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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Business Rocks – The Impact Of Brexit

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This Week’s Focus: The UK vote to leave the EU is, by any standards, a truly historical event. The future for this great country looks less clear than for many years and I don’t think anyone can be sure what will happen in the next few days, never mind the next few years. As the UK leaves the EU the probability of Scotland leaving the UK grows, and, given the split of the vote, I can even envisage calls in the not-too-distant future for London to gain a different relationship with Europe to the rest of the country.

Earlier in the campaign I wrote in this newsletter that business leaders shouldn’t be focused on Brexit or Bremain, but on delivering ‘Brexcellence’. I believe that even more strongly this morning. As I’ve written in my recent book, First & Fast, the only secure route to success in an uncertain, turbulent world, is to be the clear leader of your chosen markets.

Amazon, a company that itself has created uncertainty and disruption for many other corporations across the world, has consistently focused on just three core objectives over the past 10-15 years. Providing greater choice, faster delivery and lower prices have been the basis for all Amazon’s innovation. Jeff Bezos, the company’s CEO has repeatedly said that in a fast-changing world the only sensible way forward is to focus on the drivers of customer satisfaction that won’t change.

The Vote Leave campaign’s mantra was “to take back control”. Last night’s vote reinforces the need for you to take control of your company’s strategy, identify how you can best win in your markets, and relentlessly drive innovation in those chosen areas so that your business can grow and thrive.

Off The Record: Take Down The Union Jack by Billy Bragg

Take down the Union Jack, it clashes with the sunset

And pile all those history books, but don’t throw them away

They just might have some clues about what it really means

To be an Anglo-hyphen-Saxon in England.co.uk

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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6 Ways To More Effective Strategy Communication

Listen Up

Despite all the previous books and articles that have been written on communication, CEOs and senior executives spend too little time articulating their strategy across the organisation. Some CEOs, of course, are great at this. When I worked at Boots the Chemists, Richard Baker was brilliant at repeating the same message in all his communications – board meetings, newsletters, store visits, individual conversations.

Richard never knowingly missed an opportunity to articulate his strategic priorities and why they were important, and, unsurprisingly, the organisation quickly ‘got’ what the strategy was about and started to make it a reality.

Here are six ways that you can improve your ability to communicate your company’s strategy:

  1. Have your 3-5 strategic priorities to refer to in every discussion. Keep it simple, stupid: this was the cornerstone of Richard Baker’s approach. Like a politician who has decided the answers she wants give, even before she’s been asked the questions, Richard was able to bring all of his responses back to his key priorities for the business.
  2. Expect to communicate it over 6,000 times. If a strategy has a ‘life’ of three years and we assume that there are circa 200 working days a year and that you have 10 opportunities to articulate the strategy each day, there are up to 6,000 separate strategy sound bite opportunities over the three years. Of course, you could be more communicative, but let’s start somewhere! Yes, it may become slightly boring for you to keep repeating the same message, but it is what’s required before it is fully embedded and understood across your organisation.
  3. Have conversations, not speeches. More important than your big, set-piece speeches is the drip, drip, drip of your daily conversations. Unless they are in line with your key messages, your carefully crafted annual speech will be quickly forgotten and ignored.
  4. Create an emotional connection, not just a rational argument. Strong logic and rationale will help your people understand the new strategy, but they will only become committed if there is an emotional impact as well. For example, one of my clients, Avon Cosmetics, focuses its message around its goal of ‘empowering women’. This message helps create an emotional connection between the company and its thousands of, almost exclusively, female representatives around the globe.
  5. Use stories and examples. When Sir Stuart Rose became CEO of M&S he used the story of how one product manager developed a new espadrille shoe in just 12 days – by ignoring the company’s usual development processes – as an example to the rest of the business about effective risk taking. That story was worth a million Powerpoint® slides exhorting people to work faster.
  6. Take visible action. In the end, of course, actions speak louder than words. For example, one way in which P&G’s ex-CEO, AG Lafley, hammered home his message that ‘the consumer is boss’ by ensuring each of his business trips included in-home and in-store customer sessions. What did his team and their teams then do on their trips? Yes, you’ve guessed it.

Communication is not an adjunct of effective strategy management; it’s at the heart of effective strategy management. Which of these six actions could help you engage your teams and embed your strategy across your organisation?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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How The EU Referendum Can Improve Your Business Strategy

Voting hand

The UK EU referendum is nearly upon us. A week or so ago the polls indicated a shift to ‘Leave’ winning the vote, although this weekend’s polls suggest a change back in favour of the ‘Remain’ campaign is underway. What’s more, the pollsters tell us that there is likely to be a bias, on voting day, towards the status quo and, as a result, ‘Remain’ is still the most likely outcome according to the bookmakers.

Personally, I’ve no idea how the vote will go, but I do see the ‘status quo’ bias in action in many business decisions. Managers prefer to stick to what they know rather than doing something new if given the choice. The problem is that today’s business model is unlikely to be the model that will win tomorrow.

As companies grow there are three stages at which they can invest in the next stage of growth. The first stage is during periods of rapid growth. Unfortunately, most executive teams fail to invest at this time, focusing all their efforts on driving their current success rather than thinking about the next phase of growth. The second investment point is when growth rates start to decline. Even at this position, however, as growth starts to plateau, it is tempting to simply try to make the current model work harder instead of developing a new model of success.

In fact, it is only usually at position #3, when low growth turns to sales and profit decline, that most management teams recognise the need to change the status quo. Unfortunately, it can be too late at this stage to turn things around quickly enough. Tesco, for example, is currently in this position and is rapidly disposing of non-core assets to focus on reviving growth in their UK business. But will be enough and will it be quick enough? The cost base of Tesco in the UK is far in excess of its low-cost rivals, such as Aldi and Lidl, and their current actions may not be radical enough to deliver a sustainable revival.

As a leader of your business you must recognise that there are no risk-free options to your growth strategy, even if you’re currently successful, and that you need to overcome your inherent status quo bias. Here are three questions you can ask yourself and your team to achieve this:

  1. What business models are the most successful today in our market? In any strategy discussion you are likely to first look at improving the performance of your existing business model and operations, but the models of your most successful rivals could be a more appropriate starting point.
  2. What would we do if we were a new competitor in this market? The status quo bias is not relevant to new start-ups. So, put yourself in the position of these entrepreneurial innovators to help you break out from incremental, today-forward thinking.
  3. If we bought our business today, what would we do? Alternatively, management teams tend to be more radical with new acquisitions than they are with their existing businesses. By adopting the mindset of the acquisition team you can take a fresh view of the opportunities and weaknesses of your business and create a more radical – and potentially more realistic – perspective of the route to future growth.

On Friday we will see how far the ‘status quo’ bias shifts votes in favour of ‘Remain’ in the UK’s EU referendum, but the development of your strategy can’t afford to have this bias in play.  How will you use these three questions to ensure that your strategic thinking is firmly focused on the future drivers of success rather than the inertia of today’s realities?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

Posted in Leadership, Nothing Fails Like Success, Strategy | Leave a comment

Business Rocks – Gorgeous Tom

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This Week’s Focus: Last weekend my wife and I were fortunate enough to attend a friend’s 50th birthday party at a bar on the beach in Cannes. It was a wonderful evening and it was great to catch up with people I hadn’t seen in a while. One ex-colleague I chatted with – we’ll call him ‘Tom’ – was transformed from his work persona. I had always thought that ‘Tom’, a short, balding middle-aged man, was a likeable guy, if a little reserved. Not on Saturday. I guess it’s fair to say that ‘Tom’ was the life and soul of the party – dancing, singing, hugging, kissing, joking – so much so that the singer of the band called him ‘Gorgeous Tom’!

The simple truth is that you don’t always appreciate the full personality or the full potential of your people. When Richard Baker became CEO of Boots the Chemists in 2003 he decided to replace the Retail Director he spotted Alex Gourlay running an HR project.

As Richard told me when I was researching my new book, First & Fast, “I thought, this guy gets it. He knows how the company works, he’s a pharmacist and a shopkeeper, and he’s likeable. I’m sure he can help get the juices flowing in the business again.” When Baker left Boots, Gourlay stepped up to become the CEO of Boots and is currently running the Walgreens drugstore business in the USA.

Similarly, I’m working with a client where a new Managing Director has removed the under-performing Production Director and promoted the factory manager to that position. For years the new director’s desire to improve the factory’s performance had been thwarted by the previous incumbent’s inability and inertia. Now, however, she’s flying and leading a step-change in productivity that is energizing her colleagues and her department.

So, who are the ‘gorgeous’ people hiding in your organisation that have the potential, talent and energy to drive the next phase of growth of your business if only they had the opportunity?

Off The Record: You’re Gorgeous by Babybird

Because you’re gorgeous, I’d do anything for you

Because you’re gorgeous, our love will see us through

Because you’re gorgeous, I’d do anything for you

Because you’re gorgeous, I know you’ll get me through

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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How To Deliver Rapid Culture Change: Richard Baker puts “The Chemists” back into Boots

A key task of the leader of a team or organisation is to set the tone in terms of the values and behaviours of the organisation. Many new leaders set up a ‘culture change programme’ to help make this happen, but a simpler, faster and more effective approach is possible.

As part of the research for my new book, First & Fast, I met with Richard Baker. Richard is now the chairman of Whitbread plc and DFS plc, but he was previously the CEO of Boots the Chemists. When he arrived at the business, it was in turmoil. The company was under trading pressure from grocers, particularly Tesco and Asda, and the previous CEO had been dismissed after wasting over £100 million on a failed initiative to turn Boots into a ‘wellbeing’ company. The organisation was short of confidence and short of direction.

Creating a new culture was as important to Baker as developing a new strategy. Set out below is a copy of a memo that he shared with his new executive colleagues on his first day as CEO of the company, back in September 2003.

To Ex-Co

From: Richard Baker

There are a few behaviours that I expect from myself and my teams. I thought it might help you if I provided an initial insight.

Integrity above all else – Integrity is how we behave when no one else is watching. It is saying what you think honestly and openly, with respect for others. It is killing gossip and seeing the good in others. It is admitting to mistakes fast ….good news can wait.

All of is better than any of us – Teamwork is the secret ingredient. We deliver on promises to each other. We put each other’s work ahead of our own. We debate in private and concur in public. We show trust. We talk each other up in the presence of others.

World-class leadership – We are all leaders in the company. We lead with our ears, not our mouths. We say thank you and we look for every opportunity to celebrate success. When success occurs we give credit to others. When failure occurs we take responsibility personally. We start and finish meetings on time and we set a stretching example to others at all times. Development of our people is a priority.

We set the pace – No on in the company will work faster than we do. We must demand the impossible, set stretch goals and be unreasonable to get the job done. Few people know the limit of their abilities. We will make decisions, not defer them. We will encourage brevity and simplicity. Complexity is the enemy of pace. Less is more.

You can see in that memo Baker’s determination to turn the business around and build the organisation’s confidence as well as its results. The memo is both clear and confident without being either overbearing or unnecessarily prescriptive. Some executives left, but most remained and helped Baker achieve his goals for Boots and, critically, the culture changed rapidly – almost instantaneously – for the better, as a result of Baker’s clarity, his ability to communicate his values and his discipline in ensuring that his behaviours consistently reinforced those values.

You can read more about how Baker put “The Chemists” back into Boots in First & Fast, but having and explicitly communicating a clear set of values was an integral element of his success.

I recommend that you develop and share your own memo about the values and behaviours you expect from your team. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been leading your team for months or years. It’s never too late to re-set your expectations, as long as you’re clear and candid about what you’re trying to achieve.

So, what would your memo say and how quickly could you deliver a new team or organisational culture if you shared it and then reinforced it through your actions?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – Born To Sulk

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This Week’s Focus: Last Friday my wife and I went to see Bruce Springsteen in concert. Together with The E Street Band, Bruce played over 30 songs in a fantastic show that lasted over three hours. He is a force of nature; a phenomenon. He played nearly all the greatest hits, a great selection of less well-known songs and some recent tracks. I loved it and, at one point, even had a little tear in my eye!

There were 40,000 people in the stadium, all of them having a great time. Well, all but one. Sitting next to me was a woman who had come with her husband (I presume). They arrived late, but while he immediately started to dance and join in with the songs she simply sat down, sulked and simply checked her Facebook account for the rest of the evening. She didn’t look up once. Born To Run? Nothing. Born In The USA? Nothing. Bruce pulling a 10-year old boy from the crowd to sing one of the songs? Rien, nada, niente, nichts!

The fact is that whatever you do – and no matter how good your work – not everyone will be happy or supportive. I’ve seen too many leaders of teams and change projects bending over backwards to try and find ways to get everyone on-side and accommodate their issues. But the truth is that it can’t be done and you shouldn’t bother. As long as you have enough support for your ideas and plans, simply go round these opponents and spend your energy elsewhere. And usually, as it was with The Boss last Friday, it’s their loss.

Where are you spending too much time and effort trying to win over opponents to your ideas and plans when you should be putting that energy into making them succeed?

Off The Record: Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen

Oh, someday girl, I don’t know when

We’re gonna get to that place

Where we really want to go

And we’ll walk in the sun

But till then tramps like us

Baby we were born to run

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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7 Ways To Build Stronger Relationships – And Get More Done

iStock_handshake white

Your ability to get anything done in business is directly linked to the strength of your personal relationships. For most managers, there is little that can be achieved solely with the resources at their direct control. You must also be able to influence others to get anything worthwhile accomplished, and that influence is based on strong and trusted relationships.

First, a quick admission. Throughout my corporate career I shunned relationship building – particularly with people I didn’t immediately like. I viewed it as unnecessary and political. Instead, I believed that gaining support for my proposals should be based on the quality of my work and not whether I knew my boss’s boss well enough.

I was wrong.

As a consultant I now understand that understanding others’ agenda, being of help to them and identifying opportunities to help them to achieve their aims is the way to get things done. And, in return, I have found that I can use these relationships over time to help with my own objectives.

Here are 7 principles I now use to build stronger, more productive relationships with others.

  1. Have an honest intent to help others. If you have a genuine desire to help others, this will be immediately picked up by your contacts. What are you doing to demonstrate to them that you have their interests at heart?
  2. It’s a process, not a transaction. Relationships develop over a period of time. It’s better to have the relationship already developed than trying to build it at the same time as you need to influence the other person.
  3. Give to get. It is far easier to get others to spend time with you if, in the past, you have helped or provided value for them. One of my first clients engaged me partly because I had previously helped him obtain a new role.
  4. Be provocative. Don’t be a yes man or woman. People are attracted to those who have a new angle, new ideas and a different point of view. The top executives in one of my clients constantly seek out a particular senior manager, as he is always able and willing to offer interesting, innovative and inspirational ideas.
  5. Connect others together. I recently organised a meeting between a client of mine who leads a team with a wide variety of backgrounds, with a US expert on managing diversity. The meeting was successful, with the client identifying some new ways to build his team, and both thanked me for bringing them together – even though I wasn’t there.
  6. Keep in regular contact. Little and often is the best way. For example, I offer my contacts weekly newsletter with a short article that – hopefully – offers them value. Depending on the individual I add to this with other periodic mailings of articles, phone calls and face-to-face meetings.
  7. Don’t watch the clock. You cannot expect instant payback. However, as long as you continue to build the relationship in the right way, it is more than likely that you will gain the reward at some point down the line.

Which of these 7 principles could you adopt to help you build better relationships, have more influence and become more productive?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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7 Ways To Increase Your Company’s Speed and Agility

Cheetahs hunting

Every CEO I know wants their business to be faster and more agile, but many are unclear as to how that can be achieved. Here are seven ideas you can use with your clients and companies to increase speed and agility.

  1. Saying “No” regularly. In most companies there are many more good ideas than there are people to implement them, but if you fail to focus and say “Yes” to all these ideas, you simply end up slowing down your organisation. As the Japanese saying goes, you can’t chase two hares. A couple of years, ago I helped a UK retailer identify some new category opportunities. I came up with three or four growth options and suggested that they trial each of them. “No,” replied the CEO immediately. “The biggest prize is in Option 1 so let’s put all our effort behind that one.” The energy in the room immediately changed. The new level of focus created a buzz around the big opportunity and the retailer had a successful trial on the ground within 4 weeks.
  2. A #1 goal. I never use balanced scorecards as a way of setting strategy – they simply give you too many objectives and priorities. I much prefer to identify a single, leading goal and then use other KPI’s as supporting, not competing measures. Back in 2005, for example, the UK’s Sky TV started to deliver rapid growth when the executive team set a specific, #1 goal of growing its number of subscribers from 6 million to 10 million by 2010. The clarity of the goal gave the organisation the focus to rapidly develop new growth initiatives.
  3. Become a partnership expert. Google’s willingness to partner with other companies has enabled the company to accelerate the take-up of its Android operating system. In contrast, from its market peak in 2005, Nokia’s determination to develop in-house solutions restricted its ability to develop successful new innovations in this fast-changing market. As its market share and profitability declined, the company was forced into an alliance with Microsoft, but this move was too little too late, and in 2013 Nokia’s mobile phone business was sold to its partner.
  4. Rapid, low-cost trials and prototypes. There is often a desire to develop the perfect solution before testing it. However, if you’re trying something new, the chances are it will fail in some way. You are better off trying to fail – and learn – as quickly and as cheaply as you can rather than attempting to seek immediate perfection. As WW2 leader, General Patton, once said, “A good solution applied with vigour now is better than a perfect solution applied ten minutes later.
  5. Zero based budgeting. The world is changing rapidly and you can no longer simply fund last year’s activities (plus or minus a few percent) and expect to thrive. Instead, you must start with a clean sheet of paper each year and determine, given your goals, where you will invest. Use this process as a way to involve your teams to identify where you are wasting time, effort and resources, and critically review the returns you are getting from the investment of your people and your financial investments.
  6. The end of 3-year plans. It’s good to have longer-term objectives, but you also need pace in implementation that 3-year plans cannot possibly deliver. I have worked with several companies to implement new, more dynamic planning and management processes that focus on the next 9 months, and that have a more specific focus on delivery in the next quarter. My clients are still focused on their big goals, but now have more flexibility to adjust how they achieve them.
  7. Process improvements that are focused on speed not cost. The objective of many process improvement projects is to cut cost. The problem with this approach is that it can mean your activities take longer as you add new controls and more sign-offs to the process. By focusing your process improvements on speed (time to market, delivery responsiveness, time to build your product) you will, inevitably, focus on reducing the waste and delay in your current processes and end up reducing your costs as well.

Which of these seven ideas could help you improve the speed and agility of your business?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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