The Simplicity Test


Complexity is the enemy of pace. As a result, it is a critical leadership task to simplify the organization wherever and whenever possible. Simplicity drives speed, which, in turn, drives results, and removing unnecessary complexity can be the catalyst for new growth.

As a starting point, take the test, below. Simply score your own organization (and your role within it) from zero to 5 for each of the statements below.

  1. We have a clear strategic intent that, in simple, everyday terms, articulates how we will succeed
  2. As a management team, we have identified a handful of objectives (3-6) that drive our focus and activity
  3. We have an overarching #1 goal that is the ultimate driver of our decisions and actions
  4. We have crystal-clear accountabilities across the business and managers are never concerned that they’re stepping on someone else’s toes
  5. We have minimized the number of management layers – there is no further room for improvement
  6. Managers know exactly how to seek approval for a major decision or improvement
  7. Our planning process is short, sharp and effective, taking only a few weeks to complete
  8. When an initiative or business activity isn’t working, it is quickly improved or killed – we do not allow problems to fester
  9. We minimize the number of formal meetings and senior managers’ time is focused on delivering a great customer experience
  10. This is not a political organization. Everyone feels free to have their say, and we all feel that we’re on the same side.

So, how do you measure up? Compare your score to the ratings below:

Over 40: Complexity under control, for now. You’re highly effective and productive, but make sure that you stay alert to the creep of complexity

25-40: Creeping Complexity. If productivity isn’t suffering now, it soon will be. Identify your key priorities and target improvements in simplicity over the next 3 months.

Less than 25: Complexity Paralysis. Your organization has low productivity and is spinning its wheels. You need to work hard and fast to focus your efforts on driving greater simplicity immediately.

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – Breaking Point

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This week’s focus: When I go to the gym and lift weights – which, believe it or not, I do from time to time! – there comes a point where I simply can no longer lift the bar. The decline in my performance doesn’t come on gradually; instead, it’s almost like an off switch has been clicked. One minute I can lift, the next my body has given up completely. My ability to lift collapses at this breaking point.

Dramatic breaking points affect organisational performance, too. I once worked with the valet team at a Ritz-Carlton hotel in the USA. The team performed brilliantly most of the time, but when demand reached a certain level, such as Sunday lunchtime, their performance collapsed as dramatically as my lifting technique and, as a result, cars were backed up along the hotel’s driveway. You can often see this effect in busy shops, too, when a queue can rapidly form at peak times, even though all the tills seem to be staffed, or at restaurants when, at busy periods, you wait seemingly forever for your meal.

There are three solutions to improving the breaking point of your key customer services: increase capacity (e.g. the number of people in the team), enhance the capability of the team or system, or improve its organisation and management. If you ask the team, the chances are they’ll ask for more resource, while most managers look to improve the capability of the system (either training or systems development) as the way forward.

In my experience, however, it is the third option, improving the organisation and management of the team, that has the biggest and quickest impact on performance. At the Ritz-Carlton, for instance, we established clear roles for all the team members, and appointed a ‘captain’ to marshall the team at peak times. These two actions had an immediate and dramatic impact on performance and the peak-time queues were no longer an issue for the hotel’s guests.

How about you? What’s the breaking point of your key services, and how could you better organise and manage the points of peak demand to deliver a better customer experience?

Off the record: 19th Nervous Breakdown by The Rolling Stones

You better stop

Look around

Here it comes, here it comes

Here it comes, here it comes

Here comes your 19th nervous breakdown

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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The Weekly Big Idea Review

Children brainstorming.

Effective innovation is both a strategic imperative and a messy process of development, testing and refinement. If this process is to work, you need to have regular updates and reviews.

One way of doing this that cuts the chain of command between the ideas and the leadership team is to have weekly ‘big idea’ reviews. In these sessions, new, big ideas are presented worked on, reviewed and updated.

During the turnaround of UK grocer, Asda, in the early 1990s, the executive team met each Monday morning at a local store that had been set up as a laboratory to run series of experiments and to test new ideas. The team walked the store, reviewed the week’s progress and agreed the priorities for the following seven days.

The pace of innovation at Asda rapidly accelerated, and its subsequent growth and profitability attracted Wal-Mart sufficiently to buy the business.

It can be tempting to review your big, strategic projects quarterly, or possibly monthly, but this can inhibit pace and progress. A weekly review of actions and the evolutionary development of new ideas can step-change the pace at which you can develop new ideas, implement new offerings and grow your business.

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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The 4 Types Of Innovation

light bulb with plant

There was a time, not that long ago, when companies didn’t necessarily have an innovation-related objective on their strategic agenda. Instead, they would, for example, be focused on reducing costs, expanding geographically or creating operational excellence. It wasn’t that product or service development wasn’t important, it was just that the level of detailed executive and organisational focus on this area of the business varied in line with its perceived relevance to the company’s growth ambitions.

As Bob Dylan once sang, though, things have changed. Innovation is no longer a strategic alternative; it is a strategic imperative. It is impossible to gain and sustain a leading position in your market without a systematic and comprehensive commitment to innovation.

Innovation is, of course, far more than product and service development. In corporate terms, innovation can be seen as the delivery of an important and original idea that provides you with new competitive advantages. When you take this wider view of innovation, you can identify four different types of innovation:

  1. Product and service innovation. This is what most people mean when they talk about innovation. Dyson’s bag-less vacuum cleaner, Apple’s iPad and Nespresso coffee capsules are all examples of product innovations that have fundamentally shifted the dynamics of their market. Even with patent, trademark and brand protection, however, the competitive advantages offered by these products are eroded over time through competition. In other words, even with game-changing innovations, entropy will inevitably take over and your advantages, revenues and cash flows will decline. What’s more, relying on single-hit innovations, rather than a stream – or even a torrent – of new innovations, will not create sustainable success.
  2. Operational innovation. Some companies drive innovations through their operating model, often led by investment in technology. During the 1980s and 1990s, for example, WalMart gained huge advantages against Kmart and its other rivals through the company’s massive and sophisticated investment in supply chain systems and technologies. Again, as your rivals catch up you will be required to find the next stage innovation if you wish to maintain or extend your operational advantage.
  3. Business model innovation. It’s possible to innovate at an even higher level than product or operations. Ryanair and other low-fare airlines, for instance, have transformed the air travel market by creating and deploying an entirely new business model that traditional carriers find difficult to compete against. Product innovation can also go hand-in-hand with business model innovation. Nespresso, for instance, not only sells a range of coffee capsules, but also does so through a system that the company either controls or strongly influences. The coffee machines can only use Nespresso capsules and the capsules can only be bought through company’s on-line portal or from its small chain of boutique stores. Innovations focused around entire business models are harder to copy than product or operational innovations, but are equally harder to develop and deliver.
  4. Organisational and cultural innovation. Finally, companies can innovate around their culture and organisation. In the 1980s, for example, ABB created a high-growth business by breaking the huge engineering company into a series of smaller and entrepreneurial business units. More recently, the rise of Zappos was driven by the relentless focus of its leadership team on customer service, and the development of an organisational culture that provides a great experience for its workers, encouraging them to go the extra mile for their customers. In other words, it is possible to create a serious competitive advantage through your organisation, management approach and culture that other companies can find hard to match.

Using this broader view, you can immediately see that the potential for bigger, better and faster innovation in many businesses is huge. Which of these types of innovation could your business pursue to create meaningful and sustainable advantages and to drive your future success?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – Winning In Uncertain Times

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This week’s focus: The beauty, joy and frustration of business, as with life, is that the future is unwritten. The pace of change in the world – technological, political and economic – makes business more chaotic, turbulent and unpredictable than ever.

In the face of this uncertainty, it may be tempting to hide, to avoid taking risks and trying new things. But one thing’s for sure – tomorrow’s winners are those companies and business leaders that are ready and willing to reach out and pursue and exploit new opportunities, not simply hold on tightly to current successes.

As my own business coach tells me, we are on a lump of rock flying through space at over 60,000 miles per hour around an exploding star, so even in the midst of some political uncertainties we should be willing to take the odd business risk! The lesson is not to spend excessive time on planning and analysis, but to think big, start small and learn fast. We can spend our whole lives trying to understand what might happen in the future, or we can actually get out there, try something, see what works and what doesn’t and then improve it.

I know which route is more likely to lead to success. How are you trying to learn and innovate faster than you did last year and faster than your competitors?

Off the record: Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell

I’ve looked at life from both sides now

From win and lose and still somehow

It’s life’s illusions I recall

I really don’t know life at all

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Coasting To Success


A few years ago, I was persuaded by some friends to cycle the Coast-to-Coast route across England, from Morecambe to Bridlington. So, although not a dedicated cyclist, I bought the bike, the shoes and the lycra outfits and spent some time on my local country roads building up some endurance.

The first day of the trip arrived and I was nervous but excited. Within an hour that excitement had turned to frustration. I just couldn’t keep up with the group. No matter how much I tried I was left further and further behind. By the time I arrived at our first major stop, the Yorkshire village of Settle, the others had already been at the café for 30 minutes. I was exhausted.

I turned to my friend, Richard, and told him that I thought that I should give up, get the train home and let the group continue without me. Richard didn’t say anything. He simply looked at me, raised an eyebrow and went to fetch his bike pump. He returned, pumped up my tyres and patted me on the head.

Who knew that pumping up your tyres could make such a difference!?! From that moment, I was able to travel just as quickly as the rest of the group.

It’s not how hard you work that generates speed; it’s how you’re organised and set up that makes the difference.

Where do you need to pump up your organisation’s tyres, so that all your energies and efforts can be fully channelled into faster and bigger success?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Your Next 90 Days


When new senior executives are appointed, they often talk about their 90-day plan. They want to make sure that they have some concrete achievements in their first three months, so that they build commitment and momentum.

But what about the next 90 days, and the 90 days after that. Why do so few of these executives have a follow up plan?

I believe that 90-day plans are superior to annual plans. After all, three months is long enough to make real progress on a few priorities, but short enough to know that you need to get going – now! What’s more a series of 90-day plans enables you to flex your resources to changing circumstances in the delivery of your most important goals.

I accept that some activities have to be planned for months and years, but most don’t, and a series of 90-day plans builds greater levels of progress and speed of delivery than traditional annual plans.

When I worked with Boots the Chemists, for example, the UK retailer created organizational momentum – and sales growth of around 3% – on the back of a three-month focus on improving stock availability in its stores. This initiative allowed the company to deliver rapid, material and sustainable profit improvement in just 90 days, and formed the basis for further growth.

What focused 90-day plan could you establish for your business to step-change its growth and to fast-forward the delivery of its strategy?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Super Moon

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This week’s focus: Late on Monday evening the clouds above Nottinghamshire finally parted to reveal the ‘super moon’, looking larger and brighter than at any time in the past 50 years or so. To my eye, the moon looked as beautiful as it always does, but, if I’m honest, I couldn’t really tell the difference from the not-quite-so-super moon that I see on a more regular basis.

It’s tempting to obsess about what’s new, what’s changed and the latest thing. But the truth is, that for businesses at least, it’s far better to focus your mind and your resources on things that won’t change. They might not be quite so ‘super’ but they are likely to be more successful. And, somewhat counterintuitively, focusing on won’t change can help drive innovation.

I recently re-read a Harvard Business Review interview with Jeff Bezos, the founder and boss of Amazon, from 2007. In that article, Bezos said, “When I’m talking with people there’s a question that comes up very commonly: “What’s going to change in the next 5-10 years? But I very rarely get asked ‘What’s not going to change in the next 5-10 years?” At Amazon we’re always trying to figure that out, because …all the energy you invest in [those things] today will still be paying you dividends 10 years from now.”

No-one could accuse Amazon of not being innovative, but its innovation has been explicitly driven by its desire to push the boundaries on customer needs that are constant, rather than ‘new’.

What about your business? What are the constant needs of your customers that, if you focused on them relentlessly over a sustained period, could help you accelerate growth and ensure that they are always over the moon?

Off the record: The Whole of the Moon by The Waterboys

I spoke about wings

You just flew

I wondered, I guessed and I tried

You just new

I sighed, but you swooned

I saw the crescent

You saw the whole of the moon

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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How To Halve Your Number Of Strategic Projects

Creative Designers Team Working by 3D Printer.

My rule of thumb is that most organizations are, at any one time, running at least twice as many major projects as they can reasonably deliver at pace. This heuristic is relevant in even the biggest organizations and, whatever size business you lead, you must focus your resources and efforts where you can have the biggest impact.

The five criteria that I recommend you use to rank and prioritize your strategic projects are:

  1. Impact on your #1 goal. What difference will this project make to the delivery of your most important goal?
  2. Ability to make material progress in the next 3-6 months. What level of improvement is possible in the next few months with dedicated focus and resource driving this initiative?
  3. Customer impact. How will the project directly improve the experience you deliver for your customers?
  4. Internal organizational fit. How well does this initiative have with the capabilities and culture of the organization, and how committed will your people be to its delivery and success benefits?
  5. Risk. What is the worst-case scenario of this project and its related investment?

As you assess your projects against these questions, which of them are still ‘mission critical’ and which of them are interesting but, ultimately, irrelevant to the success of your business?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

Posted in Leadership, Simplicity, Speed and Pace, Strategy | Leave a comment

Business Rocks – The Polls Got Trumped

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This week’s focus: I don’t know if you’re aware, but there was a presidential election earlier this week in the USA. And, despite the polls suggesting otherwise, Mr. Trump won. As with Brexit and the UK general election in 2015, the polls didn’t predict the actual outcome.

My own view is that we expect too much of polls. They can give a general view of the public mood, but can never be sufficiently precise to reflect people’s specific voting intentions or likelihood to vote. And, as the pollsters try to fix the problems associated with past election polls, they’ll simply end up missing new subtle factors at play in future votes.

It’s the same with customer research. All the data and research in the world – and most of the reports that I see run to over 100 slides! – can only ever tell you so much. Every successful business leader I’ve worked with has had an intimate – and first hand – understanding of their customers and what makes them tick.

This means that you must constantly get out, meet and talk to as many of your customers as possible about their needs, their frustrations and their ambitions. That’s the only way that you can make sense of the data in your research reports, or even know the right questions for your researchers to ask.

If you want to see how a real, first-hand view of the electorate, combined with an understanding of the bigger picture, can help you develop a clearer view of the future, read this article by the filmmaker Michael Moore predicting Trump’s triumph. And if you want to develop new, innovative offers that better meet the needs of your customers, you must get out from behind your desk and understand their lives first-hand.

Off the record: You Can’t Always Get What You Want by The Rolling Stones

We went down to the demonstration

To get your fair share of abuse

Singing, “We’re gonna vent our frustration

If we don’t we’re gonna blow a 50-amp fuse!”

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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