Business Rocks: The Benefits of Disasters


It took a matter of minutes for a small fire at Notre Dame cathedral to turn into a raging inferno that destroyed the iconic, 850-year old building.

Since the fire was put out, over €600 million has been pledged to fund Notre Dame’s re-building. More funds will be promised in the next few days and weeks; money will literally be no object to its restoration.

Disasters, it seems, create a visceral response in us that more gradual declines fail to achieve.

For example, over 200 people die every day in the UK from smoking-related diseases. The government and NHS have invested heavily in addressing these deaths, but I can’t help feeling that more would be done if those same 200 people were dying in daily air crash disasters, rather than individually – almost invisibly – in their homes, hospitals and hospices.

It can also be tempting to ignore gentle declines and plateaus in our businesses and respond only to emergency disasters. Great organisations, however, understand that recognizing these issues early and generating a sense of urgency around them is a critical first step to preventing emergency disasters and maintaining healthy growth and performance levels.

What are you focused on in your business? Is your attention solely on the emergency fires of your company, or are you also identifying and addressing the less obvious performance decays?


Off The Record: It’s The End Of The World As We Know It by REM

That’s great

It starts with an earthquake

Birds and snakes

And aeroplanes

And Lenny Bruce is not afraid

© Stuart Cross 2019. All rights reserved.

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Why Consultant-Led Strategies Fail

If a tree falls in a forest and no-one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Equally, if a new business strategy is developed and there is no-one willing to deliver it, did it ever really exist?

One of the biggest mistakes executives with their strategy is that they focus solely on its content and neglect to consider the commitment of their teams to its execution.

Over the years, I have worked, as part of the client team, with many of the major strategy consulting houses, including McKinsey and Bain. These organisations are full of very bright people, but their work is commonly focused on the content of the strategy and not the wider process of delivery. The consulting firm’s partners and senior managers tend to develop strong relationships with the CEO and the top team but can often ignore the critical delivery teams lower down the hierarchy.

At one of my clients, for example, a major strategy consulting group had worked with the executive team to develop a new growth strategy. Their 100-page deck had lots of great analysis and ideas. It also had a set of recommended priority initiatives for the business to deliver.



But, two months later, nothing was happening.

The strategy had been developed by the consultants and a small number of senior executives. There had been no involvement or engagement with the likely delivery teams. Unsurprisingly, these teams had no ownership of the new strategic solutions and so were taking no action to implement them.

As the chart shows, strategic speed happens when there is both a clear and compelling future direction and when there is organisational commitment to deliver it. When this happens, teams across the business fully understand what the strategy is trying to achieve as well as their own role in its delivery.

What’s more, the implementation teams are bought into the future strategic vision and so are likely to have an emotional connection to it. As a result, there will be bottom-up pull from the organisation to making the strategy happen.

When organisational commitment is missing, as was the case with my client, you merely get, at best, top-down pressure to deliver. This may deliver some benefits, particularly in the early stages of the strategy’s execution. But progress is unlikely to be sustained when the executive team’s attention moves to other issues and objectives. As the chart shows, you end up in the bottom right-hand box, and are likely to achieve only half-speed performance.

At my client, I took the consultants’ proposed recommendations, worked with a series of cross-functional business teams to turn them into actionable and fully-owned initiatives and created a series of fast-paced, 90-day delivery sprints to create renewed momentum and growth.

This increased level of involvement translated into measurable results on the ground. But the business had already lost over 3 months of time in delivering its new strategy. Like the tree falling in the empty forest, up until that point the strategy had not made a sound.

By ensuring that organisational commitment is an integral part of your strategy development process, you can deliver faster, bigger and more sustainable results. How are you involving your teams in the creation of your strategy so that they are more likely to turn your vision into real action on the ground?


© Stuart Cross 2019. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Policing Your Customer Experience

As a Preston North End fan, I’m painfully aware that the football club doesn’t have a great recent track record – and when I say ‘recent’, I mean the past 60 years or so at least!

There’s one area where PNE does excel, though. The club’s police liaison officer, PC Paul Elliott (see @PNEPolice on Twitter), is a leader in developing positive relationships with visiting teams’ fans. As a result, in a sport where there can still, unfortunately be problems with opposing sets of fans, PNE enjoy very few incidents and the feedback from visiting fans is uniformly excellent.

Ahead of each game, Paul builds relationships with each away team’s fan groups and is on hand every match day to ensure that any potential problems are rapidly sorted out.

Last year, for instance, I saw a video of Paul dealing with some ‘lively’ Leeds United fans who had formed a rowing team in the middle of the street (think of dancing to Oops Upside Your Head by The Gap Band if you’re aged 50 or over!). Rather than confronting the group directly, Paul sat on the road with them and joined in. After a little while, the fans simply got up, shook Paul’s hand and moved on.

Many businesses talk about delivering a great customer experience and create complex systems to achieve this. The principles are often much simpler, though. I’ve recently seen detailed research into a major UK retailer showing that customers’ overall satisfaction was driven by three factors: a warm welcome, being treated with integrity and having any problems resolved rapidly.

Paul understands these principles instinctively, which is why he is respected by fans across the league. But how well do you understand the key drivers of your customer experience? And how have you turned those principles into real-life experiences that are enjoyed by both your fans and your casual supporters?


Off The Record: I Fought The Law by The Bobby Fuller Four

Robbin’ people with a six-gun

I fought the law and the law won

I fought the law and the law won

I lost my girl and I lost my fun

I fought the law and the law won

I fought the law and the law won


© Stuart Cross 2019. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: The Currency of Strategy


When I’m working with my clients on strategy projects, the biggest gains we make happens when we take the time to develop different future options. Having a few hours to think and talk exclusively about the future of their business is a release for many executives.

As these executives share and listen to each other’s points of view, there can be disagreement, argument and robust discussion, but they always end up moving the strategy forward. On a personal level, it’s a satisfying session to lead, but I’m often left with the thought that it should happen more often.

The currency of strategy is ideas. And the value of that currency increases when you’re willing to spend generously and continuously.

Strategy development happens in an organization when you’re willing to share your ideas, discuss them and let others develop them with you. The best sign that you’ve spent freely is when your ideas come back to you claimed by your colleagues as their own!

How freely are you spending and what is the value of the currency of ideas in your organization?


Off The Record: Money by Barrett Strong


Money don’t get everything, it’s true

But what it don’t get, I can’t use

I need money –

That’s what I want!


© Stuart Cross 2019. All rights reserved.

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How League Ladders Can Drive Your Performance


When I was at junior school, in the 1970s, I was obsessed with football. As part of my obsession, I would analyse the latest league tables every Sunday morning, following Saturday’s fixtures.

Even better, I had access to my Shoot league ladders (see photo above, for an example), which were produced by the Shoot football magazine each season. This simple system allowed me to move the card tabs, each printed with a club’s name in the club’s colours, up and down the league table to their latest position.

Forty years later, even though there are football league tables online wherever I want them, I only have a fraction of the knowledge of which team is where in the league that I had then. The truth is that the act of manually updating the tables myself gave me a far closer understanding of the situation than I can gain by simply reading the latest positions.



The same is true in business. Teams feel far more engaged if they’re actually involved and responsible for keeping the score and updating the scoreboard. In the book, The 4 Disciplines of Execution, Chris McChesney notes that “People play different when they are keeping score. This creates a very different felling than when you keep score for them.”

In fact, I can’t think of a high-performing team that I’ve worked with that doesn’t have a set of simple, visual measures that they update on an ongoing basis – often using a manual, hand-written system.

And this approach works for teams at levels. I even know of the CEO of a FTSE 100 company that has a whiteboard in his office that he updates on a daily basis to better understand sales and performance across each of his business units and so that he can spot and deal with issues and opportunities rapidly.

How could you emulate the Shoot league ladders and create visible, manual scorecards that are fully owned by each of your teams? And how could these scorecards help your business climb the league to the very top?


© Stuart Cross 2019. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: The Time Expert


The biggest issue my clients face in innovating and growing more quickly is capacity. They – and their organisations – simply do not have the bandwidth to get all their ideas delivered at the pace and impact that they want.

Unfortunately, many still try to pursue every good idea, only to end up delivering 100 things badly rather than a handful of things brilliantly. Ruthless prioritization is the best way to drive pace and effectiveness.

There are other solutions, though. I’ll talk about others in the coming weeks, but my first idea for you – becoming a ‘time expert’ – is essential to effective delivery. Time expertise is more than paying lip service to your diary, it is about ensuring that every minute of every day is focused on your biggest priorities.

Earlier this week, for instance, I met an executive director of a FTSE 350 business who is working on a new commercial strategy for the business. Over the previous seven days he had spent over 12 hours writing a PowerPoint presentation on the strategy – not thinking through the key pillars of the strategy, but translating those ideas onto a 15-page deck!

There are probably 100 or more things this executive could have done with his time that would have helped deliver his priorities better than writing a PowerPoint pack. And while it may be obvious to people on the outside that this was not the best use of his time, it’s a lot more difficult to notice when you’re in the middle of the everyday mayhem.

The remedy is to regularly and critically review your calendar to understand how much of your time you’re wasting on unnecessary meetings, activities and tasks – and then take action. Ask yourself, how much of your current calendar could you delegate, do more efficiently, put off or simply stop doing?

Effective time management is not simply about becoming more efficient. Done properly, it is all about growing your organisation’s bandwidth and accelerating growth. How could you drive more growth for your business by becoming a time expert?


Off The Record: Life’s What You Make It by Talk Talk

Baby, life’s what you make it

Celebrate it

Anticipate it

Yesterday’s faded

© Stuart Cross 2019. All rights reserved.

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Growing Like New York City


Last week I was lucky enough to be working in New York City. Looking out over the Manhattan skyline, I was amazed by the sheer scale of building work that was going on. New York is in a constant state of regeneration.

The developments are almost exclusively high-rise buildings, each with a tower crane standing over the building site. As I looked more closely, I noticed that the cranes were not at the full height that will be needed to complete the development. Instead, the cranes are constantly positioned just a few floors higher than the current build. (I’ve since learned that tower cranes use one of two systems to periodically raise their height as the development progresses.)

When it comes to strategy, it can be tempting to create your high-level vision and then ask or cajole your organisation to deliver against it. The trouble is, that won’t work.

Like the cranes towering over New York City’s new property developments, you must instead find a way to help your teams reach up to the next level of performance in a step-by-step approach before repeating the process.

What actions are you taking to help your business achieve your biggest strategic goals in a phased and managed way?


© Stuart Cross 2019. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: The Loneliest Person In The UK


The Brexit saga is now creating a full-blown national crisis in the UK. There have been so many mis-steps throughout the process, it’s hard to know where to start. But, in this note, I’m just going to focus on one.

Our Prime Minister, Mrs. May, developed the Withdrawal Agreement with her political and civil service advisors, not with her cabinet colleagues. As a result, in the House of Commons and across the country as a whole, she is seen as the sole owner of the deal. Even the Chancellor of the Exchequer referred to it as “The Prime Minister’s deal” in an interview this week.

The best way to build joint ownership for an idea is to encourage and facilitate genuine involvement in its development. In terms of my work in strategy, that means all members of the executive team must have a meaningful role in its creation. Only then will each director be willing and able to enthusiastically share the same strategic message and lead the next steps of delivery. John Kotter, the Harvard Business School professor on leadership and change management, calls this group the ‘guiding coalition.’

On an issue as contentious as Brexit, a guiding coalition was an essential pre-requisite for success. Mrs. May’s biggest failure of all was a failure to build this coalition across her cabinet. Now, she not only looks like a zombie PM but, even in a packed House of Commons, she also looks like one of the loneliest people in the country.


Off The Record: Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles

Eleanor Rigby –

Died in the church and was buried along with her name

Nobody came!

Father Mackenzie –

Wiping the dirt from his hand as he walks from the grave

No-one was saved!

© Stuart Cross 2019. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Ground Level Strategy


High-level strategy is as useful to most workers in an organization as a high-flying airliner is to commuters in a bus queue. The bus passengers may briefly look up and notice the plane and its vapour trail, but, even if it is travelling in the same direction, it cannot possibly help them reach their destination.

Similarly, unless you bring your strategy down-to-earth, your people will not know how best to implement it. As a result, it will have no real impact on your business’s performance.

Over half my work is focused on turning high-level strategies into tangible actions on the ground. Over the past couple of weeks, for instance, I have worked to help a retailer turn a high-level corporate sales goal into a specific target and action plan for one of its key product categories, clarified the implications of a corporate strategy for the company’s buying team, and started a project to help an IT department prioritise its current list of initiatives by understanding each of the initiatives’ impact on the company’s strategic ambitions.

How well have you translated your high-level strategy into focused action on the ground? And what further steps could you take to ensure that your 40,000 feet vision leads to ‘ground-breaking’ results?


Off The Record: Learning To Fly by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

I’m learning to fly

But I ain’t got wings

Coming down

Is the hardest thing


© Stuart Cross 2019. All rights reserved.

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How to Assess Your Team’s Capabilities in 60 Minutes


Last Friday, I ran a project planning session for a major UK retailer. The aim of the project is to run a trial to rapidly grow sales in one of the retailer’s most important categories.

Identifying the specific capabilities that need developing and improving was a critical task of the planning process. We were able to carry out that analysis in around one hour with a cross-functional team. Here’s how:

  1. Agree the Capabilities.

    The group brainstormed answers to the question: What does the business need to be great at to achieve high sales in this category? The group produced a long list of answers, but we were able to group them into six key capability themes.

  2. Assess Your Current Position.

    We then scored each of the six capabilities. I suppose that you could use any scoring system, but we used a simple assessment and scored each capability as either Poor, OK, Good and Excellent. Even this simple approach generated some great discussion across the team and identified differences in opinion.

  3. Establish Future Targets.

    We then discussed how far we wanted to improve each capability through our 12-week trial. For some capabilities we agreed that it wouldn’t be possible to see too much movement in such a short time, but for others we realised that we could be more ambitious. We used the previous scoring system to establish the goals and were able to see where we had the biggest gaps between current and future positions and where the team need to focus their efforts.

  4. Develop Action Plans.

    For the three priority capabilities where the team agreed they wanted to take action, we concluded the hour-long exercise by agreeing the actions required to deliver the improvements the team wanted to see. We also identified owners for each of the actions and set a timetable for delivery.


We undertook this exercise as part of a project planning session, but you could apply the same approach to assessing an operational team’s capabilities. Even though the whole work took less than 60 minutes, the team were confident that they had identified all the relevant key capabilities and were satisfied that the actions they set out will significantly improve performance.

At your next team meeting or project planning session, why don’t you try this exercise and understand what you really need to do to improve your team’s capabilities?


© Stuart Cross 2019. All rights reserved.


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