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Is process the enemy of creativity?

I have been told more times than I care to remember that process inhibits creativity and we should just ‘let things flow’ so that creative ideas are not short-lived – or even stillborn.

Well-planned processes take into account all the ripple effects. Making a change in a business is like throwing a rock into a series of interlinked ponds. You might be able to see where the ripples end in the first pond, but what about the splash that agitates the next pond and creates ripples there?

The phrase that comes to mind is –

The law of unintended consequences

Well-structured processes and procedures are designed to take to take care of all these side effects so that the organisation remains able to function efficiently.

Organisations with poor or non-existent processes end up re-inventing the wheel. They waste time and effort working out how to do things scratch when they have been done before.

But there may be an element of truth in the assertion that process inhibits creativity. I have come across systems and procedures which are so rigid and inflexible that nothing ever gets changed. It’s just too much like hard work to introduce a new idea!

For me, that’s a good reason to change the process. It’s not a good reason to bypass the process or take shortcuts, which is what my creative colleagues often seem to want to do!

Getting a new idea up and running in an organisation will always mean there are going to be hurdles or barriers to be overcome. For example, it might be that you are required to have a fully costed budget, or perhaps you need to be championed by someone higher up in the organisation.

Creativity is stifled when those hurdles are set too high, too soon. If too many approvals are required early on, it’s much easier to say ‘no’ and kill the project.

Why not take a leaf out of Metro Bank’s book? They have a rule that it takes two managers to say ‘no’ to a customer, but only one to say ‘yes’.

That’s a process, by the way, and I don’t see it inhibiting creativity!

Are you proactive or reactive?

Have you noticed how busy everyone is?

When you walk down the street or sit somewhere for a coffee, look around, and you’ll see most people engaged with their devices. Mobile phones and tablets are wonderful tools that keep us in touch with what’s happening in the world, and with our contacts nearer home.

We’re all busy. When you’re trying to get someone’s attention with an email or another piece of marketing material, the gurus will tell you that you have to try seven or more times before you should expect a result.

If you follow Twitter, or you’ve tried to do so, the sheer volume of comment can be overwhelming, and the same can be said of Facebook. Keeping up to date with the minutiae of your friends’ lives would leave you with no time to do anything else!

Even if you don’t use social media, it’s really easy to spend all day just reading and responding to emails.

The danger with this is that you are only ever reacting to inbound information – or noise – and not being proactive and moving towards your objective.
You do have an objective for today, don’t you?That sounds like such a big thing. The objective. It’s rather a grandiose term and perhaps a little intimidating, isn’t it?

Let me simplify it.

At the start of each day, ask yourself: “What am I going to achieve today?’

How you answer this will set your objective for the day. It’s not complicated, but it is important – important enough to write down and remember it.

When you’re taking a break – perhaps when you go to get a coffee, or perhaps at lunch, take a look at the objective and measure how much progress you’ve made towards it.

Repeat the exercise at the end of the day.

You’ll be amazed at how much more you get done when you stick to the task you’ve set yourself!

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.

Make happy those who are near and those who are far will come

That’s a Chinese proverb that you can apply to many aspects of your business.

It’s pretty obvious in its application to customer service. If you can’t make your existing customers happy, they are not going to refer new clients or customers to you – and a “satisfied” customer is only ever one step away from becoming a past customer.

You can equally apply it to the team in the business. If you can make them happy, there’s good chance they will make the extra effort to ensure the customer is happy.  That may sound a bit simplistic, but it is one of the foundations of success for SouthWest airlines in the USA.

It’s also the case that the team will help you with recruitment. They think they are working in a great place, so they will tell their friends and family. When you have a vacancy they will recommend someone. Suddenly you’ve not only saved a recruitment fee, you’ve got a new member of the team who is really delighted and enthusiastic to join and you’ve got an existing team member who is going to go all out to make sure the newbie succeeds.

If you wanted to raise more money for the business, just imagine how much harder that is if your existing investors (or your bank) have lost interest or been disappointed.  It will be a lot easier to get that overdraft extended or the credit arranged for that new piece of kit if the bank manager is on your side, but even more crucial if you wanted to raise additional equity one of the first questions from any new investor would concern what role your existing investors will play. If they are not risking their money (and they know you) why should I take that risk?

You can apply this to your supply chain. If you’ve looked after them and you have a problem, your suppliers will try to help you. If you’ve always been a pain to deal with that’s less likely to be true.

When you come to sell the business, good due diligence will uncover your reputation, not just with your customers.

Bad Weather shouldn’t stop you

They say there’s no such thing as bad weather only inadequate clothing.

I walked the dog one morning in a howling gale and with heavy rain driven on the wind, but I was wrapped up warm with hat, boots and gloves.

In your business if you are properly prepared for whatever events are coming your way then coping with those events is easy.

What if events catch you unaware on the other hand?

That would be like going out in that howling gale in a t shirt, shorts and flip flops. Some people might enjoy it, but most of us would not (the dog wouldn’t care either way as long as she got her walk!)

What events might catch you out and what can you do to prepare for them?

Markets
If the market you serve – or the market your customers serve – is going through a down-turn, or seems likely to do so, does your business plan reflect that? It’s all very well taking last year’s numbers and adding a bit, but if in the meantime the market has taken a turn for the worse your plan is probably unrealistic.

If the market is picking up and there is more business out there, does your plan (and do your sales targets) reflect that or are the sales team getting an easy ride?

Forex

If you do business in multiple currencies, do you have a plan for exchange rate movements or are you just hoping for the best? At the very least you should be hedging your exposure but I’ve always preferred natural hedging, where your income and expenditure are matched by currency, whenever possible.

Customers and Suppliers

If your business is dependent upon any one customer or any one supplier, you should have a plan to secure your position, but also a plan to minimise your risks.

Throughout your business think of the external risks, seek to minimise them and develop a plan to cope should the worst happen.

Get the right people

 

Several of my clients are recruiting at the moment, and I’ve been helping frame their thinking as part of the process.

Sometimes, all you really need to do is to hire someone who can carry out the same duties as the person who has left, but actually that is fairly rare.

Think of recruitment as an opportunity for you and your business to learn.

Perhaps you can recruit someone from a larger company, who will bring with them years of learning and experience. There will be things that they are used to that don’t work for you and your business, but there may well be ways of working and procedures that they know and you can adopt or modify to improve your business.

A similar raft of knowledge can come from someone who has worked outside your industry. What they don’t know about your business is often made up for by the external view.

These are the people who are like an annoying toddler, they keep asking “Why?”

Why do you do that? Why this way? Why not the other way?

They will challenge your processes and procedures as part of their understanding, and they may just shed some light on things that have evolved but are no longer really fit for purpose.

The second part of successful recruitment is to think of the person you need for the future, not just for today. That’s especially true for businesses that are growing, but applies to all. The world is changing, business is changing and people need to adapt.

The final part of successful recruitment is the induction program. If you’ve chosen the right people and they have the knowledge and skills to challenge the established ways, will they have the opportunity to do so – will your culture permit it?

The first 100 minutes, the first hundred hours and the first 100 days are useful milestones to think about your induction program.

 

What do you want to happen?

When you have a meeting, or you send an email, or perhaps you are having a telephone conversation it is helpful if there is a clearly defined purpose.

It is really easy to fall into the trap of re-running the same management meeting every week. Those meetings spend too much time looking at what happened last week and very little about what is going to happen / what will be different this week.

It’s easy to send an email that can best be summarised as “for information only – no action required.” You have spent time creating and crafting it, then the recipient has to take time to read it – and will probably respond, so that you know they have read it, and you have to read their response.

It is easy to pick up the phone and have a nice conversation with a prospect, but all too easy to finish the call without moving the prospect closer to becoming a client. Yes, you have to build a relationship, but that doesn’t mean that each and every conversation should not have a purpose above and beyond building the relationship.

With your regular meetings, make sure that you have a 30/70 split so that at least 70% of the meeting is spent focused on the things you can change, not the history you cannot change.

Before you send that email, think about what you want the recipient to do, what action you want them to take. If there is no action required, is the email necessary?

Find a reason to call, something that adds value to your prospect. They will welcome it and you build a stronger relationship. Have a plan for when your prospect falls of the prospect list or converts to a client. You can spend a lot of time talking to people who will never become clients or customers.

Act with purpose – you will get a whole lot more done!

 

Make it easy for your customers to pay you

 

One thing that I often see in businesses of all shapes and sizes is a focus on the profit and loss account, or income statement, with not enough attention paid to the balance sheet. There may be hidden money in your balance sheet that you can use!

Do you pride yourself on paying all your suppliers on time, but find your customers don’t pay you on time? You are not alone!

** Make it easy for your customer to pay you
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One business I advised had succeeded in winning business in the Ukraine, and this was turning into a significant opportunity. The sales team were getting very excited!

The finance team were getting worried – payments were erratic, and very slow.

The Ukrainian government had imposed currency controls – you could not pay in “hryvnia” outside the Ukraine, and to pay in US Dollars you needed to get finance ministry approval for each payment.

That wasn’t easy for our customers, and was hampering our business growth. We established a subsidiary company in the Ukraine, so our local customers could pay us in the local currency. Business boomed and the customers were paying much more frequently.

Now, that’s an extreme example, but how easy do you make it for your customers to do business with you, and how easy do you make it for them to pay you? I’m just asking!

 

Try and Try again – or maybe not? Persistence pays.

When I was a child, my parents often exhorted me to “Try & Try again” if I failed at something.

In business, all too often I meet companies who, when something is suggested, respond with “Oh that doesn’t work – we tried it some time ago and it failed”

If you dig into that & get them to recall the details, it’s amazing what you can find.

A direct mail campaign didn’t work for us

Well, in fact you only sent one piece of mail, to a small selection of your past customers

We tried using a different system

This is one of my favourites. In general people are resistant to change and prefer to do things the familiar way. If they aren’t convinced of the need to change, your team will prefer to see the new system fail.

It was too complicated

Well, it might be, but it is more likely that the proposal wasn’t broken down into its component parts. You can eat an elephant, one mouthful at a time, but if you start with the whole elephant on the plate it can be a bit intimidating.

Most of the time, business don’t try often enough or hard enough. They are not convinced of the strategy, and go into it half-heartedly, then withdraw at the first obstacle. That’s a recipe for failure.

If you are going to try something new, research it, plan the steps, and then execute it whole heartedly, with real commitment from the leaders of the business.

You could still fail because your strategy was incorrect, but most of the time Initiatives fail for poor execution, not faulty strategy.