Posts Taged strategy

The One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge :: Week 22 :: Strategic Planning :: Mergers and Acquisitions

Mergers and acquisitions are things that multi-billion-dollar companies do, right? Certainly, companies of that size do merge with and acquire other companies, but these strategies can be employed by companies of almost any size.

In this week’s One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge, we want to dig into the mechanics of surveying the competitive landscape, identifying synergies that might exist between us and our competitors and crafting a plan to bring two businesses together.

Let’s do a quick definition of terms. In a merger, two equals come together and craft a new business entity that most likely features leadership from both businesses, products from both businesses and a consolidated customer base. In an acquisition, one business purchases the assets, products, and customer base of another business. It’s possible that the leadership of the acquired business will be no longer be present. Its brand might be swallowed completely by the acquiring business.

Before we jump into this week’s exercise, let’s lay out the case for a merger or acquisition –

  • Consolidated back office functions reduce cost – two HR departments become one, two finance departments become one – you get the idea.
  • Distinctive competencies of each entity are leveraged across the new entity.
  • The new entity has a broader product offering.
  • Market share for the new entity automatically increases.
  • It reduces rivalry in the industry.
  • It increases bargaining power with vendors and customers.

 

Here are a few observations before we start on the exercise –

  • Companies who have grown rapidly through mergers and acquisitions all say the same thing – nothing is more important than culture fit. If the cultures of the merging companies clash, the synergy never happens and value dissipates (sometimes costing companies incredible amounts of money to separate the entities). Occasionally, the companies don’t survive.
  • Merging companies operationally is hard. There are systems and processes that must be combined. Which accounting system will the new entity use? How will we reconfigure the sales pipeline? And much, much more.
  • Most likely, some people will lose their job. That’s part of the improved value proposition. You need to create a separation process that, as much as possible, allows departing people to keep their dignity, positions them for future success, and gives them adequate financial resources for a transition. You also need a plan for the people who are staying – who are grieving the loss of their coworkers.
  • You might be looking at your bank account and thinking, “I can’t acquire a box of pencils, let alone another company.” The current climate has created incredible uncertainty. There might be companies you could acquire for just an assumption of debt or for a stream of future payments instead of a lump sum upfront.
  • Acquire or merge with positive cash flow. A company with negative cash flow might seem like an easy acquisition target, but unless the reason for negative cash flow is readily apparent and easily fixable, you want to acquire or merge with a company that is “paying its own way.”
  • If you’re acquiring a company just for their book of business, be cautious. Unless the company has a locked-in customer base (e.g. the only factory-authorized service center for XYZ brand widgets in six states), customers could defect to competitors and significantly diminish the value of the acquisition.
  • I understand that every bullet point above this seems fraught with peril. These are two hard strategies and they require a lot of soul-searching and empirical analysis before they are utilized. But, when executed correctly, they can create incredible value and opportunity for the owners and companies who utilize them. Companies can quickly experience every one of the benefits spelled out earlier in the post.

 

Here’s this week’s 30-minute exercise –

  • List 3-5 merger or acquisition targets. Remember, you’re looking for culture fit, complimentary product offerings and organizational synergy. When thinking about complimentary products, consider adjacent industries. For example, an HVAC company might find a good merger/acquisition target with a plumber.

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  • Write a few notes after each one regarding why you think they make a good merger or acquisition target. Be specific – cite products, services, people, similar marketing communication.
  • Sleep on it for a night or two. Revisit the list and the notes and see if they still make sense.
  • If it still makes sense in a day or two, introduce the idea to a couple of trusted lieutenants in your organization and get their take on it. Discuss all of the challenges listed above and any additional ones that you identify.

 

If after this internal deliberation, you still think it’s a promising idea –

  • Initiate a conversation with the principal of the target company. Suggest lunch or coffee. This is your first opportunity to gauge the culture of the organization, because culture flows down from the top.
  • If the conversation is positive, introduce the merger/acquisition topic. If there is interest from both sides, sign a mutual non-disclosure agreement. This will ensure that any financials or trade secrets disclosed during the following discussions will remain private.
  • Arrange a meeting with a small group from both entities. Invite operations people, finance people and tech people. In this meeting you’re still checking for culture fit and you’re starting to dig into overarching operational questions. It might be a good idea to engage a third-party to manage this meeting. Their job is to make sure everyone’s concerns are aired and addressed.
  • Each entity needs to have a debrief after this meeting to discuss culture, markets, operations, finance, and tech.
  • If everyone involved is still feeling positive, it’s time to involve legal counsel, accountants and possibly consultants with experience in merging operations (if you haven’t involved them up until now).

 

This One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge was a thought-starter for one of the more ground-shifting topics in the series. If you decide to undertake one of these strategies, think long and hard, and get help.

The One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge :: Week 14 :: Strategic Planning :: Agility

I’ve probably used the phrase “survive and pivot” more in the last week than I have in the last 15 years. It’s the order of the day. This week’s One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge is about agility – the skill that allows you to successfully survive and pivot.

Up until now, for most of us, our ability to be agile has been the difference between –

  • capitalizing on an emerging opportunity or missing out
  • quickly fixing an emergency operational problem or allowing it to linger a little too long
  • shifting staffing or methodology to meet a deadline or waiting too long to make a change and missing the target completion date

We might have been disappointed when we missed out on a couple of bucks or took some heat for missing a target, but the stakes are considerably higher now. Our inability to be agile now could jeopardize the future of our organization.

Agility isn’t a 30-minute exercise, it’s an organizational discipline that gets stronger the more it is practiced. So, the goal of this week’s One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge is to lay the groundwork for agility. We want to introduce some attitudes, vocabulary and tools that you can introduce during team meetings (even on Zoom) and begin to utilize as you read and react to a business environment that is changing rapidly every day.

Face Reality – Jack Welch admonished us to, “Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it to be.” Get out the P&L, the list of receivables (by client) and payables (by vendor), and the balance sheet. No rose-colored glasses allowed. Make sure everyone around the table understands what they’re seeing. Call out the things that are good and the things that are troublesome. Talk frankly about people, products, service delivery and the future (as you know it today). Even the most sacred of the sacred cows should be evaluated.

Question Assumptions – All plans are built on assumptions – the number of customers that will walk in the front door, the products they will buy, the amount of money they will spend, that employees will show up for work, that credit will be available. Many of those assumptions are most likely wrong now. Create a new set of assumptions that you’re going to use going forward.

Embrace Ambiguity – Change is the new constant. The world is not picking on you personally nor on your business. Take in new information, test it (to see if it’s true) and then add it to your knowledge base. The best NFL running backs read and react. They see the holes opened by their offensive line (planned) and they see holes opened by defensive missteps (part of the changing environment) and run through them. In times of rapid change in the business environment, chart your course similarly.

Innovate Effectively – Use changing circumstances to supercharge innovation. We mistakenly think that the best innovation comes from freewheeling, wide-open, unlimited-budget brainstorming. Nothing could be further from the truth. The best innovation comes from very narrow constraints – How can we solve this problem with $1000? What changes to the customer onboarding process can we decide on before we leave this room and implement before the end of the week?

Leverage Existing Resources – What products or services could we deconstruct and sell separately? What products or services could we deconstruct and recombine to make new products more suited to the current environment? Who has existing expertise that we are not utilizing now? What underutilized inventory could we liquidate to invest in operations or in new inventory that we could turn easily in our new environment? If we are fiscally solid right now – what loans could we buy out and save money in the long run? what agreements for needed products or services could we strike with vendors now when they desperately need cash flow?

Think Broadly and Deeply – Agility requires the most effective cross-discipline work your organization has ever done. To paraphrase David Epstein in Range, “mental meandering is a competitive advantage.” If you and your team were afloat in a sinking ship, everyone would be encouraged to bail water, not just those with a job description that included “water bailing”. So it should be in an agile organization. Team members should be encouraged to contribute across departmental boundaries. Good solutions are the goal and egoless team collaboration is the methodology.

Make Small Targeted Investments – As new ideas surface, test them as cheaply as possible. Do things by hand at first until you know they merit having a process built around them. Go to market with a “minimum viable product”. Fail fast, iterate and try again. When you’ve finally, by iteration, hammered out a workable new product, service or process, begin to economically build systems around it. As Jim Collins reminded us, “shoot bullets, then cannonballs.”

Remove Cumbersome Bureaucracy – Organizations that are agile embrace entrepreneurial-style decision making – pushing down decision-making to the lowest level possible. When speed is a competitive advantage (and most of the time it is), layers of red tape hinder progress. Leaders should quickly “clear the path” for those creating or recreating a new product, service or process.

This week, deliberately introduce one or more of these agility-enabling tools into interactions with your team and encourage adoption. It can be one-on-one or in a group setting. Over the course of the next few weeks, keep introducing more of these tools.

Would you be disappointed if 2020 looked exactly like 2019?

I’ve been asking myself that question. And now is the right time to ask it. The time between now and mid-December has been called the “100 day sprint” or “the most important 100 days of the year”. Why? Because everyone is back in the office after summer, back in the routine and hunkered down for a busy three and a half months. For some companies, it’s the run-up to a busy holiday season. For others, it’s time to prepare 2020 strategic plans and operating budgets.

In a very real way, the foundation for your organization’s 2020 is going to be laid in the next 100 days. Do it well and 2020 could be your best year yet. Do it poorly or don’t do it at all and 2020 might be just a carbon copy of 2019.

So, what should you be looking at right now? I have a longer list, but if you can’t swing a full-blown strategic planning exercise (which, in my opinion, you should commit to), I’d turn my attention to these four items first –

  • Ask hard talent questions – Do you have the right people in the organization who can take you where you want to go in the next 2-3 years? If not, can you develop existing staff or do you need additional talent? Do you have chronic personnel problems you’ve been reluctant to deal with – people who are poisoning the culture or who are consistently under-performing? If so, what are you going to do about it? Are there one, two or three people, who, if they left, would put your organization at risk? If so, what have you done to mitigate that risk?
  • Gauge organizational health – Is the company culture healthy? For example, is there clear and complete communication up and down the org chart? Is there transparency so that people have the information they need to make good decisions? Are you and are the other leaders in the organization setting a good example in your approach to work and in your interactions with every stakeholder group?
  • Reexamine value creation activities – Do you know the key drivers of the value surplus for your customers? When was the last time you examined your entire value creation chain looking for opportunities to improve vendor performance, inventory management, cross-department collaboration, processes, quality and logistics?
  • Measure what matters – When was the last time you revisited the metrics on your balanced scorecard? Are they really indicative of organizational health? Are your systems providing data quickly enough and to the right people so your field decision-making is data-driven and your longer-term decision-making is data-supported?

Inertia is strong. The pull of ordinary daily days will drag you right into the holiday season before you’ve taken any time to plan for 2020.

I’ve rewritten this last paragraph several times. Originally it said that you’re busy and looking at just these four things is better than doing nothing at all – that’s true. But, I want to encourage you to do the hard thing and take a much deeper dive into your organization. Don’t make 2020 slightly better than 2019. Make it much better by critically and accurately evaluating the current state of your organization, thoughtfully envisioning what you want 2020 to look like and deliberately crafting a plan to get you from the former to the latter.

I Want to do for Strategy what Chip and Joanna Gaines did for Shiplap

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that six years ago, you had no idea what shiplap was. Neither did I. But thanks to Chip and Joanna Gaines and their hit HGTV show FixerUpper, shiplap is now part of the national consciousness. Everyone wants at least an accent wall’s worth of six-inch, horizontal wood goodness in their home.

Even though shiplap has been around for decades, it took someone to champion it – to sing its praises to a new generation of homeowners. I want to do for strategy what Chip and Joanna Gaines did for shiplap.

I love strategy –

Truthful evaluation, thoughtful options and deliberate actions to move an organization from the current state to the desired state.

Leaders in every organization feel the tension of the gap between where they are and where they want to be. That tension is supposed to be there. It’s one of the things that gets us to the office, shop, kitchen or factory every morning. But tragically, many leaders feel the pressure to close the gap but lack the tools to make it happen. Leaders randomly marshal the resources of traditional functional areas like marketing, production, finance and HR to transform the organization and close the gap, but in the absence of an overarching discipline that coordinates the objectives and work of these functional areas, the transformation is uneven and short-lived and the organization reverts back to business as usual. Businesses of 6, 8 or 10 people need the same overarching discipline, just like businesses of 6, 8 or 10 thousand.

That’s why I love strategy. It’s the neglected discipline – the one that, when employed, spurs conversation, creates collaboration and generates a singular focus for the organization. It’s the discipline that deliberately and methodically moves the organization to where it wants to be and, in the process, engages and builds up everyone involved.

Just like every homeowner who says, “I’ve got to have some shiplap in my house”, if I can get a business owner or manager, no matter the size of their enterprise, to say, “I have to incorporate strategic planning into my organization”, I’ve done my job. And if I have the privilege of helping them in that process, that’s a bonus.

What Is It Exactly That You Do?

I have one of those jobs – Strategy Consultant. Even after following the advice of branding and messaging experts, what I do doesn’t seem to be crystal clear to the people I want to reach the most. Thankfully, I got some help recently from one of those very people. This potential client and I have talked several times – in person, on the phone and via email – but this interaction was like somebody flipped on the light in a dark room.

I sent this potential client a service offering I had just designed. I was proud of it and thought it was just the ticket for him and his organization. His response caught me off guard because, in our previous meetings, I thought I had done such a good job of explaining my value proposition. But his response made it obvious I had not.

In his response to my email, he told me that before he signed on the bottom line, he’d be interested in knowing what strategy I had in mind for his organization. Seems logical, right? I’m a strategy consultant so I should bring one with me into a consulting engagement. At that point, I knew I’d failed miserably in delivering the message.

The most rudimentary skill in strategy consulting is starting an engagement with an unbridled amount of curiosity. Add to that a pile of probing questions and a proven framework with which to conduct the strategic planning exercise.

A strategy consulting engagement at the outset is a discovery process – discovering the values, priorities, goals and dreams of the owners and managers, discovering the true, current state of the organization, discovering the current state of industry and unearthing every other piece of useful information you can find.

It’s only at that point we create what most business owners and manager consider “strategy”. With a clear picture of the organization’s current state and a clear vision of the desired future state, we can craft the roadmap to move the organization from current state to the future state – the strategy.

The component parts of the strategy, depending on what is learned during the process, could touch any number of disciplines in the organization. For example –

  • People – Are the right people in the organization? Are they equipped to do the work the company needs today and in the future? If not, what is the best way to make that happen? Are they being managed well? Are they being compensated correctly?
  • Operations – Does the organization operate efficiently – producing the maximum number of outputs with the minimum number of inputs? Does the quality of the products or services satisfy the customer, maximizing sales and minimizing or eliminating complaints? Does the supply chain obtain the appropriate materials from the highest performing vendors with the best pricing?
  • Marketing – Does the organization tell its story in a compelling way? Does the organization effectively target the best prospects and speak to them in ways are that are meaningful to them? Is the organization effective at identifying the jobs current and potential customers need to be done?
  • Technology – Does the organization employ technology that speeds delivery of products and services? Is the organization effectively managing the relationships with technology providers?

In a well-executed strategic planning exercise, we will –

  • Organize and quantify what the principals know intuitively. We’ll nail down those things that they know exist. They’ll know how many, how often, which ones and more importantly, how they impact the long-term health of your organization.
  • Discover what they don’t know or reverse errant perceptions – Sometimes, the things they think they know intuitively aren’t true at all. A good strategic planning methodology accurately assesses the real truth about what’s going on with employees, vendors, customers and shareholders.
  • Focus the attention of the owners and executive team on a relatively small set of levers that need to be pulled to make larger, investment-grade moves that propel the organization forward – outpacing competitors and protecting against new entrants.
  • Marshall the resources of everyone in the company towards one or two specific strategic objectives – The end game of the exercise is to identify one or two things that transform the organization. The exercise might uncover four or five or ten things that need attention, but organizations can’t change ten things at a time – just one or two. A good strategic planning exercise will identify the one or two highest impact items and create a roadmap for executing those items – pushing down the implementation through the entire organization. When those are done, the organization can move on to the next item or two.

 

There’s more to the “what is it exactly that you do” question, but that’s a good start. It’s a joy to me to work with owners and managers to help them dig deep into their organizations, gain new insights into their business and watch them set a course that means success for them and meaningful work for those on their team.

If I’ve still not answered the question, let me know. If you’re overflowing with kudos for this extremely clear explanation, I look forward to that feedback too.

Five Strategic Things I Wish I Could Force You to Do in 2018

There’s not a better job in the world than being a consultant. I have the opportunity to see the inner workings of multiple industries and competitive companies inside those industries. And, I get to work with great, smart people all the time. The one thing I can’t do, however, is make decisions for clients. I supply informed opinions, actionable recommendations, a framework for execution and accountability to get it done, but I can’t pull the trigger.

But, if just for a moment, I had free reign in every client organization in 2018, here are five things I would do.

Ratchet Up the Employee Engagement – According to a Gallup survey, unengaged employees comprise 70% of the workforce. These unengaged employees collectively cost business owners $550 billion annually in lost productivity. The mechanics of creating, increasing and retaining engagement are not mystical, but they do require a specific set of attitudes and behaviors from employers. To get started, download Employees As, a primer for Employee Engagement.

Innovate Using Jobs Theory – Of all the big thoughts devoted to innovation over they past 20 years, I find those of Clayton Christensen in his excellent book Competing Against Luck to be the most practical, most easily grasped by an organization and most likely to yield a viable new product or service. Jobs Theory positions innovation as supplying the best alternative for the progress a potential customer wants to make in resolving a problem.

Implement a Plan for Focused Execution – Most organizations either throw up their collective hands and run from crisis to crisis OR undertake strategic initiatives that have too many moving parts. To effect real change in an organization, only work on one or two initiatives at a time. When those are done, move to the next one or two. Successful execution requires a laser-like focus, shared vision, education, identifying the correct leading indicators, overcoming the obstacles that surface in the course of the project, great teamwork and accountability.

Clarify Your Messaging – Great marketing and subsequent sales all hinge on an easily understood message. Make sure potential customers know exactly what you do. The message from salespeople, your company website, your social media channels and your sales collateral should be simple and unified. The value proposition should be communicated in language that correctly identifies the client’s problem, positions your organization as a capable resource that can guide them to resolution and describes a desirable future state.

Set Aside Time for Deep Work – I can’t say enough good things about Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. I was challenged by the empirical and anecdotal evidence he presented to regularly and methodically step away from our distraction-fueled world to do work that requires complex, contemplative and deep thought. It’s changed the way I approach my preparation for consulting engagements and the engagements themselves. It’s the best defense I’ve ever seen again distraction and the always present “tyranny of the urgent”. Make time to do this no matter what else is going on in your organization.

There are very few guarantees in this world, but if you take these five things into your organization, I can almost promise that 2018 will look markedly different from 2017.

Again, I encourage you to download the Employees As guide to Employee Engagement. I also have resources available for the other strategic initiatives discussed in this post.