Posts on Nov 2020

The One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge :: Week 48 :: Strategic Planning :: Alliances

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This African proverb is the perfect backdrop for this week’s One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge. If you’re a solopreneur or the owner or CEO of a small company, you can pivot quickly. You don’t need anyone’s permission for a change in product, service, delivery, messaging or anything else. As the proverb says, “you can go fast”. But because you’re a solopreneur or small enterprise, you’re also constrained in the volume of things you can do. As a solopreneur, you can’t be a full-time marketer, a full-time financier, and a full-timer producer. As a small enterprise with a limited staff for each discipline, you eventually bump up against the limits of what your team can produce. To go farther, as the proverb says, “you must go together”.

One of the most effective ways an organization can “go farther” is to “go together” with another firm in a strategic alliance. Strategic alliances allow firms with complimentary product or service offerings to band together to offer their combined services to their respective clients. Strategic alliances are just that, alliances. Neither party takes a financial stake in the other entity. Strategic alliances allow participants to “put their toe in the water” with new offerings without investing in additional training or personnel.

In this week’s exercise, I want you to identify some potential strategic alliance partners. Before we jump in, I want to give you one important requirement for making a strategic alliance work. Strategic alliance partners must share core values. Core values are the measuring tool by which you should judge all associations – employees, customers, vendors, AND strategic alliance partners.

Do this week’s exercise on you own or get your leadership team together to answer these questions. Let’s jump in.

  • What businesses share the same target audience? My company has done three strategic alliances – all with partners who serve small-medium sized businesses. I’ve partnered with other consultants who focus on other disciplines. My focus is strategy and operations. I’ve done strategic alliances with an HR consultant and a branding consultant. I’ve done a strategic alliance with a CPA. I’ve done strategic alliances with two software companies. In each case, customers need the services of both entities, but the service offerings don’t overlap. What other companies service the same customers that you service?
  • What businesses are in adjacent spaces? If you’re a roofer, forge a strategic alliance with someone who does gutters. If you’re an exterminator, forge a strategic alliance with someone who does wildlife removal.
  • What businesses are further up or further down the value creation chain? If you’re a restaurant, can you form a strategic alliance with a local farmer to create a special menu item featuring a locally raised or grown product? If you’re a restaurant, you might already have forged a strategic alliance with a delivery service like Doordash that can take your prepared meals from the restaurant to the patron’s home.
  • If you’re in an industry that relies on consumer’s discretionary spending, what businesses compete for the same discretionary dollars? If you’re a restaurant, can you partner with a movie theater, axe throwing venue, mini-golf course or escape room for a complete “night out” package? If you’re a florist, can you partner with an event space or caterer to serve those planning a wedding?
  • In a slightly different twist on the strategic alliance, what very similar business serves a different geography? If you’re a garage door repair company in Denver, can you form a strategic alliance with a garage door repair company in Nashville? You could share website development costs (only needing to change logos, contact info and testimonials). You could share marketing materials.

 

After you’ve created your list of potential strategic alliance partners, start making some phone calls. Set up an initial meeting. Start slow. In your initial conversations, you’re probing first for shared values. If the potential partner doesn’t share your commitment to fair pricing, customer service, employee development (these are just examples, swap in your non-negotiable core values), move on to the next potential partner. When you find a good candidate for a strategic alliance, tee up the idea and get a response.

To borrow from Stephen Covey, before you start any strategic alliance, “begin with the end in mind”. Define the criteria by which you will judge the success of the alliance. How will you dissolve the alliance if it doesn’t produce the results that you had hoped? What will be the disposition of any intellectual property that was created or has been shared during the alliance? What will be the disposition of any new customers gained during the alliance? Conversely, what will the course of action be if the strategic alliance produces stellar results? Will you be free to add that expertise to your own organization in the form of new team members? Will you acquire the other organization, or will your organization be acquired? If you decide to dissolve the alliance, what will be the disposition of new or shared intellectual property? What will be the disposition of any new customers added? The more of these questions you answer in advance, the greater the possibility the strategic alliance is a positive experience for both partners.

Consider not only the end of the alliance, but also the operational details during the alliance. How will revenue be split? Work hard to make the alliance a win-win for both partners. How will each entity promote the new offerings – under their own banner or as an additional offering from a trusted strategic partner? Who will pay for promotion? Again, the more of these questions that are answered up front, the greater the possibility the strategic alliance works well for both parties.

The One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge :: Week 47 :: Marketing :: Target Clients

Traditional marketing many times mimicked traditional product development. In traditional product development, a team of “experts” created a solution that – 1) they were enamored with, 2) represented a departure from current products in function, usability and/or experience, and 3) they hoped had commercial viability. Companies then turned those products over to traditional marketers who touted the features and benefits of the new offerings in hopes that someone would be willing to part with their hard-earned money and give it a try. In short, a solution in search of a problem. Once those few, brave early adopters surfaced, the marketers could look for others like them – target clients.

For decades, the bulk of “marketing science” was built around this approach. We learned about market segmentation, customer profiles, demographics, psychographics, geographics, behavioristics, and a host of other ways to segregate and talk to people who might be interested in our products or services. I’m not advocating that we abandon or unlearn all or even any of this, but instead broaden our field of knowledge. In recent years, new research in product development and marketing have the potential to make us much more effective in creating new offerings and communicating with those who are willing to buy them.

In Competing with Luck, Clayton Christensen helped us understand that the key to innovative product development is problem solving. Yogi Berra reminded us that, “you can observe a lot by watching.” Together, these two pieces of information give you everything you need to know to create a successful product. Carefully survey your slice of the world for a problem to solve. Then solve the problem better than anyone else.

Problems and the subsequent solutions can be simple – your smartphone slides across the dashboard or seat when you’re driving. You need a bracket that fits in your cupholder with a slot on the top to hold your phone. Or the problems can be more obscure – so obscure that you didn’t know you had the problem. Steve Jobs and the folks at Apple discovered that you needed a device bigger than your smartphone, but smaller than your laptop and viola, the iPad was born (along with a host of Android competitors). You didn’t know you needed a tablet, but, so far, about 1.5 billion of them have been sold worldwide. The potential upside of a product is in direct proportion to number of people that are afflicted by the problem that the product solves.

That brings us to this week’s One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge.

For this week’s exercise, I want you to create a detailed definition of the problem you’re effectively solving (what is the cause, how does it manifest itself i.e. what are the first, second and third order consequences, what is the personnel impact, what is the financial impact, what is the emotional or psychological impact, what is the social impact) and identify the people who have that problem – those people are your target clients.

As you start the exercise, the most disturbing discovery could be that you’ve created a solution for a non-existent problem (or a problem that afflicts a number of people so small, that it’s not commercially viable). If that’s the case, it’s time to survey the landscape and look for a problem to solve.

Assuming you have a superior solution to a real problem experienced by enough people, the assignment becomes, how do you effectively communicate with the people afflicted by that problem. I want to offer up some bullet points –

  • Discover where the people who have that problem look for information to solve it – Google search, friends on social media, LinkedIn, from others in their industry, cold sales calls, email solicitation, Yelp, Angie’s List, networking groups.
  • Begin interacting with them, using their preferred medium, with information that convinces them you understand the depth of the problem – discuss multiple manifestations of the problem and discuss the impacts of the problem.
  • Empathize with them. To prove the depth of your understanding, discuss the way the problem makes them feel – frustrated, insecure, uncertain about the future.
  • Start being useful. Offer initial solutions to the problem. If you give away valuable information you show your care for your target clients and your commitment to solving their problem. And you build credibility as a trusted resource.
  • Explain your value proposition – you have a good, workable solution that makes sense economically. You can’t charge them $10 to solve a $1 problem
  • Let existing clients build your credibility. Show that you’ve successfully solved the problem for others by sharing testimonials, case studies, and white papers.
  • Reach out to individual target clients with personalized emails (or for B2B, LinkedIn messages). Invite them into one-to-one conversations where you can probe for information on how the problem you solve impacts them.

As you explain your intimate understanding of the problem, your understanding of those afflicted by the problem, the pain they feel as a result, the epiphany that brought you to your solution to the problem, the thoroughness of the solution, the economic value of the solution, and the passion you bring to delivering the solution, you will gain recognition among those with the problem and will be seen as a valuable resource. You will find those who, as Simon Sinek would say, “share your why” or as Seth Godin would say, belong to your tribe.

In every interaction, probe for additional opportunities to listen and deepen your understanding of the problem and how it impacts potential target clients. And, in every interaction, if the target client is ready to buy, make your products or services available with an easy-to-follow call to action.

During this week’s thirty-minute exercise, gather your team together. After you’ve defined the problem in sufficient detail, make your initial pass through the list above. Make notes. Decide on your initial medium and messaging.

As you get started, resist the temptation to be perfect. Just start. Experiment with messaging and medium. Every time you get a response, increase your understanding of the problem and how it affects your target clients. Soon you’ll be effectively communicating with the people you’ve built your business to help.

The One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge :: Week 46 :: Culture :: Confront the Brutal Facts

In 1546, English author John Heywood wrote, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” The formative years of my working life were spent in a declining industry. The descent was steep, but it became a lot steeper because people leading the organization failed to confront the brutal facts – in our particular case, the commercial use of the internet. As revenues declined, there was a lot of “whistling through the graveyard”. Revenue was going directly to online competitors. Our “creative destruction” in response to the new online world looked more like repainting the bathroom instead of tearing down the house.  In the late 1990s, I wrote a capital request for the purchase of a new management information system. The proposal included adding capabilities that leveraged our address specific data with address specific data from area utilities and presenting them together in an online portal. I proposed selling address-specific online billing services (we would have been the first) and selling the data to companies with an interest in address-specific information (realtors, home services). I was told to take that section out of my capital request because we didn’t need it.

In my opening quote, Heywood wasn’t disparaging those who couldn’t see, but those who wouldn’t see.

In his 2011 book, Good to Great, Jim Collins encouraged business leaders to confront the brutal facts. Since I began consulting in 2006, it’s been my unfortunate discovery that running from the truth is a common practice in many organizations. We know we should fire that disruptive employee. We know we should find a new vendor to replace that underperforming one. We know we should abandon that underperforming product or location, but we have an emotional attachment to it. But in every case, we don’t.

In week 26 of the One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge, I listed my Cultural Imperatives. Confronting the brutal facts is one of them. Just like Mentor Mindset in week 4 and Lifelong Learning in week 16, Confronting the Brutal Facts deserves its own One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge.

So how do you create an organization that actively pursues the truth and has the organizational fortitude to act on it? In this week’s exercise, I want you to critique your organization. I want you to look for truth-hiding behavior, check for practices that proactively unearth unpleasant truths, root out people not committed to radical transparency, and create or strengthen organizational backbone that acts based on the true picture the facts paint.

Let’s jump in –

Truth Hiding Behaviors

  • You’ve rebuffed a peer or subordinate telling them, “Don’t bring me problems, only bring me solutions.” Maybe they don’t have a solution and since they don’t, they fail to pass along information that is vital to the future of your organization.
  • You spot a new competitor, but discount them because you think the management of the company is weak or the initial product or service is subpar. Managers can grow and products can evolve. Better to take the threat seriously and ask, “Why did they think there was room in my space for a new entrant? What is deficient in my product or delivery that makes them think there is opportunity?”
  • You get negative feedback from an unreliable source (less-than-stellar employee, always-complaining customer, or new, unproven vendor). Go ahead and explore their feedback. As my former boss used to say, “Even a wild boar finds a hickory nut every now and then.”
  • A problem keeps surfacing and a peer or subordinate suggests that you’re the cause (your style, time management, lack of planning). You’ve discounted that feedback because you’ve successfully run the business for a number of years.

 

Unearthing Unpleasant Truths

  • Make sure bad news can easily travel up and down in your organization. Make sure there are no reprisals for “truth tellers.” As a matter of fact, recognize their efforts in getting all the facts on the table.
  • Proactively ask for feedback from employees, customers, and suppliers. Make phone calls and send surveys. Take the totality of the feedback to make a balanced, accurate picture of what it’s like to work at your company, purchase products or services from your company or sell to your company.
  • Engage the services of a third party who can bring a fresh perspective. Maybe a consultant, an advisory board or business-owner peer from a networking group.
  • Trust the data over your gut. Twenty years of experience can make you think you’re invincible. Twenty years of connection can also make you emotionally tied to a person, place, or thing that needs to go.

 

Root out People Not Committed to Radical Transparency

  • Commit first and foremost to the purpose of the organization. Our natural inclination is to want to be right. Instead of putting a premium on being right, in your organization, put a premium on the pursuit of truth.
  • Embrace humility. As Ryan Holiday noted in Ego is the Enemy, “If your reputation can’t absorb a few blows, it wasn’t worth anything in the first place.”
  • Engage in vigorous discussions. Build trust inside your team so that you can talk to each other about failures in execution, faulty plans and blown opportunities. The momentary discomfort of discussing individual lapses must be subordinate to the importance of resolving nagging problems or the exploiting of looming opportunities. If a team member can’t exist in this environment, seriously consider their future in the organization.
  • Squash every form of defensive behavior. When you hear things you’d rather not hear about your organization, your product or your people, resist the temptation to defend. Instead, figure out what you can learn from the feedback and teach your team to do the same.

 

Strengthen Your Organizational Backbone

  • Adopt an execution framework that will help you put “feet” on your fact-driven initiatives. There are several good ones available. I like The 4 Disciplines of Execution, EOS, and I have my own, The Business Framework.
  • Don’t let problems linger. Pursue continuous improvement. Create a bias for action.
  • Build accountability inside the organization. Hold others accountable and have others hold you accountable.

 

When you finish your critique, pull your team together for a heartfelt chat. If you’ve failed to confront the brutal facts in the past, apologize and commit to do it in the future. Prioritize radical transparency, organizational truth-telling, and fact-based decision-making. Act courageously based on the truth.

The One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge :: Week 45 :: Governance :: On the Business vs In the Business

Working ON the business instead of IN the business. I’m not sure he was the first one to introduce the phrase, but I’m pretty sure no one was more responsible for making it a permanent part of our business lexicon than Michael Gerber in his 1986 book, The E Mtyh. He told us something we all know deep down. Entrepreneurs aren’t superheroes. They’re not imbued with specials power that let them build a business from scratch and become successful and wealthy while the rest of us work for someone else. He did, however, teach us that those entrepreneurs who reach the tipping point and build a real business (as opposed to those who just created a job for themselves) learned how to work ON their business and not just IN it.

However, working IN the business isn’t just the affliction of novice entrepreneurs who haven’t made the leap. All of us fall can fall prey to the tyranny of daily, transactional work that isn’t in the best long-term interest of the organization. So, in this week’s One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge, we want to create a framework that you and your team can use to keep your focus on long-term organizational health and do it in a way that fits each person’s responsibilities in the organization.

There’s no “right” percentage of your work week you should be devoting to working ON the business instead of IN it. But the farther you are up the food chain, the higher the percentage should be. If you’re the big boss, the overwhelming majority of your work should be devoted to organizational health, staff development, and business growth. For those farther down the food chain, the mix can and should change to allow for more operational responsibilities (working IN the business).

Let’s jump in. I want you to do a couple of things during your 30 minute exercise this week – identify the best “ON the business” activities you can prioritize during your week AND add some tools to your toolbox that will help you protect your ON the business time.

I can’t tell you all the activities that best constitute working ON the business for you and your organization, but I want to give you a starter list. Jot the ones that resonate with you into Evernote or on a notepad. At the end of the exercise, we’re going to use them.

  • Spend time on personal growth – Read a book, listen to a podcast, take a class, go to a conference. Your organization will most likely never grow beyond you. Learn from people who don’t agree with you philosophically, who work in other industries, and who have already walked this road before you. Synthesize the new things you learn – How do they fit with what you know already? How do they conflict with what you know already? How should what you have learned impact the organization?
  • Devote time to staff development – How can you prepare your direct reports for more responsibilities, including assuming your job? What parts of their performance are deficient? Do they have sufficient cross-discipline understanding? How well are they developing their team so that their eventual replacement is ready? Are they creating sufficient margin in their operational responsibilities, so they have time to devote to working ON the business? Is there talent missing in the organization?
  • Examine meaningful metrics – Have you identified the metrics that are truly indicative of organizational health? If so, are you tracking them faithfully and making course corrections based on the data? Are you pushing them down through the organization so that everyone knows whether or not the organization is “winning”?
  • Evaluate your value creation activities – Are you solving your customer’s problems more effectively than others in your industry? If not, why not? What changes can you make to your value creation activities so that you are creating value better than your competitors? Can you improve delivery of your product or service so that customers are less likely to defect?
  • Survey the industry landscape – Are there new, capable competitors in the industry? How does their offering or delivery differ from yours? Where are your products in the product life cycle? Are any successor products on the horizon? If so, what is the right response right now? Are there any regulatory changes that could alter the dynamic in your industry? Are there any shifts in the macroenvironment that that could impact your industry or business – financial (cost of money, availability of credit), technology, cultural norms, environmental norms?
  • Spend time with several stakeholder groups – Get out of the office for meaningful dialog with team members, customers, vendors, shareholders and more. Ask good questions. Probe for understanding when it comes to things that are hindering them in value creation activities. Synthesize all the information you receive to get to the “truth”. Recognize that the information you receive from each stakeholder group is colored by their experience and interests. Remember, “we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
  • Guard the culture – Nothing is more important than modeling the culture and communicating the culture. Every stakeholder group needs to see you exhibit and explain the “____ Company Way” to treat each other, customers, vendors, and shareholders and how to approach work.

 

If those are ways to work ON the business, what do you do when the daily press of work tries to drag you back to working IN the business? These tools will help.

  • Reframe the task – When an urgent operational problem lands on your desk, identify the process that failed (a flaw in the order process, an untrained employee, tech that failed, a vendor that didn’t deliver) and fix both the immediate problem and the root cause. If you traceback every time, you’re stopping the problem from happening again by improving organizational health.
  • Say no – Some urgent matters don’t deserve your attention. Someone else can worry about the malfunctioning garage door in the warehouse. Ego would like you to jump up from your desk and save the day, but working on the business requires you to say, “Have Mary in the warehouse call the company we used last time. And next time we have a problem with garage doors, you can go straight to Mary. She can take care of it.”
  • Put employees first – Every urgent problem screams to be solved now. It’s almost always faster for you to solve the problem yourself. Resist the temptation. Instead, use it as a training opportunity. Grab the one, two, or six people that could solve this problem (if they knew what you knew) and walk them through the resolution – patiently answering every question. The next time this surfaces, hand it off to one of them and go back to working ON the business.
  • Go from the outside in – Keep problem-solving customer centric. Challenge team members to, instead of consulting you, do what’s best for the customer. Only if they’re unsure of what that is, can they interrupt you.
  • Be accountable – None of us are immune from being pulled under by the current of urgent problems. Consequently, we need to give others in the organization permission to call us out when we’re spending too much time working IN the business instead of ON it.

 

Lots of time management techniques fail miserably because they’re built around open slots on a calendar. Here’s an observation. I always have enough “IN the business” tasks to fill my entire week. Take the tasks from the “ON the business” list and put them on the calendar. Then, let nothing displace them. If the building is on fire, put it out, then return to your “ON the business” task for that day and finish it. If something has to push, let it be one of the “IN the business” tasks – don’t worry, it will be there tomorrow.

If you want a healthy organization with engaged employs and increasing revenue, this is the only way. You can never work IN the business enough to make it happen.