Business Rocks – Future-Back Football

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This week’s focus: For the past year I have been the Assistant Coach for the Boston United Under 10 team – or, as I call it, Head of Laces. This summer we have been working on the boys’ development programme and are in the process of setting out the skills we expect to see from each age group. By explicitly defining these skills we are already starting to identify new ways fundamentally improve the content of our twice-weekly coaching sessions.

Most of the planning I see – both personal and organizational – is ‘today-forward’ in the sense that it sets out to improve the current situation. It is rarer to come across ‘future-back’ planning, where the plan is focused on achieving a specific, clearly-defined future level of performance.

The benefit of future-back planning is that, as with the Boston United development programme, it significantly raises the bar on performance and leads you to take actions that you would not have considered in a more incremental, today-forward approach.

For instance, why not think about one of the big issues that you’re currently working on – the skills and capabilities of sales teams, an organisation’s ability to launch new products and the productivity of a warehouse team are all issues I’ve discussed with clients this week – and, instead of asking how it could be better than today, ask yourself what level of performance you want to see in two years’ time, in 12 months’ time and even in 3 months’ time.

As you go through this exercise, what new ideas and possibilities emerge and what new actions do you realise you need to take that you hadn’t previously considered?

Off the record: Better Things by The Kinks

I know you’ve got a lot of good things happening up ahead

The past is gone, it’s all been said

So here’s to what the future brings

I know tomorrow you’ll find better things

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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The Fear Of Failure Paradox – And How To Overcome It!

Text concept on blackboard with businessman

A retail CEO once invited me to the opening of a new concept store. The company had made a big investment in the new concept and so there were high hopes that this trial would succeed. The store looked great, and the initial customer reaction was extremely positive. I turned to one of the project managers and asked him if he’d been closely involved with the development. “Well,” he replied laconically, “It’s too early to say.

Behind his witticism was an understanding that his business demanded immediate success and had an unwillingness to accept any sort of failure, even when testing new concepts. Failure was not a learning opportunity; it was simply an opportunity to seek a new career. Unsurprisingly, this business did not have a strong track record of either innovation or pace. Managers did not want to stick their head above the parapet and take a risk on a new product or initiative, as the chances were they would be shot at.

There is a paradox here. The desire to avoid risk and potential failure can create the very conditions that make failure more likely. There is no growth without risk, and yet many successful companies seem to forget the behaviors and attitudes that created and drove their success. Researching my new book, First & Fast, I came across numerous examples of major corporations including Nokia and Boots that had seen growth plateau and decline as a result of a bureaucratic, risk-averse culture gaining hold in these organisations. And, through my own experience, I have seen first-hand how the fear of failure can inhibit the growth and success of many smaller and mid-sized businesses.

But it is possible to reverse this cultural shift and develop an entrepreneurial approach in businesses. Here are 12 ways you can overcome the fear of failure paradox and accelerate growth:

  1. Clarify your expectations. What is your #1 goal? If you’re not clear on what you want your organization to achieve you’ll never settle on a strategy or the best route to success. Ask yourself – and your teams – what you want the business to achieve in the next few years.
  2. Strategic focus. As Richard Baker, the former CEO of Boots the Chemists told me, “You can’t spray and sprint!” You can only grow at pace if you are clear on your handful of priorities and have agreed these priorities across your leadership team.
  3. Have everyone focused on the same goal. Once your people understand the goal they will move mountains to help you get there. As Matt Williams, the CEO of Topps Tiles put it after he had led the delivery of the company’s goal of achieving 33% market share, “A specific and clear goal galvanized the entire organization and has been a key part of our success.
  4. Take every opportunity to communicate. Talk about the goal, the successes and the failures, and show people that it’s OK to fail if the failure was in pursuit of the company’s goals. Communication of your aims and aspirations isn’t just what you do at your annual conference; it must be built in to your conversations and discussions every day of the week.
  5. Develop or remove risk-averse managers. Your managers are a reflection of you and if you allow poor managers with little appetite to take prudent risks to remain in situ your people will think you don’t really mean it. Your first option is to coach and develop your managers, and improve their confidence and capability to lead their teams, but if they are unable to change you have no choice but to find managers who will lead in the right way.
  6. Become great at protyping. The best high-growth businesses are expert at building, testing and refining rapid, low-cost prototypes before launching the final solution. Overcoming your fear of failure does not mean betting the company on high-risk ideas; it means focusing on action that enables you to sensibly and rapidly develop winning new ideas.
  7. Err on the side of cannibilisation. Most new ideas will threaten parts of your existing business to some extent. While companies with a fear of failure will focus on protecting existing business rather than developing new businesses, higher growth corporations embrace the need to cannibalise sales. Gillette, for instance, has driven the growth of the brand through strategy of cannibalization, where Sensor, Mach3 and Fusion brands have all purposefully destroyed the brand that preceded them.
  8. Reward behaviours, not just results. Not all new efforts will achieve their goals, and it is essential that these ‘failures’ are not unjustly punished. So, at your annual awards ceremony, why not have an award for “the most glorious failure”, “the very-nearly-but-not-quite-a-success” and “the most entrepreneurial manager”?
  9. Celebrate victories together. A couple of weeks ago I advised a CEO client to celebrate the victory of new sales with her organization. She reported back to me about the impact of that message and how everyone was energized by the latest results. Success breeds confidence and that gives people the motivation to take the next step out of their comfort zone and achieve even more.
  10. Increase your review cadence. Most executive teams review sales weekly, but review their key growth initiatives on a monthly basis, at most. Driving out the fear of failure and building traction with these initiatives means that they should become just as important and ingrained in your organisation as your weekly sales. Amazon’s leadership team, for instance, meet every Tuesday to review their big new growth initiatives.
  11. Run regular growth summits. Similarly, you can’t expect to drive growth if you only think about new initiatives once a year. A quarterly session, at least, is essential to generating the quantity of ideas and the energy to drive a compelling growth pipeline.
  12. Involve your customers. The closer you get to your customers, the more willing you will become to change. DFS, the UK’s leading sofa retailer, has driven changes to its marketing, service policy, product ranges and acquisition strategy on the back of its customer satisfaction reviews and greater engagement between the top team and the views of the retailers’ customers.

These 12 steps can shake your organization out of its fear of failure and accelerate future growth. Which of these steps could help you escape your own fear of failure paradox?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – Broad Churches

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This week’s focus: A couple of days ago I heard a politician on the radio telling the interview that her party was a “broad church”. The facts would suggest otherwise. Political parties are pulling apart here in the UK, characterized by in-fighting between rival factions, and are being threatened by up-start, more narrowly focused rivals. Using social media and targeting specific social groups, these challenger parties, including UKIP, SNP and The Green Party, have rapidly built up a meaningful base of support. It’s the same in many European countries, including Italy, France and Germany, and even the two big parties of the USA are under tremendous strain to remain intact.

There are similar trends in business. In many markets, large, previously successful businesses are struggling to grow in the face of competition from smaller, niche rivals. Last week, for instance, The Economist reported that consumer product companies such as Nestle, Unilever and P&G are all struggling to hit their growth targets in the face of these trends. In retail, meanwhile, giant ‘broad churches’ such as M&S and Tesco have seen recent and ongoing declines in sales and customer loyalty.

There are three broad options for the leaders of these ‘broad churches’. First, is to gain even greater scale by acquiring rivals and smaller brands, and cut costs to improve margins. This is what the private-equity firm 3G has done with Heinz, Kraft. Second, is to break up the company into smaller, more focused businesses, as P&G has done and as Tesco is currently doing. Third, is to strengthen and build your areas of competitive advantage, which is what M&S is seeking to do in Food and Fashion.

There are no easy answers, but at some point the answer must be to become more meaningful to your target customers. You can’t simply cut your way to long-term growth. In the meantime, if you run a smaller business, you should remember that the big boys are nervous and while their ‘churches’ may look big, they are more fragile than you might imagine and the walls could easily come tumbling down!

Off the record: Take Me To Church by Hozier

Take me to church

I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies

I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife

Offer me that deathless death

Good God, let me give you my life

© Stuart Cross 2014. All rights reserved.

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The 5 Disciplines Of Highly Successful Companies

Business Graphs and Charts

I have been running my consulting business for nearly 10 years and over that time I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the UK’s leading businesses, including Boots the Chemists, Dunelm, Nectar, DFS and GSK, as well as many excellent mid-sized companies.

All success is both hard-earned and a combination of many factors, but I have identified five disciplines that make the difference between those companies that thrive and those that struggle to survive.

  1. A clear #1 goal. Ian Filby, the CEO of DFS plc once told me, “A strategy has to meet a clear goal. Without agreement about the goal, you can never settle on your strategy.” In my experience, settling on a #1 goal acts as catalyst for energy, action and commitment across the organisation.  My first assignment with Topps Tiles plc, for example, was to help establish a #1 goal for the business, which the leadership team – after much discussion! – set at growing market share from 25% to 33%. The goal acted as a ‘magnetic north’ for all subsequent strategic decisions and Topps achieved this goal one year ahead of schedule at the end of last year.
  2. A distinctive strategic position. As a business you have to stand out, you must have clear competitive advantages. Topps strategy, for instance, can be summed up in their mantra of ‘out-specialising the specialists’, with a focus on superior range authority, inspirational service and locational convenience. This strategic position has helped accelerate their growth. Dunelm, on the other hand, has focused on offering its customers huge choice on homewares products at low prices. As both these businesses support their proposition with an integrated business model, their market position has become extremely hard to copy by their competitors.
  3. Simplicity and speed. All of the most successful companies I know are driven by a focus on rapid action, underpinned by a mind-set that encourages brevity and simplicity. This means the leadership team pursues a focused agenda, creates clear and distinct senior responsibilities, sets demanding timescales to their teams and follow-up relentlessly. As Richard Baker, the former CEO of Boots the Chemists, once told me, “You can’t spray and sprint!
  4. Organisational engagement. The leaders of the most successful businesses I have worked with spend a disproportionate amount of time engaging their teams and colleagues in the priorities and goals of the business. They ensure that their people understand what is required of them. They don’t do this simply through newsletters and annual conferences; they do it in their everyday conversations and the stories they tell, and link every decision they make to their company’s bigger strategic aims. Richard Baker was brilliant at repeating the same strategic priorities during his time at Boots and never knowingly missed an opportunity to articulate the company’s priorities and why they were important.
  5. Implementation discipline. The final discipline is about ensuring new ideas and initiatives are delivered brilliantly, and generate the results required. It’s not about dryly reviewing project plan timelines, but, as one of my clients put it, “working it till it works!” That means having frequent reviews – at least monthly, but potentially weekly –, a focus on action and having the sheer doggedness to ensure that your big, strategic priorities are achieved.

As ever, past achievements are no predictor of future success, particularly given the UK’s economic uncertainty following the referendum result. But by following these five disciplines you will step-change your chances of achieving your goals.

Which of these five disciplines does your business follow, and which should you now focus on to deliver your future success?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – The Problems With Quick Wins

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This week’s focus: One of the biggest drains on many organisations’ time and energy are ‘quick win’ projects. These projects often emerge at the end of strategic ‘away days’ when a slew of ideas are reviewed on two dimensions: (1) their overall impact on value; and (2) the ease of implementation.

Unfortunately, few ideas are ever easy and big, and so you end up choosing between big, hard projects or small, easy projects. More often than not, the latter win out. The barriers to the bigger prizes just seem too massive, especially at the end of a long and tiring workshop.

But the pursuit of ‘quick wins’ is mistaken for three fundamental reasons: (1) their impact on performance barely ever registers; (2) they consume far more effort than originally envisaged and, (3)  most critically, they prevent you from getting on with much more important and valuable projects.

Where are you wasting time pursuing needless ‘quick win’ projects, when you should be focusing your efforts on initiatives that could make a real difference?

Off the record: Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right by Bob Dylan

I ain’t saying you treated me unkind

You could have done better, but I don’t mind

You just kinda wasted my precious time

But don’t think twice, it’s all right

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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The Poolside Development Checklist


It’s that time of year again. Very soon, the schools will break for their summer vacation and many of us will be having a two-week break from work. With that in mind, your summer holidays are a great time to reflect on where you are now and what you should aim to achieve in the months ahead.

So whether you’re going to be lying by a pool, camping in a tent or simply having a few days at home, ask yourself these questions?

Personal Effectiveness

  • What demonstrable improvements in your capabilities have you achieved since last summer, and where are you treading water or going backwards?
  • Where could you best use your strengths to help your organisation achieve one of its key objectives?
  • What lower priority activities can you either stop doing or significantly reduce your time investment, in order to improve your overall productivity and effectiveness?


Team Effectiveness

  • How clear are your team’s goals and priorities, and does everyone know what success looks like?
  • Are all the members of your team playing to their strengths, with clear and stretching individual objectives?
  • How would you rate your team’s overall effectiveness and what barriers to better performance does it face?

Organisational and Strategic Effectiveness

  • How clear and compelling is your organisation’s strategy and priorities?
  • How well engaged with the strategy are teams from across the organisation?
  • What opportunities exist for better ongoing collaboration and more effective delivery of your operations and initiatives across departments?

Customer Impact Effectiveness

  • What can you do to spend more time with your customers (internal and external), observing how they use your products or services and identifying new needs and opportunities?
  • How can you and your team get more feedback from your customers to improve the value you deliver?
  • What can you, your team and your organisation do to create stronger relationships with your customers, increasing their loyalty and their likelihood to recommend you to others?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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7 Secrets Of Successful Strategy Off-Sites

Children brainstorming.

How do you feel when you are invited to a one or two-day strategy off-site? Are you excited by the anticipation of getting involved in resolving critical issues, or do you immediately check your calendar to find the perfect excuse not to attend?

Most leaders, whether they run a team, a department or the entire business, look to have at least one or two sessions a year where they can take a selected group away from the daily pressures of business, develop their strategy and identify priorities for performance improvement.

Over the years I have led dozens of such sessions. From that experience – both positive and negative! – here are my seven lessons for success.

  1. Clarify your objectives well in advance. Too many off-site meetings suffer from fuzzy objectives, resulting in topics being introduced at the last minute, discussions based on immediate gut feel rather than facts, and time spent on issues that are tangential to the future performance of the group. One or two specific objectives should be set 6-10 weeks ahead of the meeting to allow relevant information to be gathered and the session planned effectively.
  2. Match participants to the objectives. Getting as many senior people as possible in the room is not necessarily the best way to achieve your objectives. The temptation is to invite too many people, but ask yourself what are you trying to achieve? If you are after new ideas and thinking a diverse and larger group is appropriate, but if you are after making some critical decisions fewer people in the room is generally best. Alternatively, a session that is focused on implementing solutions benefits from the involvement of front-line operational leaders.
  3. Share the data before the meeting. Nothing kills an off-site session quite like a series of powerpoint presentations. You can visibly see the life-force leaving the bodies of the participants as the presenter drones on like this: “Obviously you can’t quite read this on the screen as the font’s too small, but it shows that 17% of the 32% who said they were interested in the product, account for 23% of the 6% growth in this sector of the market”. Instead, share relevant data ahead of the off-site, both through short, pithy(!) papers and through individual or small-group briefing sessions. You can then focus the off-site agenda on the real work that’s required.
  4. The route to success is involvement. The off-site’s #1 driver of success is meaningful involvement. If, as leader, you offer your opinions too early it can kill the meeting’s energy and momentum. Instead, you should find ways to get participants actively involved in the meeting, rather than becoming passive observers of the session. That’s why the use of an external facilitator can be important, and why including smaller, break-out discussions (where everyone can have the chance to contribute), scoring and voting mechanisms, and workshop-style processes that structure the debate are so useful.
  5. Content trumps process. More people are turned on by discussions and dialogue on the content of the organisation’s business (e.g. what businesses should we be in over the next 5 years?) than they are by process debates (e.g. what are the pro-formas we need to fill out to complete the pack for the group plan?). Make sure that your time is at least 80% content-focused to maintain involvement, engagement and energy.
  6. Remember, you don’t need to solve everything. Last week, I facilitated an off-site session where the group agreed 3 immediate growth priorities but were unable to agree on which others, from a list of 15 or more options, should be taken forward. In my view, agreeing the initial three priorities was a success, and we were quickly agreed that a small sub-group would follow-up on the meeting to review the remaining priorities and make further recommendations.
  7. Follow-up. In successful off-sites, the energy that comes from participants engaging in meaningful discussion on their most important issues means that action planning becomes a natural next-step to move things forward, rather than a painful necessity where everyone hopes the finger won’t be pointed at them. At the conclusion of the off-site you should agree three things: (1) Determine the actions required and assign responsibilities; (2) How you will manage progress of your agreed next steps; and (3) If and how you will communicate the conclusions and outcomes of the off-site to the wider organization.

Off-site sessions should be the catalyst for growth and improvement, not an irrelevance or irritation. Which of these 7 secrets could help your off-site meetings be more successful and productive?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – T-CUP

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This Week’s Focus: A few years ago I heard Sir Clive Woodward speak about how he had led the England rugby team to world cup success. One of the qualities he looked for and developed in his players he called T-CUP, or Thinking Correctly Under Pressure.

Over the past seven days I’ve watched with interest how well different sports teams and politicians have performed in their own unforgiving crucibles. It’s clear that some people have more T-CUP qualities than others, but it’s also a skill you can develop.

Woodward held team meetings to run through specific scenarios with the team so that everyone knew what to do on the pitch in any situation. For example, they would role play what to do if they won the ball 30 yards from the try-line if they were 5 points down with 7 minutes to go, and then run through the same situation if they were 3 points ahead.

The England football team had no such game plan and, as a result, the players’ thinking was muddled in their defeat to Iceland. That’s why Harry Kane sent a 40-yard free kick several yards wide of the post in the last 10 minutes. Similarly, the Brexiteers had no game plan about what to do if they actually won the vote and, as a result, have simply imploded. Even more starkly, all the factions of the Labour Party seem to be making it up as they go along in an embarrassing display of non-leadership and indecisiveness.

On the other hand, Iceland had a clear game plan where all the players knew their role and what to do in any situation, and Nicola Sturgeon and her Scottish Nationalist Party colleagues knew exactly what their response would be to any referendum result.

How are you using scenario thinking, decision-making techniques and other approaches to develop the T-CUP capabilities of your managers and teams so that they can make clearer, better and faster decisions even in the most demanding situations?

Off The Record: Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel

So I went from day to day, though my life was in a rut

Till I thought of what I’d say, and which connection I should cut

I was feeling part of the scenery

I walked right out of the machinery

My heart going boom, boom, boom

Son, he said, grab your things I’ve come to take you home

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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7 Ways That Fast-Paced Leaders Build Faster Organisations

Get Ready

In 2013, a little over five years after it had a seemingly unassailable lead in the global smart phone market, Nokia’s share had completely collapsed and the company was sold to Microsoft. While Apple, Samsung and Chinese manufacturers innovated, Nokia stood still. It’s not alone. Between 2006 and 2014 almost 40 of the S&P 100 companies had dropped out of the list, and nearly 20 of them had completely lost their independence.

Nothing lasts forever, and if some of the world’s biggest companies can decline so rapidly, then no company is safe in today’s turbulent, fast-moving markets. It is only those organisations that act with speed and agility that have a chance of surviving and thriving.

At its heart, pace is a leadership issue. As part of the research for my new book, First & Fast, I identified seven behaviours that fast-paced leaders use to help their businesses to accelerate, succeed and grow.

  1. Set high-speed expectations. When Richard Baker became the chief executive of Boots the Chemists, the UK’s largest pharmacy chain and now part of Walgreens Boots Alliance, he immediately sent a memo to his fellow executive directors, setting out the behaviors he expected of them. Speed was central to his message. As he wrote, “We set the pace. No one in the company will work faster than we do. We will make decisions, not defer them. We will encourage brevity and simplicity. Complexity is the enemy of pace; less is more.” Baker’s executive team quickly realized that he meant what he said, and soon the rest of the organisation raised their game in working at pace.
  2. Ensure strategic focus. The Japanese have a saying that ‘you can’t chase two hares’. If a dog chases one hare it probably has a 20% chance of catching it, but if tries to catch two that probability quickly drops to nil. It’s the same with strategic priorities. The fewer priorities you have the more chance you have of reaching your goals rapidly. Your people understand what’s required more easily, it is easier to build organizational alignment and engagement and there is less competition for critical internal resources.
  3. Build a lean organisation. Walk around most corporate offices and you see rows of people tapping away at their PC, responding to emails. The problem is that these people aren’t necessarily adding to growth. It’s the same in meetings. The more people that attend, the longer it takes to make a decision. Slightly paradoxically, the truth is that the fewer people in your organization, particularly in its central support functions, the greater the improvement to its pace and energy.
  4. Communicate continuously. Fast-paced leaders make the time and effort to communicate with their organisation continuously, in any way they can. That means ‘town hall meetings’, memos and small meeting conversations, as well as set-piece conferences. What’s more, they use stories not facts to highlight their message. When Stuart Rose became CEO of M&S, the UK retailer, for example, he repeatedly told his people how one of the buyers had managed to brief, source and sell new espadrille shoes in a little over a week, as a way of highlighting the need for speed across the business.
  5. Demand and encourage rapid action. Stuart Rose was encouraging M&S managers and staff to act faster. Over time, the demand for rapid action can be embedded in the DNA of your organisation’s culture. The other side of action, of course, is the removal of your people’s fear of failure. Only then will they build, test and review the series of imperfect prototype solutions that will be necessary to quickly discover a better new product, process or solution.
  6. Develop a discipline of regular, rapid reviews. In every fast-paced company I know there is a discipline of regular review. Amazon, for instance, run a weekly senior leadership team meeting to review progress on their most important projects. At one UK retailer I know, the CEO and his top team met in one of the stores each Monday at 6.00 am to review the latest in-store innovations. This discipline of reviewing progress on your key projects weekly can have a transformative effect on the speed and quality of implementation. Managers feel more committed to take action if they know they’re going to be asked what’s happened in the last seven days, but only if there is a genuine environment of collective support, rather than the feeling of a court appearance.
  7. Destroy functional silos. No structure is perfect, and wherever structural boundaries exist silos are possible. Your job as leader is to counter-balance your structural weaknesses with a culture that kills these silos at source. There are many actions you can take, including the creation of common goals and incentives, rewarding cross-functional behaviors and developing cross-functional career paths, but the most important place to start is in the executive suite, ensuring that the leadership ‘team’ really is a team. Fast-paced leaders take the time to carefully first select those people that will genuinely work together, rather than alone, and then to build the trust across the group that is essential to building the organisation’s speed, agility and growth.

Which of these seven behaviours could help your organisation move more quickly, act more rapidly and accelerate growth?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Why Innovation Is A Dirty Business

Creative Designers Team Working by 3D Printer.

Customers are poor predictors of their own behaviour. No matter how much research a company does, managers who are bring a new business to market will hold their breath at launch-time just as much as NASA scientists do with their own rocket launches.

Tesco, for example, spent a full year in the houses of the citizens of the West Coast of America ahead of their launch of their new store concept, Fresh & Easy, in November 2007.  Their aim was to fully understand the needs and motivations of these consumers before bringing their new concept to the market. Despite the $ millions spent on the research, Fresh & Easy was a failure that ultimately cost Tesco $1 billion.

I know from my own experience that research and even early success is a poor predictor of ultimate performance.

Back in 2003, when I was working for Boots, I led a team that researched a new-style city centre store. We piloted the new concept in London and our store immediately saw a double-digit growth in sales.

Believing we had found the answer I moved the project team on and a new team took over the work. The problem, however, was that much of our success was due to random factors rather than – as we had believed at the time – our own brilliance, and future stores failed to justify their investment. Less than a year later the programme was stopped.

My painful lesson from this experience was that creating an innovative product or business is, above all, an iterative process. It requires trial and error, constant review and refinement and a willingness to remain open-minded about the solution. Customer research can only point you in a certain direction; it cannot give you the answer.

Innovation is not the job for a strategist but for those focused on action and learning. It is a hands-on, sleeves rolled-up, dirty business and not a theoretical exercise.

As any innovator will tell you it is likely to be the hundredth trial that gives you the answer; it is almost impossible that it will be the first solution. This means that you must start small, learn quickly and go from there.

How are you driving pace into your innovation process?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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