Business Rocks – Death of a Star

This week’s focus: Over 50 years later than doctors had predicted, Professor Stephen Hawking sadly passed away this week. In a life that was so fully and brilliantly lived, Hawking overcame the paralysis and physical deterioration of Motor Neurone Disease to create ground-breaking new scientific theories and thinking, write a best-selling book, become the most famous scientist on the planet and inspire fellow scientists and non-scientists alike.

Hawking once said that while MND had left him disabled it had not handicapped him. In other words, he made the most of what he had rather than being defeated by what he lacked.

Hawking’s incredible intellect, his driving ambition to build on Einstein’s work, his desire to share his ideas with the widest possible audience (which other theoretical physicist appeared on The Simpsons?) and his passion for life enabled him to change the world.

It can be easy to focus on what we don’t have and bemoan the hand we’ve been dealt, but people and organisations are at their best when they make the most of what they have.

Like Professor Hawking, we succeed and soar when, rather than being obsessed by our weaknesses, we focus on, build on and make the most of our strengths.


Off The Record: Reasons To Be Cheerful (Part 3) by Ian Dury and The Blockheads

I’ve always loved this song. When I first heard it, as a teenager, it just felt like a fun, sing-a-long pop song. But over the years I’ve realized that Dury’s list of what made him happy was very deliberate, specific and poetic. I think the lyrics are a thing of beauty and agree completely with Nick Hornby who once wrote that this song should be the UK’s national anthem!

The juice of a carrot, the smile of a parrot,

A little drop of claret,

Anything that rocks!

Elvis and Scotty, the days when I ain’t spotty,

Sitting on a potty,

Curing smallpox!


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Cross Shots – The Best Time To Review Your Project Performance

In this episode of Cross Shots I discuss why you’re probably reviewing the performance of your project wrong and when you should be doing it instead



You can view previous episodes of Cross Shots here

© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – The Most Important Word In Business Success

This week’s focus: We are, as a species, designed to be sociable and to operate effectively within groups. There is both a psychological and societal upside to pleasing others, helping them and being generous with our time.

Yet, if you are too generous and too helpful, you will simply end up sacrificing your own objectives for other people’s. And if that level of ‘helpfulness’ is replicated across your organisation, its entire productivity can be affected.

I see this pattern of behaviour in many of my client organisations. Everyone is simply so busy helping others, they have no time to get anything done themselves. Email ‘pings’ are responded to immediately, meeting requests are accepted even when there is no need to attend and, during those needless meetings, phone calls are answered no matter who they’re from. You can only get your own work done at 8pm, once you’re back home and the kids are in bed!

At a more strategic level, pet projects and low-impact initiatives are allowed to eat up scarce resources, and operating plans become overloaded with ‘good’ ideas in the hope that something will come off. It rarely does. As initiatives battle for resources and air time, they slowly suffocate each other, delivering glacial levels of progress and growth.

Saying “No” to a new idea, project, meeting or proposal requires a clear understanding of your priorities and the self-confidence to push back and disappoint others. It is a surprisingly rare management trait, but its presence is probably the single biggest difference between my most successful clients and the rest.

In fact, it’s fair to say that “No” is the most important word in driving business success. “No” creates focus and generates the energy and momentum necessary to achieve your most important tasks and goals, both personally and organisationally.

What projects, meetings and proposals have you said “No” to recently? And what decisions do you have coming up where a clear “No” could help you deliver even greater success?


Off The Record: I Can’t Say No by Rodgers and Hammerstein

I’m jist a girl who can’t say no

I’m in a turrible fix

I always say, “Come on, le’s go!”

Jist when I orta say “Nix!”


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – What’s The Breaking Point Of Your Business?

This week’s focus: Around four inches. That seems to be the amount of snow that’s necessary to ‘break’ the UK’s road and rail infrastructure. This week’s cold blast has brought snow, freezing temperatures and a ‘refreshing’ easterly wind to the country – and it hasn’t been able to cope too well. Roads are blocked, schools are shut and many trains are cancelled. Other countries that are more used to such conditions have a much higher breaking point, but the point at which snow turns from being an inconvenience to a destroyer of the nation’s way of life seems to be around four inches.

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 this week’s rail timetable and, as a result, cars were backed up along the hotel’s driveway and onto the road. 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 nineteenth nervous breakdown


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Do Less, Achieve More: How To Reach Your Goals At The Speed Of Light

It takes a photon of light a little over 8 minutes to reach the earth after it leaves the sun’s surface. In the vacuum of space, the photon literally travels at the speed of light over the 150 million km journey. But doesn’t light always travel at that velocity? Well, not quite, as it turns out.

The centre of the sun is incredibly densely packed with hydrogen and helium atoms – even more densely packed than shoppers at Selfridges at the start of the Boxing Day sale! – and this means that the photon cannot escape quickly at all. Each photon’s energy is repeatedly absorbed and released by these atoms, creating a path of travel that scientists call a ‘drunkard’s walk’ of 700,000 km through the centre of the sun, rather than a straight line between the sun’s core and its surface.

In probably the longest ‘drunkard’s walk’ ever, each photon takes 20,000 years or more – some estimates put it at one million years! – travelling inside the sun before starting its journey through space. It seems that the speed of light in the centre of the sun slows down to 3 meters per hour, less than the speed at which a snail crawls!

Why do I tell you this? Well, many business leaders highlight the need for pace when they really mean that they want their organization to do more. In a bid to raise performance they add further initiatives, projects and demands on managers and teams that are already struggling to deliver last month’s priorities.

As one strategic initiative hits all the other ‘special’ projects – never mind ‘business as usual’ operations – it loses momentum and slows down in a similar way to photons at the sun’s core. Over time, each initiative performs its own ‘drunkard’s walk’, sometimes hitting a milestone and other times veering a million miles away from its goals and targets.

If you want to achieve more, faster, you must have the discipline to do less. Here are five practical ways you can make that happen:

  1. Establish your #1 performance goal.

    When I worked at Boots the Chemists, the retailer was struggling to embed its operational priorities and there were many gaps on the shelves. As a result, the executive team set a goal of improving on-shelf availability, halting any projects which didn’t help achieve this objective. Within 6 weeks, product availability had improved so much that it added over 3% to sales growth.

  2. Set 90-day priorities.

    Most planning looks at a 1-year time horizon. Yet, most projects are shorter than this. By breaking down your year into four quarters, you can focus on a smaller set of specific priorities and, once they’re achieved, move onto the next set of projects. As a coach once told me, it’s better to move three things a mile than a hundred things an inch!

  3. Ruthlessly kill pet projects.

    This is perhaps the simplest yet hardest action. Pet projects destroy productivity, but it requires top-down focus and leadership to make sure they are totally eradicated. At one of my clients, the CEO identified over 30 ‘special’ projects to stop. Not only did this reduce overall costs, but, more importantly, it step-changed the pace and performance of the remaining important initiatives

  4. Focus solely on each initiative’s biggest opportunities.

    I once helped a UK retailer identify new categories to add to its offer. At a meeting with the senior team, I suggested three new product categories that they should trial. I could see people nodding, but with little genuine enthusiasm. Then, the CEO, said, “I think we should just do this one category. It’s clearly the biggest opportunity and if we can’t get this one to work, we’ll have no chance with the others.” There was an immediate change in energy as the team worked out how they could rapidly make this one thing happen and, within a few months, had grown sales by rolling the new offer out across the chain. (This was a lesson for me that I haven’t had to learn again!)

  5. Set clear project end dates.

    Have you noticed how many ‘projects’ seem to have a life of their own and just keep on going? Most initiatives can be completed within a few months. By ensuring that your project team has a clear end date, they will ensure that everything that needs to be done is done more quickly. Take the time to celebrate each project’s success and impact, recognizing the effort that the team has given, but don’t allow projects to morph into jobs-for-life.


Which of these five steps could help your organisation do less but achieve more, accelerating your pace of delivery from a snail’s crawl to the speed of light?


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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

Playing Chicken


What is the minimum that KFC, the chicken fast-food restaurant, should be able to offer its customers? The answer, of course, is chicken. Amazingly, however, KFC were unable to offer chicken in most of its restaurants across the UK last week. Many of which were forced to shut.

A decision to change KFC’s delivery contract from Bidvest, a specialist food distribution company, to DHL and, at the same time, switch the underlying information systems, led to the majority of restaurants running out of chicken almost immediately.

The crisis at KFC has been blamed on ‘severe operational issues’. The root of the problem, however, is not driven by ‘operational issues’ but by ‘leadership issues’. A mission-critical handover of this nature requires the close and full sign-off and oversight of the company’s most senior leaders. Consequently, any business failure of this nature is a failure of leadership and it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

Bullying in the workplace is not, for instance, a ‘cultural issue’, endemic poor customer service is not a ‘staffing issue’ and a consistent failure to deliver your most important projects on time and cost is not a ‘workload issue’. These are all leadership issues.

Any organization is a reflection of what its leaders focus on. You can’t focus on everything, but, equally, you can’t just ‘play chicken’ with your most important, mission-critical activities and simply hope that things will turn out well. As the leaders of KFC have learned to their cost, the chances are that they won’t!

Where are you currently focusing your attention and how well does this match the real priorities of your business and its ongoing health and success?


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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The Key To A Great Business Strategy

Do you want the key to a great business strategy? Are you clear on how your business can win in your chosen markets?

Last week, I met with an old client who shared with me his company’s latest strategy pack. The document, prescribed by the Group Head Office, was 126 pages long and full of analysis, charts, tables, graphs and action plans.

There was also one page in the pack entitled, Strategy Summary, which comprised a chart containing the following:

  • A three-year sales goal;
  • Three ‘strategic priorities’, which were, in reality, performance objectives for the company’s three main sales channels;
  • 6-8 high-level actions underpinning each of the three priorities; and
  • A sales value for each priority.

“I’m not happy with this document,” he told me, “But it’s what the Group wants. The trouble is, though, that it doesn’t feel like a strategy to me.”

He was right. The company’s strategy summary was missing the critical element of business strategy development – an articulation of how the business will win.

You can only create a coherent set of strategic actions once you are clear on how you will succeed in the future. That clarity, based on an understanding and diagnosis of your ongoing competitive position, provides the ‘true north’ that allows you to assess and select from alternative action plans, builds alignment across your functional teams, and allows your managers to make daily decisions that will add to, rather than detract from, your competitive position.

Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines, described his company’s strategy like this: “We are the low-fare airline!” These six words transformed the airline industry, as Kelleher and his team removed unnecessary ‘luxuries’ such as seat allocation, free in-flight meals and business class sections. Each of these services would have diluted the company’s ability to become “the low-fare airline” and, over time, would have inhibited its ability to grow and prosper.

Your way of winning may not be about lower costs and prices. You could win, for example, by offering the very best, most desirable product (Ferrari, Apple). The fastest and most hassle-free customer experience (Amazon, McDonalds). The most outstanding customer service (John Lewis, Singapore Airlines). Or your organisation’s ability to create bespoke, personalised solutions (IBM, McKinsey).

In fact, the possibilities are endless. The key to a great business strategy is understanding the dynamics of your market and your organisation to find a way of winning that:

  1. Enables competitive superiority.

    Are you able to build a series of advantages that your competitors, both current and future, find hard to replicate?

  2. Creates customer resonance.

    Are there sufficient numbers of customers you can reach that will be engaged by your competitive approach?

  3. Fires your financial engines.

    Are you able to turn your advantages and customer interest into profitable growth?

Are you clear on how your business can win in your chosen markets? If not, start a discussion with your leadership team about how you can build a better understanding of your customers, competitors and markets so that you can create a way of winning that builds your competitive superiority, generates genuine customer resonance and fires your financial engines.


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – Feeling Pumped

This week’s focus: A few years ago, I cycled the coast-to-coast route, from my home town of Morecambe  to Bridlington. The route is around 170 miles and we cycled it over two days.

As we set off, I was feeling fresh and fit and looking forward to the day ahead. However, I soon found myself lagging behind the main group. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t catch up and the other riders slipped further into the distance.

It felt like there was no power left in my legs. I was so dispirited. As I arrived into the beautiful village of Settle, I was over 20 minutes behind the others. I considered quitting and told my friend Richard of my plans.

Richard looked at me and then went over to my bike, squeezing my tyres. He strolled to our support van, got out a pump and started pumping them up. Without saying a word, he completed the task, walked back to me and gave me a couple of friendly pats on the cheek.

Somewhat embarrassed and muttering about the soreness in my legs, I remounted my bike. The difference, however, was immediate. I rode off with the group and was able to finish the route without too much further trouble.

Your ability to succeed is not simply a result of the effort you put in, or even your underlying skills and capabilities. The truth is that you will only succeed if you set yourself up to do so.

A productive working environment, delegating work to others that you don’t personally need to do, effective diary and time management, competent administrative support and the appropriate use of technology are your equivalent of well-pumped tyres.

Which of these factors do you need to work on to help you work faster, achieve more and accelerate your success?


Off The Record: The Pushbike Song by The Mixtures

Put on the speed and I tried catching up

But you were pedaling harder, too

Riding along like a hurricane honey

Spinning out of view


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – Are You A Management Scientist?

This week’s focus: Some years ago, I led a project to run a trial of a new store format in London. We started with a single store and did a lot of work to change its product range, create a better layout, extend the opening hours, improve cash-taking and make it a more enjoyable place to shop.

The results were amazing and we saw sales uplifts of around 20% from day one. What’s more, the customer research was uniformly positive. We thought we had found the holy grail of store format development.

We hadn’t.

I had wanted to believe our own brilliance so much that I had failed to understand that, first, a new office block had opened near the store as we were making the changes, increasing its footfall, and, second, over 75% of the benefits were taking place during the extended hours. As a result, subsequent trials in other stores failed to deliver the growth that would justify wider roll-out and the project was halted.

A critical role of the manager and business leader is to be a scientist. We must constantly strive to create and test new ideas that will move the business forward. Critically, however, we must also observe the results from these tests closely and be open to whatever the empirical evidence suggests, rather than trying to bend the evidence to our own ‘beliefs’.

What beliefs and prejudices may be clouding your own view of your business, and how could a more scientific mindset help you accelerate its growth?


Off The Record: Chemistry by Semisonic

So, for a while, we conducted experiments

In an apartment by the River Road

And we found out that the two things we put together

Had a bad tendency to explode


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Cross Shots – Focus Your Innovation On What Won’t Change

In this episode of Cross Shots, Stuart discusses where you should be focusing your innovation and looking an what won’t change.



You can view previous episodes of Cross Shots here

© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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