seems to come around more and more often? Is it the same problem in a different guise?

I often see businesses that have become reliant upon an individual’s knowledge, yet that knowledge is being applied to the relatively mundane. It’s being used to resolve problems and issues that quite frankly should not need that level of attention. They keep reappearing and take valuable time and resource.

People are like water and tend to take the path of least resistance. You know that Fred has the knowledge to solve the problem, so the easiest thing is to go and ask Fred. He obliges, you solve the problem and the world goes on.

Then comes the day when Fred is not available. Perhaps he is on holiday – or perhaps he has retired. All that knowledge and know-how has left the business.

If you had taken the slightly harder path and worked with Fred to create a process to deal with the problem, you can still deal with the problem when Fred isn’t there. Yes, it takes a bit longer the first time but the benefit can be significant. You are spreading the knowledge, probably training others, and giving them a more interesting job all at the same time.

Fred finds he has time to apply his knowledge to something other than problem-solving. He will feel less pressured and more valued – and he will be contributing at a different level.

Making things part of a process or procedure is not about compliance or about forcing individuals to follow rules; it’s about best practice and continually improving your business.

You might even find that Fred’s way isn’t the only way. Once the process is set out, others can see the path, and perhaps they will improve on it as well.

Know your customers

In banking and financial services there’s a set of regulations called Know Your Customer or KYC for short. If you’ve opened an account in another country in the past few years you will have experienced the process which can be administratively complex!

One of my clients was opening an account in Hong Kong and the standard procedure of “Please call into the branch with your passport” was not very helpful. The ultimate owner is the person whose identity must be verified – and in this case that was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who had no plans to visit Asia soon!

Knowing your customers and knowing your market is vitally important for any business. It’s not a compliance issue (as it is in banking) but a tool to help you win more customers and do more business.

I was reminded of this when I heard Lord Karan Bilimoria describing the early days of Cobra beer. He and his partner marketed the beer to independent Asian restaurants and their efforts laid the foundations for the success of Cobra.

He knew his market; he knew his customers and he had created a product to fit with their offerings and their customers.

Had he tried the same approach with many (most) of the restaurants on the high street it would have failed, as they are not usually independent and the manager on the site has little authority to purchase anything!
Had he tried the same approach in another country it might not have worked. In the US, where there are plenty of independent restaurants, the majority (in my experience) do not serve alcohol at all.
If you don’t have a really good connection to your market and a thorough understanding of why your customers choose you, the chances are that your marketing efforts will misfire.

Don’t assume that you know why they buy – assumptions are dangerous and they may be buying for a reason you don’t consider important.

Ask your customers why they buy; ask the ones who have left why they are leaving. You might be surprised by what you learn.

Are you living up to your promises?

Dig out your mission & vision statements and re-read them, would you?

They are promises you made to yourself and the team.

Are you following the dream, or doing just enough to get by?

It’s all too easy to get dragged into the trenches of dealing with the day to day hassle and that can easily take you way from the path you set out to follow. That happens to all of us!

Getting back on track starts with the recognition that you were off track to begin with. Review your plan / budget against the mission and vision – are your actions in the short term taking you towards the long-term goal, just holding your ground or at worst taking you away from your goal?

I’m a great fan of a rolling four quarterly plan and budget.

It’s a methodology that requires you to review the plan at least once a quarter and update it – so you can’t create the annual plan and just leave it in the drawer until the year is done!

It prevents you from saying “Oh well, that was our estimate 9 months ago so it doesn’t matter” as you have reviewed an updated that forecast at least 3 times.

It avoids the cliff, where something is happening just after year end. The annual plan finishes at year end; this event is a moth or so later but it’s not in the plan – and won’t be recognised until the new planning cycle kicks off.  One business I worked with had a royalty payment due in the January; the plans and forecasts finished in Dec and it was not until we started the plan for the new year that it became apparent our cashflow was insufficient!

It avoids a massive planning session that everyone hates. You are planning once a quarter – updating the next 9 months and adding on another 3 – so that it becomes routine.

In the quarterly review sessions, have the mission & vision to hand. That will help keep them in mind and make sure you are staying on track.