Business Rocks – White Stuff

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This Week’s Focus: Here’s an exercise for you: In the next 30 seconds, list as many white objects as you can. Don’t read on, please; just give it go. OK, how did you do? Now, here’s stage two: In the next 30 seconds, list as many white objects that you might find in a fridge as you can. Again, how many did you list? (See note)

If you’re like most people, you probably found it easier to list the white fridge objects, even though the number of white objects you might find in a fridge are just a fraction of the vast collection of white objects that exist in the world. The truth is, however, that having a clear focus doesn’t inhibit creativity; it encourages creativity.

It’s the same in the business world. Amazon’s torrent of innovation over the past decade or so has been aided by the company’s focus on three over-riding objectives: offering customers more choice; bringing down prices; and providing faster delivery speeds. Similarly, Dyson has benefited by keeping its innovation focused on how to apply its air movement technologies to different products (vacuum cleaners, hand dryers, domestic fans and hair dryers) rather than trying to develop a range of diverse technologies.

What could be the focus for your innovation efforts, and how much more innovative could your organisation be if you did?

Note: I first came across this exercise in the excellent book, Made To Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath.

Off The Record: Ride A White Swan by T. Rex

Wear a tall hat like a druid in the old days

Wear a tall hat and a tattooed gown

Ride a white swan like the people of the Beltane

Wear your hair long, babe you can’t go wrong

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Stuart Cross on the Business Elevation Show with Chris Cooper

First and Fast: Outpace Your Competitors, Lead Your Markets and Accelerate Growth with Stuart Cross

May 20, 2016
Hosted by Chris Cooper

For the past 30 years, business leaders have been exhorted to move faster and adopt a “ready, fire, aim” approach to the growth of their business. As the level of change and turbulence increases in all markets, all organizations must adapt—quickly!—or risk decline and decay. But what are the real behaviors, processes, and techniques that are critical to lead your organization at pace without creating confusion, frustration, and unnecessary risk? My guest Stuart Cross is a consultant, coach, speaker and author who helps world class companies dramatically accelerate profit growth. Since its launch in 2006 his firm, Morgan Cross Consulting, has attracted clients including Avon Cosmetics, Alliance Boots, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Aimia Inc. Join us for a show where Stuart will share powerful strategies and pragmatic tools from his late book ‘First and Fast…’ to enable you to increase the pace of your business and accelerate growth year after year.

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7 Ways To Be More Selfish – And Productive


I am increasingly convinced that success requires a certain level of selfishness that many managers and executives are simply unwilling to reach. Rather than run the risk of upsetting a colleague or boss, they toe the line and end up delivering others’ objectives and priorities, rather than their own.

Being selfish is not necessarily bad. By focusing on what’s important to you, you are more likely to improve your levels of performance and, perhaps counter-intuitively, be in a better position to help others. After all, if you’re tired, frustrated and lack enthusiasm how can you really be of use to someone else?

Here are seven ways in which you can improve your performance and be of more value to yourself, your organisation and others by increasing your level of selfishness.

  1. Clarify your top 3 priorities – and prioritise them. How much extra value could you provide by ruthlessly delivering on your top objectives each day? Instead of having a list of 50 ‘to do’ items, focus instead on your top 3 priorities each day. If you get them done, you will have had a good day.
  2. Block out chunks of time for your priority tasks. Too many executives’ days are split into 5 or 10 minute chunks. Real progress is made when you devote a reasonable chunk of time to an important issue, say at least 2 hours.
  3. Don’t let people put their monkey on your back. The opposite of focusing on your priorities, is focusing on someone else’s. In an organisational hierarchy this cannot be completely avoided, but how often do you needlessly get involved in issues that others should be sorting out for themselves?
  4. Reduce your level of guilt. Much of people’s unwillingness to adopt a more selfish approach is a feeling of guilt that you’re letting someone down. Get over it; ask yourself where you can best devote your energies, and focus on that.
  5. Take an 80:20 approach to all your work. Don’t seek perfection, it only frustrates. Brain surgeons may need to achieve 100% excellence, but for the rest of us, most of the time, other people simply don’t value the perfection we try to deliver.
  6. Ignore low priority tasks. It’s amazing how often, after you return from a vacation, that you can simply delete a whole stream of emails on issues that resolved themselves during your break. Guess what? They can sort themselves out when you’re back at work too; you don’t need to get involved in low priority stuff.
  7. Turn off your phone, your email and your social media. We have become slaves to phone ring tones and social media and email alerts, answering them immediately and then getting involved in resolving the issues that have been raised. Why? Virtually all issues can wait an hour or two. I have my phone on silent and review calls every hour or so, and only check my emails two or three times a day. These actions help me focus on what’s important to me, not urgent to someone else.

Which of these seven approaches could help you achieve more – both selfishly for yourself and selflessly for your organisation?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Bring Your Decision-Making Down From Eleven

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This Week’s Focus: As the UK’s EU Referendum date looms closer the volume of the rhetoric has, to borrow a phrase from Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, gone up to eleven. A few days after one side suggested that a British exit of the EU could lead to WW3, the other side compared the EU’s integration ambitions with Hitler’s plans for European domination.

In elections it’s essential that you are an advocate for your position, to argue the strengths of your case as positively – and creatively – as possible and to ignore its weaknesses. The other side will simply jump on any chink of balanced reasoning as a sign that you don’t really believe in your position.

Business discussions and decision-making should be different. The best decisions are not made when “advocates” from both sides simply argue across each other, but when what the writer David Garvin calls an “inquiry mindset” is applied.

In other words, decision-making shouldn’t be a win-lose contest, but a collective exercise in finding the best overall solution. This means that you should be open to alternatives, aware of each option’s risks and accepting of constructive criticism. Not only does this process help you find a better solution, but by engaging your team fully in the discussion you are also building commitment to its delivery.

How are you leading your team through your big decisions to turn the rhetoric down from 11 so that your people can engage in positive and constructive challenge and collectively find the best solution?

Off The Record: Flower People by Spinal Tap

Listen, it’s like a Mozart symphony

Listen, it’s something just for you and me

Listen to what the flower people say

Listen, it’s getting truer every day

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Why You Need More Conflict In Your Team


Contrary to conventional wisdom conflict is an essential characteristic of any high-performing team. Unlike weak teams and committees, which are full of people who keep their opinions to themselves when together, only to whine when outside the group, effective teams get the issues on the table immediately, confident in the knowledge that they are working to the same goals.

The key to success is to ensure that the conflict is positive, not destructive. In business, there are two major advantages to holding conflict and differences of opinion on big issues and decisions:

  1. Clarity of the solution. Sculptors often remark that as they work with the marble the final sculpted piece reveals itself. Solutions to major decisions are the same. They are crafted and shaped by the arguments and counter-arguments that positive conflict encourages. As weak arguments and ideas are chiselled away the best solution becomes clear.
  2. Commitment to action. Perhaps paradoxically, allowing and encouraging positive conflict builds rather than destroys commitment. First, everyone has the opportunity to be involved in developing the solution, giving your team greater ownership of the solution. Second, as the quality of the final solution is likely to be higher, your people will have greater confidence that it will work in practice.

So how can you promote and develop positive conflict with your team, and prevent it turning into personality-based destructive conflict? Here are three steps you can take:

  1. Develop genuine alternatives. There is more than one way to skin a cat and certainly more than one way to grow sales profitably. A good alternative should (1) address the issue or opportunity head-on, (2) enable you to create real performance improvement, (3) improve your competitive position and (4) be feasible for your organisation to deliver.
  2. Encourage an ‘inquiry mindset’. Business writer David Garvin argues that business leaders should create an ‘inquiry mindset’ across their teams, promoting collaborative problem-solving where team members remain open to alternatives and accept constructive criticism. Conversely, they should avoid an ‘advocacy mindset’, which sees decision-making as a win-lose contest involving persuasion, lobbying and the dismissal of others’ views.
  3. Recognise the risks. All alternatives have risks and, even with your final solution, these should not be played down. Recognising the risks allows you to plan preventative and contingent actions, giving you and your team even more confidence in the final solution.

Is there sufficient positive conflict in your team? If not, is it time to encourage your people to challenge others’ ideas and assumptions and put forward genuine, new alternatives?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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What’s The Breaking Point Of Your Business?


When Boeing and other aeroplane manufacturers are developing new aircraft they literally test them to destruction. This ensures that the planes will still operate effectively even in the most extreme situations.

It is a concept that I think should be applied to business operations.

When many managers review operational performance, their focus is generally on efficiency rather than effectiveness under pressure. As a result their operations are designed for average, not peak levels of demand, and they struggle to cope with busier periods.

Last year, for example, I helped a US hotel chain improve its valet parking service. Their approach worked fine in normal conditions but fell apart as demand peaked.  Between 12 and 2pm, cars started backing up down the driveway, guests were left waiting in line for their cars to be returned, and both customers and the valet team alike felt frustrated, rushed and hassled.

While the solutions were relatively straightforward to develop and implement, the critical issue was to give the situation sufficient management attention. Whether you run an internal team or are directly responsible for customer service delivery, there are three key factors for you to consider, each of which you can leverage to increase the breaking point of your operations.

  1. What are your performance standards? High performance standards will usually lead to improvements in operational breaking points, by bringing greater management focus to the process. For example, while The Post Office, appears satisfied to operate with long queues at its counters, Tesco has a policy of opening a new till whenever there is more than one customer in a queue. This higher performance standard has driven Tesco’s managers to find new ways to increase the numbers of customers they can efficiently get through the checkouts at peak times. How well do your performance standards meet the needs of your customers and how do they compare to those of your competitors’?
  2. What’s your physical capacity? The size and number of operating units determine your physical capacity. Using the previous example, the physical capacity is driven by the number of till points and the staff available. At a call centre, it is the number of agents. The greater the capacity, the higher the breaking point. To what extent do you have sufficient physical capacity to cope with peak demand?
  3. How quick are you? Organisations with faster operations have a higher breaking point than similar, but slower businesses. Domino’s Pizza has built its business on a promise to deliver pizzas within 30-minutes, even at peak business times. To what extent are your processes faster than your competitors, and how are you leveraging them?

Where are your operations most under pressure? And which of these three perspectives – performance standards, capacity and speed – could help you to increase the breaking point of your business?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Stamp of Disapproval

I have recently sent out copies of my new book, First & Fast, to people who had signed up for a free copy. I attached a ‘large letter’ first class stamp to each package. It turns out the stamp was the incorrect postage – I needed to pay a higher rate because of the weight of the parcel.

Here is my subsequent conversation with the lady at the post office:

Me: OK, that’s fine, what’s the rate I need to pay

Post Office Lady: It’s £2.47 to send each letter first class

Me: That’s fine. Can I have 50 of those stamps, please?

Post Office Lady: No.

Me: Why not?

Post Office Lady: Because they don’t make stamps of that value.

Yes, that’s right. The Royal Mail doesn’t actually offer stamps equal to the value of one of their first class postage rates. It’s a bit like McDonalds showing a picture of a Big Mac and then telling you at the counter that they don’t actually make that burger.

As my coach would say, you can’t make this stuff up!

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – Why You Shouldn’t Try To Be A Perfect Leader

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This Week’s Focus: I was recently talking with the chief executive of a business that had introduced 360-degree feedback for the leadership team. The CEO’s coach had summarised the results and told her that, based on the responses, she needed to become less direct with her team. I’ve seen other coaches and writers use terms such as “Servant Leadership”, “Authentic Leadership” and “Level 5 Leadership” to describe the characteristics of a ‘perfect’ leader who is able to combine personal humility with commercial excellence.

But there is no one ‘best’ or ‘perfect’ leadership approach. There are certain leadership tasks – such as setting a clear direction and goals, affirming values, attracting and developing top talent, building commitment and ensuring follow through – but there isn’t a single, superior leadership style. Churchill, Jobs, Ferguson, Lincoln, Nelson, Patton and Branson are all excellent leaders, but none of them could be thought of as ‘servant leaders’ or would respond too well to being told to be less direct with their teams.

I’ve worked with successful leaders of many different styles. I’ve seen excellent leaders who are charismatic and others who are more introverted; leaders who are highly demanding and leaders who are more laid back; leaders who are ruthlessly efficient and others who are chaotically brilliant. The trick is not to try and be something you’re not, but to be the best version of you that you can.

The coach advised the CEO that she needed to change her leadership style. Instead, I suggested that it was the CEO’s team that needed to change their approach, so that they could support her more effectively.

Where are you trying to unnecessarily adapt your leadership style to fit some arbitrary ‘perfect’ model, and how much better would you and your organisation be if you focused, instead, on finding your own best leadership approach?

Off The Record: Minority by Green Day

I want to be the minority

I don’t need your authority

Down with the moral majority

‘Cause I want to be the minority

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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3 Reasons To Stop Your “Quick Win” Projects – And What To Do Instead


If you are like many of the executives I work with, the #1 issue that limits your productivity is that you spend too much time on activities that add too little value.

One of the causes of this drain on your time and energy are “quick win” projects.

These projects often emerge at the end of a team or departmental ‘away day’. Following a brainstorm of potential ideas to improve performance, each idea is reviewed on two dimensions: (1) overall value impact; and (2) ease of implementation.

Unfortunately, few, if any of the ideas are both high-value and easy to implement. Instead you end up in a discussion over whether to pursue high-value, hard-to-implement initiatives, or lower-value, easy-to-implement projects.

More often than not, the low-value, easy-to-deliver projects win out. The barriers to the big prizes just seem too big and too difficult – especially at the end of a long and tiring workshop.

But pursuing the “quick wins” is mistaken, for three reasons:

  1. Their impact is too small to register on any performance scale. This means that the project is never at the top of anyone’s priorities and is never delivered.
  2. They consume more effort than you originally estimate. The lack of progress means that you have to spend more time managing your project and communicating with and influencing your reluctant stakeholders.
  3. They prevent you from getting on with more important projects. This is the biggest reason of all. As Apple boss, Steve Jobs, once said, “It’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.

So what should you do instead? The simple answer is to get on with the important stuff. If something is valuable, but difficult, that is all the more reason to do it. After all, if you find it challenging, the chances are that your competitors do, too.

Here are three practical steps you can take:

  1. Stop, reduce, slow down, delegate or defer “quick win” projects that have neither a significant financial or strategic impact. One of the first acts that Sir Stuart Rose took when he became CEO of M&S was to reduce the number of ‘strategic’ projects from over 30 to less than ten, so that the energy of the organisation could be sensibly focused.
  2. Refocus your time and effort onto high-value projects that are directly in line with your broader strategic objectives, even if they are harder to implement. As Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, once commented, “It’s important to be stubborn on the vision and flexible on the details.” By this he meant that Amazon’s success came from relentlessly pursuing big strategic objectives and being willing to develop and test many different solutions before finding the best one.
  3. Break these projects down into bite-sized chunks, enabling you to create the focus, momentum and pace that is required to deliver success. When one of my retail clients wanted to reduce ‘back shop’ stock levels across their store chain, the project manager wanted to design new processes across the organisation. But this would have taken months to achieve – a quicker route was need. So, we first focused on making a big difference in a single store within a 4-week period. The lessons we learned from that one site allowed the team to roll out ideas rapidly across the chain that reduced stock and released cash within 6 months.

Where are you wasting effort and resources on “quick win” projects that are going nowhere? And how could you re-focus those resources on projects that will make a real difference and deliver rapid results?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Innovation Is A Dirty Business

light bulb with plant

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

Tesco, for example, spent a 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.

Yet the stores never took off. The management team decided to rapidly roll out the new store chain based on the insights gained from their research, opening 100 sites rapidly and building up a chain of over 200 stores. Yet, the concept never worked and a little over five years from the opening of the first store Tesco had sold the Fresh & Easy chain to a private equity firm and made a cumulative loss of $1.5 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 successful 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.

The irony for Tesco’s management is that they knew this. The development of their highly successful Tesco Express format in the 1990s, for example, took several years of trial and error of a handful of stores before finding a profitable model that the company could roll out.

How are you getting your hands dirty with your innovation process, and what steps do you take to rapidly test, iterate, refine and improve your initial ideas?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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