The research is conclusive:
...McKinsey found that only 23% of companies regularly draft and update their strategic plan that 86% of executive teams spend less than an hour a month discussing strategy.
So what gives? Why does the research show how good strategic planning is for virtually any business, yet so few businesses regularly do it and even fewer do it well?
My 17+ years of experience of leading and moderating strategic planning processes for companies of all types is similar: no one argues that strategic planning is a high ROI use of time and energy, but in most companies far more often than not planning processes are undertaken either informally, infrequently, under duress, or not at all.
And perhaps even more frustratingly, when strategic plans are started as often as not they are never finished, with a combination of planning “fatigue” and “de-prioritization” to other more “pressing” business matters being the usual culprits of abandonment.
This is sad, but with just a little “re-framing” of our planning mindset and approach we can gain the rich business benefits of strategic planning as described above, be confident that our planning process will be done right, and...
...done in such a way that when completed the process naturally and elegantly transitions to the agreed-to projects, tasks, and to-dos.
How we can do all this? It is really quite simple: Outsource It!
Just as most businesses don’t do their own taxes, or defend themselves when sued, or host their own websites, or write their own accounting software, or run their own payrolls, or self-insure, we are long past the point where executives should be expected to be experts on a process as complex and nuanced as strategic planning, especially as it is the kind of skill that is best learned by doing.
And doing a lot of it.
Now, for some very large companies like General Electric and Proctor and Gamble (both famed for the quality of their strategic planning), this is not a problem.
Firms like these have large and well-trained teams that do nothing but strategically plan all day.
This is obviously not the reality for most small and mid-sized firms, where executives are tasked with it all - strategy, tactics, execution, HR, sales, marketing, operations, and more.
These executives just don't have the time to learn how to strategically plan the right way and then maintain the stamina in the midst of all their competing responsibilities to finish a planning process in a reasonable amount of time without burning themselves and everyone else out while so doing.
Now let me be clear: Outsourcing a company’s strategic planning process does not mean outsourcing the responsibility for the completion of the projects, tasks, and to-dos that will properly and inevitably arise from it.
Such responsibilities of course remain those of the operating executives.
But this is far different from attempting to undertake a planning process completely on one’s own.
Just like the best Olympic athletes have coaches to help them attain peak performance, so do the best-performing executives and companies have high quality, outsourced providers to help them beat the competition and win at at all aspects of their their businesses.
And strategic planning, when you cut through all of the noise, is just another business process.
When we see it like this, and not as something magical or obtuse, then almost always the right decision is to reach out and get some outside help to do it right.
When my kids were younger, I recall one night when we were eating dinner. My kids were saying "I want this" and "I want that."
And then I said something that I immediately realized I should never tell my kids, or any entrepreneur for that matter.
What I said was this: "you know, money doesn't grow on trees."
Now, you may not think saying this is so bad. So, let me explain.
The reason why I said this was to show my kids the value of money. And that we have to work to make money to spend on the things we want.
But here's the negative: saying this paints the wrong picture. It paints the picture that we can't always get what we want. Which is the exact opposite of the attitude I want my kids, and all entrepreneurs, to have.
What my kids and all entrepreneurs MUST be thinking is YES, I CAN get whatever I want. Yes, it won't just come to me, but with hard work and ingenuity, I can and I will get what I want.
Fortunately, right after I said that to my kids, I caught myself.
One of the reasons I caught myself was from the interview I did a while back with Ken Lodi, the author of "The Bamboo Principle."
In the interview, Ken explained that timber bamboo shoots grow very little for four years while their extensive root system is growing and taking hold. But once the roots are firmly in place, the bamboo can grow a shocking 80 feet in just six weeks.
This story made me realize that money does in fact grow on trees. The key is to work on the tree's roots. To build such a strong foundation that generating money becomes easy.
Every great company has a strong foundation. They create a brand name, sales systems, delivery systems, etc. And then, they can generate cash and profits each and every day.
So, focus on building an extremely strong foundation. Think through your business model. Learn the best practices for each of the key business disciplines - marketing, HR, finance, sales, etc. And then, put your thinking into a strategic plan.
Your strategic plan is your roadmap to success. It is the tool that turns your ideas into reality. For example, the great marketing idea in your head isn't going to become reality unless it's documented in your plan and a team member(s) knows to execute on it. Likewise, your new products and services won't be built or fulfilled unless they are documented and your team knows what to do. Get your ideas in your strategic plan and then you build the tree from which money does grow.
So, never let anyone tell you that "money doesn't grow on trees" or that you can't have everything you want. Because money does grow on firmly-rooted trees and you CAN achieve and get everything you want out of life if you resolve to do so. They key is to build your plan -- your foundation -- and then grow systematically from there.
The past is never dead. It's not even past.
- by William Faulkner
A vexing challenge in attaining a business breakthrough of any type - sales, profitability, business model, company culture - is the inexorable "backward" pull of a business' historical results and accomplishments (or lack thereof).
For sure, as effective executives, we know to focus on opportunities not problems and that past performance, good or bad, is neither indicative nor predictive of future results, yet...
...whether we like it or not we are reminded always of what has gone before, with the “unsaid” being that no matter how hard we try, the future of our business will be more or less like its past, with the best we can realistically hope for is just a few percentage points of growth here and there.
This frustrating reality is caused, to a very large degree, by the day-to-day operational “inertia” of most businesses, big and small.
It is the inertia that develops when the same people interact with each other in the same way - managing meetings, running projects, and assigning to-dos in that default and “comfortable” way.
Over time, individual executives start bringing to these repetitive business interactions increasingly hardened perspectives.
And then this inertia turns to a creeping lethargy that stops a business in its tracks, especially when opportunities that require proactive action to pursue present themselves.
Now I hope that just by describing the problem sheds light on how to solve it: Consciously and constantly injecting into a business new, different, and extraordinary stimuli.
The stimuli of Organizational Change - bringing new people in and encouraging under performers to depart.
The stimuli of Branding Change - ditching the old logo, tagline and website and starting over new and fresh.
The stimuli of Financial Change - seeking and securing investment capital to grow faster and more strategically.
Heck, just contemplating new stimuli like these can be a breath of badly needed fresh air - forcing executives to visualize and imagine what their desired business of the future should and can be...
...and then working back to the present time to define what needs to be done to get it there.
Yes, when it comes to breaking the shackles of the past, the default strategic stance should be that new and different is always better until and unless proven otherwise.
I wouldn't worry too much about whether this approach will lead to poorly considered risk-taking.
Because whether we like it or not, our businesses’ pasts are always with us.
But by taking conscious, definitive, and different action - repeatedly and determinedly - we can easily break free of it.
"The point of marketing is to make selling superfluous."
This is a great quote from management guru Peter Drucker. What it means is that if you do a great job in marketing, sales will be easy. Likewise, there are other things you can do to improve your sales without having to resort to aggressive sales tactics.
This article details such strategies.
1. Create a Stronger USP
Your USP or unique selling proposition is what distinguishes your company from others.
Here are some famous USPs:
Each of these USPs does a great job in distinguishing these companies and getting customers to choose them over competitors.
2. Provide Clear Benefits
In addition to a strong USP, make sure you detail the benefits of your products and/or services to your customers.
For example, do your products:
You generally want to provide a list of features associated with your products/services, but lead with the benefits.
3. Use Many Different Marketing Channels
After you create the best USP you can, and identify your key benefits, you want to convey your message to as many of your prospective customers as possible.
But realize this: not all of your customers are in one place or read/view/listen to one media source. So, use multiple means of reaching them.
For example, you can reach customers through each of the following marketing channels among others:
4. Understand and Improve Your KPIs
Key Performance Indicators or "KPIs" are the metrics that judge your business' performance.
And, as you might know, you can't improve what you can't measure.
So the key is to 1) identify the most important KPIs in your business, and 2) measure/track them over time so you can judge your progress in improving them.
While there are hundreds of potential KPIs to track, here's a small sample of KPIs that most companies must measure:
Importantly, as you understand and improve your KPIs, your revenues and profits will grow. In fact, identifying and managing your KPIs is one of the pillars of an 8-figure business.
5. Make It Simple to Purchase from Your Company
When you make it easy to buy from your company, you'll get more sales.
For example, not accepting credit cards will dramatically hurt the sales of many businesses.
Similarly, making customers complete tedious paperwork (that may not really be necessary) may frighten off some customers.
Conversely, having your product for sale not only on your website, but on Amazon, eBay and others, could make it easier for some customers to purchase from you and prompt more sales.
So, think about ways to make it easier for current and prospective customers to buy from you.
Start using these five strategies today, and watch your sales and profits grow.
I recently moderated a strategic planning session for a Texas-based developer and distributor of specialty software for the financial services industry.
For them, on the one hand it was truly the best of times: an 8 - figure revenue base and possessing of a recurring revenue business model with long term clients including some of the biggest banks and brokerage firms in the world.
But...and like many companies now in our technology fast forwarded world, serious storm clouds threatened: minimal revenue growth and more disturbingly pricing (and margins) driven down by aggressive overseas competition.
As concerning, the Company’s Founder - rightly revered for his work ethic and charismatic leadership - was uncharacteristically indecisive, waxing on a bit too nostalgically on how “easy” business was in the “old days” versus addressing today’s challenges.
So we got “stuck,” so that even in the areas where there was agreement as to the strategic and tactical changes needing to be made, the executive team just couldn’t make them (and then have those decisions stay made!).
Now, as I have found from my 15+ years of leading strategic sessions like this, at some point as often as not they turn into Interventions, defined by Webster as “becoming involved intentionally in a difficult situation in order to change it or improve it, or prevent it from getting worse.”
And, in the context of a company refining its strategic plan, the intervention (at a top level) normally involves leading the executive team through a series of “Why,” “What,” “Who” questions.
First, there are the “why” questions to re-ground us in the business’ “reason for being” and the fundamental values it brings to its stakeholders - shareholders, customers, employees, etc.
Questions like “Why do customers choose us?” and more poignantly for the team “Why do we work here?" and "Why is it important to us as individuals that this company be successful?”
As these “whys” are grappled with, strategic clarity usually emerges and the questions turn to “Whats” - to tactics, projects, deadlines, and to-dos.
As this point, everyone (finally!) starts “getting real” with each other, to who is responsible for what and more to the point is there really an accountability-based culture in place to promote and sustain high performance and positive change?
As these exercises proceed, what normally re-awakens is the understanding that the leadership team’s responsibility is to the organization as a whole, and not to any one particular individual, division, or practice area.
In this company’s case, from these exercises the hard decision was made to transition a pair of executives, as they embodied a legacy mindset and approach unsuited for the “business of the future” needed to be built.
And, as is more often the case than not, these transition conversations were more difficult in their anticipation than actuality, and as they were completed a new forward looking-energy and initiative was unleashed in the team members that remained.
I would encourage any business that feels “stuck” in any important aspect - revenue growth, cash flow, client satisfaction, culturally - to prompt a business intervention like this.
Yes, the outcomes will sometimes be difficult for specific individuals, but almost always beneficial for the organization as a whole.
Publicity is an extremely powerful form of marketing. Not only is it free, but it gives you and your business great credibility. Specifically, when potential customers hear about you in the media sources they read/watch/listen to, it gives you incredible legitimacy in their eyes.
And perhaps most importantly, it gets customers to find you and purchase your products and/or services.
There are many ways of getting publicity. And when you do get it, there are several varieties. For example, a journalist may give you a simple quote in their article. Or, they may quote you several times or attribute the entire theme of their article to you. Or, in the best case, they write an article solely about you, your company and/or your products or services.
The key point to note, even though it may be obvious, is that the more the article talks about you, the more likely the reader will seek you out after reading it.
One concern many entrepreneurs and business owners have when first considering publicity is what the journalist will write about you. However, you really shouldn't worry about this. The journalist will nearly always position your company in a positive light. But even if they don't, the saying "there's no such thing as bad publicity" is generally true.
Importantly, there's one way to accomplish both the goals mentioned above: getting publicity (particularly articles) that fully discusses you and your company AND gaining 100% control of what the article says about you.
This way is to write the article yourself.
Articles are a great way to spread the word about your company. And there's no advertising cost; just the cost of writing the article which is minimal.
What should you write about in your article?
The best articles are often short "how-to" articles teaching customers something they want or should know about.
Where should you send your article?
Send your articles to relevant newspapers, magazines, trade journals and bloggers.
Importantly, add a "bio box" at the end of your article. Your "bio box" includes your name and contact information (e.g., website address and possibly email address, phone number, etc.) so readers can easily contact you.
How to get started
The fastest way to get an article published is to submit it to an online article directory like www.goarticles.com and www.ezinearticles.com. On these websites, online searchers will find your article, and many will click on the links in your bio box that link back to your website.
Here are two important notes for using article directory websites like GoArticles and EzineArticles.
First, search through the sites to see the types of articles already written. Doing so will give you new ideas and show you topics that have already been covered too much.
Second, bigger media sources (e.g., magazines, newspapers) want original content. So, if you have a great idea for an article, pitch it to the more prominent media sources first. Since, once you publish it elsewhere, they won't be interested (although you could then pitch them on another article).
Getting your articles printed in media sources is a simple and great way to get your company in front of lots of potential customers. And, you control the message, and build lots of credibility.
And here's a tip to make this technique even more efficient - don't start by writing the article. Instead, start by simply creating an interesting article title. Then pitch the title to the editors of relevant newspapers and magazines to see if they're interested. You can call them and/or email them to find out. They may say your article title is right on, or they might suggest something a bit different. By following this advice, you'll save time since you'll only write articles you know they'll publish.
One final tip: if you don't like to write or aren't a good writer, don't worry. As long as you're an expert on the subject matter, simple dictate the article. There are tons of apps which allow you to record voice memos directly on your mobile phone. Then, upload and send your audio file to a professional writer on a site like odesk.com or guru.com who can turn your dictation into a well written article for less than $20.
Click here for more tips on publishing articles and getting tons of free publicity for your business.
People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring. - Rogers Hornsby
One of the real privileges and joys of my life is coaching my eight and nine-year old sons' various youth sports teams.
And with springtime that means Little League Baseball.
This Saturday was a particular delight, as after playing our game, I took my sons and a few of their teammates to watch an exhibition game between a local traveling team and an all-star team from Tokyo, Japan.
These Tokyo youngsters were not just any team, as last summer they won the famed Little League Series, prevailing in a 16-team tournament that started with over 30,000 teams from 75 countries.
Watching youth baseball at any level is a treat, but the team spirit, precision, and respect with which the Japanese kids played the game was mesmerizing.
And for those that subscribe to the view that the "American Way" has come too much to mean "everyone gets a pat on the back and an attaboy for trying” - with a deleterious impact on our competitive drive - well then the contrasting styles (and results) between the American and Japanese teams were proof positive for that view.
A few vignettes:
- After each inning, the Japanese youngsters would sprint off the field into an attentive semi-circle around their coach, remove their hats as a show of respect, and stand quietly with eyes up as their coach instructed them for the inning to come.
- While, when their teammates were at the plate, the American players too often sat and chatted in their dugout, the Japanese players were on their feet, attentive and cheering.
- When an umpire called a close play against them, there was no eye-rolling, no demonstrative shoulder shrugging, only a fast hustle back to the dugout.
- At the end of the game, the Japanese players went to each section of the crowd and collectively bowed and thanked the spectators for attending and cheering.
- And my favorite as a beleaguered youth coach constantly searching for lost gloves, hats, and gear from my notoriously absent-minded players, all of the Japanese players' was exactingly lined up, cleanly packed, with a stray ball nowhere in sight.
- Perhaps a bit more controversially, when one of the Japanese players made an error (remember these are 11 and 12 year old boys!) instead of a "get the next one" as would be typical for an American coach, from the dugout came a roar and that player sprinted off the field, replaced and not seen for the remainder of the game.
Yes, here was a team that played the game with hustle, teamwork, respect, and an awesome will to win.
And well beyond baseball, isn’t that the kind of team that any manager in any field of endeavor would be thrilled and honored to lead?
And wouldn’t that be a team - just like those Japanese boys vanquishing 30,000+ teams on their way to a championship - that would just crush the competition?
Yes, this is of more than just passing cultural interest, as in our modern market the consequences of weak performance come harsh and fast - talented global competitors ready and eager to pick off dissatisfied customers, flaming online reviews diminishing reputations and brands, margins squeezed from above by customers unwilling to pay much for mediocre experiences, and from below by a fatness encouraged by a usually defended as virtuous managerial "light-handedness."
Please let me stop and stress that this is not a “Fuddy-Duddy” formulation, blaming the "kids" for all the ills of the world.
Having now coached a lot of American children and managed as many American young people, I assure you they all want and respond well to expectations of hard work, decorum, and measurable, concrete results.
No, it is the leaders and managers of organizations that need to do the daily hard and energetic work of setting team and individual objectives, of rewarding great performance and setting consequences for results that are lacking.
The great news is that not only does a higher accountability, "tough love" culture like this lead to better results (of course), not only is it more respectable to all the stakeholders of an organization, but...
...it also creates the best kind of fun.
The nutritious fun of working hard toward a goal and accomplishing it.
Of delivering more and more “low cost, high quality” value to customers.
And just like those Japanese baseball players, the fun of winning in the places that matter most, on the scoreboard and on the bottom line.
It’s been 17 years now since I started working with entrepreneurs. Over this time, I’ve seen lots of successes, and unfortunately lots of failures.
So, I started thinking, “what is it about those entrepreneurs who have achieved the most success? What are their common attributes and skills?”
While the initial list was pretty large, when I boiled it down, there were 5 common attributes or skills that the successful entrepreneurs all had. I’ve listed them below.
1. Vision & Leadership: Entrepreneurs must have a vision of where the company will be in the future. In addition, you must be able to communicate your vision so you can motivate employees, investors, and partners to help you achieve that vision.
You must be able to identify staffing needs, expertly fill them, and lead your team to success. Rarely (actually never) do entrepreneurs build successful companies all by themselves.
2. Focus & Execution: Entrepreneurs must focus to make sure that goals are achieved, customers are satisfied, and employees are motivated.
For most entrepreneurs, staying focused is harder than it sounds. Be careful not to be seduced by the next exciting opportunity without executing on the priorities at hand. And don't let perfectionism prevent you from taking action, either; at the end of the day, a product on the market is better than a product shelved due to lack of focus, execution, or perfectionism. Get to market and get feedback from your customers as soon as possible.
3. Persistence & Passion: As an entrepreneur, you must be passionate about what you are trying to accomplish. In addition, you must be willing to commit whatever is needed of them, whether it's time, energy, money, or other resources.
You must persist through trying times (which will be frequent), and fight as much as needed to achieve the goals you have set for yourself and your team. I’ve never met an entrepreneur who didn’t struggle through hard times on their path to success. So, don’t give up when hard times hit you.
4. Technical skills: As the owner of your firm, you may not need to be the most skilled technician on your team. But you need to have necessary foundational knowledge to be able to lead your technical team and make informed decisions.
For instance, in my dashboard business, I can’t technically build most dashboard charts myself. But I know the metrics that must be plotted. And I understand the basic framework with which charts are built. As a result, I know whether a certain chart is feasible and approximately how long it should take to create. This is the information I need to effectively lead the organization.
5. Flexibility: Successful entrepreneurs understand that the world and the environment in which they operate are constantly changing. While you must focus on the end game, you also must adapt your strategies and offerings to meet changing market conditions.
Remember that many successful companies resulted from flexibility, particularly when their first idea didn’t pan out. Such as PayPal, which radically changed its business concept when its core technology of allowing one PalmPilot to pay another wasn’t gaining enough traction.
So, be persistent to a point when something’s not working. But realize that change and flexibility might be required.
The good news is that each of the above traits and skills can be acquired. You can teach or force yourself to be more flexible. You can set goals and give them laser focus. And so on. Make each of these attributes a habit, and you will have no choice but to achieve the success you desire.
The fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing.
- Ancient Greek Aphorism
Isaiah Berlin, in 1953, famously referenced this as a jumping off point for an essay on the relative importance of two kinds of knowledge, on the one hand that of principles and ideas, and on the other hand that of "ways of the world," street smarts, and technique.
I was reminded of it recently by an old and wise colleague, as we were evaluating an investment opportunity, and the relative importance of the executive team’s operating experience versus their big picture strategy and growth model for the business.
His point was that while those executives were certainly “foxes” - great resumes, hard workers, and excellent communicators - they were lacking as “hedgehogs,” pursuing an inefficient and difficult to scale business model.
We passed on the investment.
And it occurred to me how so many of us think and work like them - tens of millions of knowledge workers all over the world that know and do a lot of “little” things - how to code, talk, email, text, post, and tweet, but how too often doing so crowds out the "Deep Work" necessary to arrive at and execute upon business models that scale.
Perhaps the most vexing "focus" challenge of modern business, but for the disciplined executive one surprisingly easy-to-overcome through asking one simple question:
Does a particular bucket of stuff really make me and my company money or does it not?
Because focusing on making money almost always means focusing less on:
And more on:
And when we reflect on it, isn't this not just the stuff that makes us money, but is also the stuff we almost always enjoy and find the most fulfilling?
Isaiah Berlin's full "The Hedgehog and the Fox" essay can be read here.
Timeless, ancient wisdom worth applying to our frenetic, modern day.
The other day, my wife came home from a meditation class with a sheet of paper. On it was a verse written by Mother Teresa. Supposedly, these same words were written on the wall of Mother Teresa’s home for children in Calcutta, India. They were as follows:
While I believe these words to be true for all people, I find them especially relevant for entrepreneurs.
As entrepreneurs, we have elected to take on a challenging life, and a business life that is clearly harder than that of the average worker. We must constantly take risks, and success is never guaranteed.
As a result, to succeed as an entrepreneur takes a special mindset and commitment. Thinking and acting like an ordinary individual will get you ordinary results. And ordinary results just don’t cut it as an entrepreneur. Unless you act extraordinary, you can’t possibly achieve the success you desire.
This being said, below are my entrepreneurial comments and thoughts to Mother Teresa’s writings.
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered.
Forgive them anyway.
These people may be your customers, your employees, your investors and/or your family (who I will hereafter call your “constituents”). Forgive such actions when you come across them. And try to surround yourself with people who don’t do them.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.
Be kind to your constituents. If not, they will not follow you.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies.
Some of your current constituents will not want to see you succeed. Succeed anyway. And create a new group of constituents as needed (perhaps a peer group or Board of Advisors) of successful people you want to emulate and who DO want you to succeed.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you.
Be honest and frank anyway.
Be honest in all your dealings with your constituents. Entrepreneurs who cheat never win; it always catches up with them. If someone does cheat you, learn from it and don’t let it happen again (yet still be frank and honest).
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight.
As an entrepreneur, your job is to build, build, build. Build a great company. But while building, think about ways that others will NOT be able to “destroy” you. For example, a business model in which you have customers on a subscription plan (think mobile phone service providers) is very hard to destroy. Always think about ways in which you can “lock up” customers, employees and other constituents. How can you make it so that they’ll never want to leave you?
If you find serenity and happiness, others may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.
Yes, when you achieve success as an entrepreneur, many others will be jealous. And many will call you “lucky.” Yes, you’re “lucky” because you have the right attitude and mindset that allowed you to work hard and persevere. And you’re “lucky” because you invested your time reading articles (like this one) and learning the skills you needed to become a successful entrepreneur.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Keep doing good to your constituents. Doing good once is not enough. Continue to astound your customers, employees and others so they follow you to the finish line.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough.
Give the world the best you've got anyway.
To succeed as an entrepreneur, you need to give 100%, and keep giving it. Never surrender. Never back down. Rather, persevere and make it happen. And if the best you have isn’t enough, then get others (advisors, peers, employees) who can give alongside you so collectively you ARE able to give enough.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God.
It was never between you and them anyway.
Succeeding as an entrepreneur is more about you succeeding within yourself and less about you beating out a competitor. If you are thinking and acting the right way, you will naturally surpass your competition and achieve great success.
Right now is the time for you to “do it anyway” and become the successful entrepreneur you’re capable of becoming!