The 3 Drivers of Strategic Speed

The 3 Drivers Of Strategic Speed

I’m constantly amazed by the difference in the speed and effectiveness at which different companies deliver their strategy and drive growth. Some of the difference relates to the lifestage of a business; start-ups are generally faster-moving than more mature organisations, for instance.

The vast majority of successful companies are, almost by definition, more likely to be ‘mature’, but you can find huge differences in speed within this group. Among my clients, for instance, is a company that has grown its share from 25% to over 33% over the past few years, while another has, over the past couple of years, struggled to make a real impact on a flat-lining sales line.

The chart, above, sets out three key drivers of speed, and I think that an understanding of these drivers can help business leaders understand the best way to drive the pace and success of their company.

Level 1: Environment

This level is all about setting the scene across a business. It’s about your expectations of the business and, more importantly, your own leadership behaviours. Do you tend to make decisions, or defer them, for example? Are your meetings long-winded and unfocused, or short, sharp and to the point? Do you move to action quickly, or prevaricate? These are the behaviours that your team and the wider organisation are watching and they set the standard for how others behave.

Your environment is also shaped by the clarity and focus of your strategy. All other things being equal, the greater the level of focus – in terms of goals and priorities – the quicker your people can move.

Critically, these environmental drivers do not require any structural or process changes. They deliver greater levels of speed and activity simply by making things clearer to your people.

Level 2: Organisation

This level is about clarity about who does what and how. It is about making sure you’re your managers’ roles, responsibilities and objectives are clear, and that they have sufficient elbow room to make decisions and make things happen. Similarly, it is focused on how customer feedback is incorporated into your daily operational activities and improvement programmes: the quicker and clearer the feedback loops are, the faster you will deliver the change you’re after.

Level 3: Delivery

This level focuses on how you do things. In particular, it addfresses how you plan, implement and manage change and your major strategic initiatives, both those that are internal (e.g. organisational improvements) and those that are external (e.g. NPD and innovation initiatves).

Managing at all three levels – Environment, Organisation and Delivery – can help you improve the pace of delivery of your strategy. But in my experience, the fastest companies have fully addressed Level 1 drivers, before focusing on Level 2 and Level 3. It can be tempting to simply implement a new Lean NPD process, for instance, but if you haven’t established the right environment and organisation, the impact of the new process will be limited.

At what level have you focused your efforts to accelerate the pace of strategy delivery in your organisation, and what further improvements could you deliver if you ensured that you had maximised your environmental and organisational drivers?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: How To Become A FAST Company

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This week’s focus: A couple of weeks ago I spent a day with the top 150 managers of a major US business. Together, we were identifying ways in which the company could increase its speed and agility.

As I prepared for the session, I realized that there are four key characteristics that set aside those companies that I’ve worked with that are genuinely fast-paced from those that are more sluggish.

These characteristics create an organizational DNA that run through every element of high-speed companies, and are:

  • Focus – fast companies realise that ‘you can’t spray and sprint’ and spend real time identifying and committing to clear priorities.
  • Action-bias – fast companies don’t try to gold-plate solutions, and obsess about planning for planning’s sake, but seek to learn and grow through rapid action.
  • Simplicity – fast companies know that complexity is the enemy of pace, and establish simple rules for their people to get things done.
  • Top-Team Together – fast companies know that, in the end, pace is a leadership issue. All the top team must therefore exemplify the behaviours they want from their people – in terms of decision-making, moving to action and keeping things simple and focused.

These four characteristics – Focus, Action-bias, Simplicity and Top-team together – create the acronym FAST. I believe that they are easy to both understand and apply, with no special knowledge or capability required.

In other words, any company can become a FAST company. So come on, what are you waiting for?

Off the record: Fast Car by Tracy Chapman

You got a fast car

Is it fast enough so we can fly away?

We’ve got to make a decision

Leave tonight

Or live and die this way

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – Firsts

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This week’s focus: I was asked this week about the first football match I attended. I can remember it vividly; Preston North End versus Doncaster Rovers in March 1971, just after my sixth birthday. North End won 4-0.

Not only can I remember the match, I can also clearly recall the unmistakeable smell of the players’ liniment, eating a Wagon Wheel at half-time and hearing My Sweet Lord playing over the tannoy (– I’m instantly back at that specific moment in time whenever I hear that song).

I can’t really remember my second game I went to, though.

Similarly, I can remember my first kiss and my first gig (The Specials), as well as my first days at school and at work, but don’t recall the second of any of these activities.

Firsts matter because they create a new, distinctive memory. Their importance is further enhanced when you perceive the experience to be meaningful.

That’s why always being an innovation ‘follower’ is not the best strategy. You can’t be first at everything, but being the first at something – and something that’s important to your customers – can deliver lasting benefits to your brand and your business.

Apple, Amazon, Tesco, and McDonalds, for instance, have all benefitted by being first to market with a new idea or service, way beyond the life of that particular offering.

What ‘firsts’ have you delivered for your customers? And what plans do you have to be first in the months and years ahead?

Off the record: My Sweet Lord by George Harrison

I really want to see you

Really want to be with you

Really want to see you, Lord

But it takes so long, my Lord

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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The 4 Characteristics of FAST Companies


Last week I spent a day with the top 150 executives of a major US home products business, looking at ways that they can increase the pace and urgency of their organisation. As ever, when I’m teaching or leading a workshop, I end up learning at least as much as the participants.

During my planning for the day, I went through the various articles – e.g. Small Steps, Giant Leaps – and my book, First & Fast, that I’ve written on this subject. As I pulled the key messages together, a light bulb went on: I realised that there are four key characteristics of fast-paced businesses that set them apart from their more sluggish rivals.

These four characteristics underpin everything that happens in high-speed organisations, from strategy development through to operational execution, innovation delivery and performance management. They are like the company’s DNA; the building blocks from which everything in the organisation is put together.

The four key characteristics are these:

  1. Focus. As my old boss at Boots, Richard Baker, once told me, “You can’t spray and sprint.” It is essential that you don’t try and do everything, but focus on those activities and initiatives that will have the biggest impact on performance. That means establishing goal focus – clarifying the # 1 business goal that will drive your key decisions and actions – strategic focus, innovation focus and agenda focus. Ask yourself how many priorities you have. If you’re trying to pursue more than a handful of priorities then it is likely you are both confusing and slowing down your organisation.
  2. Action. All fast-paced companies have a bias for action. They don’t try to gold-plate solutions, but systematically apply the 80/20 rule and move when they’re 80% ready. They also have a passion for learning and are able to create and test rapid prototypes en route to creating a new, better solution. I’ve used this quote many times before, but I can’t put it any better than Mike Bloomberg from his book, Bloomberg By Bloomberg: “While our competitors are still sucking their thumbs trying to make their design perfect, we’re already on prototype version #5. By the time our rivals are ready with wires and screws, we’re on version #10. It gets back to planning versus action. We act from day one; others plan how to plan – for months.
  3. Simplicity. Complexity is the enemy of pace and even in an increasingly complex world, it is critical that you keep things as simple as possible. A simple organisation is lean, with few layers and broad spans of control, so that managers have clear accountabilities and decision-rights. It also has simple processes around planning and approvals and simple rules that support, rather than inhibit, people taking ownership for action and delivery.
  4. Top-Team Together. At its heart, pace is a leadership issue. Everyone across the organisation takes their lead from the leader and the leadership team. It is essential that the top team consistently display the behaviours and characteristics demanded of fast-paced companies. They should be focused and demanding of their people, move to action quickly – making not deferring decisions – and keep things simple for their teams. And they should do this together, so that your behavioural standards and expectations remain consistent and clear.

You may have noticed that these four characteristics – Focus, Action, Simplicity and Top-Team Together – create the acronym FAST. I believe that they are easy to both understand and apply, with no special knowledge or capability required. In other words, any company can become a FAST company.

So come on, what are you waiting for?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Frankie Says

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This week’s focus: My son was playing football for a team where the coach is both competitive and highly strung. A few weeks ago, the coach became so frustrated with how the team was playing that he saw red. “RELAX!” he screamed at one of the boys as the ball looped in the air towards the hapless teenager, perhaps in the mistaken hope that this would somehow transform the lad into a ball-playing genius.

Unsurprisingly, the boy froze and, instead of controlling the ball and curling a delicious shot into the top corner of the goal, the ball simply bounced off his body as if he was a brick wall and went out for a throw-in.

As a leader it’s not what you say that people necessarily notice; it’s how you behave. It’s not your speeches or the banners in the hallways or the messages on the intranet that tell people what’s important; it’s your off-the-cuff remarks, your decisions and how you behave that are more important.

What are the behaviours that you’re exemplifying and how could you make sure that they always reflected your real priorities?

Off the record: Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood

Shoot it in the right direction

Make making it your intention

Live those dreams

Scheme those schemes

Got to hit me, hit me

Hit me with those laser beams

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Statement of Intent

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This week’s focus: I’m working with a client on their strategy. As part of the early process I’ve met most of the top team and, during our conversation, have asked each of them to describe the company’s strategy.

The responses I’ve received are revealing. While there are some generally shared principles, no two answers have been the same. Some of the directors I’ve met have spoken about the big projects the business is taking, others have talked about their key goals, while one or two have focused on a simple vision statement. In other words, there is no consistent strategy statement.

I think this matters. A lot. A strategy doesn’t just impact the ‘big’ investment choices; it drives a myriad of decisions of actions taken by colleagues and managers from across your organisation on a daily basis. Like a magnet being waved over iron filings, a strategy creates alignment and ensures that everyone is pointing in the same direction.

If you and your leadership team are unable to give a clear statement of your strategy – with clarity on your key strategic goal, the scope of your business, how you will win and your key priorities for action – it is impossible for those decisions and actions to be aligned. As a result, you will end up with conflicting decisions and actions, as well as gaps in activity.

Can you state the strategy of your organisation in simple terms? And will your statement match those of your executive colleagues?

Off the record: Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood by Nina Simone (written by Benjamin, Caldwell and Marcus)

But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good

Oh Lord! Please don’t let me be misunderstood

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Thank You

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This week’s focus: It is 10 years ago this week that I left the corporate safety net of Boots the Chemists to launch Morgan Cross Consulting. I can honestly say that the last 10 years have been the best, most enjoyable and most rewarding years of my life. Having been my own boss now for so long, I am also happy to let you know that I’m now completely unemployable!

During the past decade I have learnt so much – about marketing, about consulting and coaching, about running a business and about myself. But perhaps my biggest lesson of all is that even in a one-man business like mine, you are nothing without the support, commitment and engagement of other people.

Strong, effective relationships are not simply important to organizational success, they are the cornerstone of all organizational success.

So, to borrow a line from the Oscars ceremony, I want to thank everyone who has encouraged and helped me over the past decade, including all my clients – I’ve carried out over 100 assignments of various sizes since launching my business with my first paying customer, Rick Mills of Walgreens Boots Alliance – my family, my friends, my coach, the readers of my articles and books, the people who’ve come to my workshops or hear me speak, and everyone else that his given me help and advice.

You’ll all never know how much I appreciate your support and friendship.

Thank you.

Off the record: ‘No Man Is An Island’ by John Donne

No rock lyrics this week. Instead, the first words that came to mind were from this poem by Donne, written in the early seventeenth century.

No man is an island,

Entire of itself;

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.


If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were,

As well as if a manor of thine own

Or of thine friend’s were.


Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.


© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – Naked Truth

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This week’s focus: A week or so ago we returned from our family holiday in Ibiza. We had a beautiful villa – a private pool, a shady garden and a gorgeous view of the sea. In fact, the only slightly unusual aspect of the villa was the fact that naturists were staying in the neighbouring property.

At the start of our break, our three teenage boys were appalled by the sight of a group of naked people strutting about next door with everything on show. By the third night, however, their attitude had changed slightly, and they went for a late night ‘skinny-dip’. Naked swimming became more common as the week went on and by the end of the holiday the boys were wearing fewer clothes than our naturist neighbours!

When it comes to change management, you can’t ‘change’ people, you can only change the environment in which they operate. If you want your people to be more customer focused, for example, don’t simply demand that they change their behavior. Instead, focus on creating a new, more customer-focused environment – become a customer-obsessive role model, reward those who are most customer focused and bring customer feedback to the fore of your management reports, for instance.

If you do this, you will find, over time, that your people will change their behaviour. Perhaps not everyone will change – you’ll be delighted to learn that my shorts remained firmly ‘on’ throughout the week – but most people will, and that’s the naked truth!

What steps are you taking to create an environment that encourages the ‘right’ behaviours for your business?

Off the record: Stupid Marriage by The Specials

I was walking down the street one night

When I saw here silhouette in her bathroom light

Her way of life may be nothing to hide

With her frosted class shattered, curtains open wide

Naked women, naked man

Where did you get that nice sun tan?

You live in a castle built of sand –

Naked woman, naked man

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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6 Steps To Brilliant Strategy Execution

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High-level strategy is as useful to most workers in an organization as a high-flying airliner is to people in a bus queue. The bus passengers may briefly look up and notice the plane and its vapor trail, but, even if it is traveling in the same direction, it cannot possibly help them reach their destination. Similarly, unless you can bring your strategy down-to-earth it will have no discernible effect on your organization’s performance, or, worse, it will create confusion, paralysis and decline.

It is often said that a strategy doesn’t fail in its formulation but in its implementation. I don’t agree. I believe that in many cases strategy simply falls through the gap between formulation and implementation: it fails in its translation. Many leadership teams, in their excitement and enthusiasm to turn their strategy into reality, fail to take the necessary steps to ensure that the strategy is sufficiently grounded and that the organization is able and geared up to deliver it.

A $500 million consumer services business I worked with, for example, had invested heavily in developing a compelling new strategy and direction. The executive team was excited about the new opportunities that were being uncovered and had set ambitious and demanding growth targets.

The CEO and his senior executives had also spent time with front-line service managers communicating the vision and the high-level strategy for achieving it. However, over the following months the CEO became increasingly frustrated that the organisation was failing to make sufficient progress towards the new goals and targets.

As we investigated we quickly discovered that there were three barriers preventing the organisation from delivering the new strategic agenda.

  • First, individual accountabilities had not been re-set. Managers had understood the new KPIs, but their own performance objectives had not changed.
  • Second, talent had not been re-deployed. The new agenda demanded that the people across the business work differently, with a far greater focus on providing an outstanding customer experience. The roles, however, were exactly the same as the previous strategy.
  • Third, critical resources had not been re-allocated away from the old activities and projects and into the new priorities. In essence, the projects that were driving the old strategy were simply re-packaged under the new one, and none had been dropped or fundamentally re-scoped.

The result of these failures at my client was that the organisation made little progress in executing its strategy, and this is a situation that I see in many businesses. You cannot turn your 50,000 feet, high-level vision into success on the ground in one giant leap; you need to get there in a series of smaller jumps. Translating your strategic vision therefore involves a mix of decision-making, persuasion and acting as an exemplar and involves six leadership tasks:

  1. Creating genuine alignment. Tiny differences of opinion in the boardroom can become huge divisions across the organization, rapidly reducing your chances of successful implementation. I know a CEO who, in his first six months in the role, focused on involving his new team in creating a shared strategic direction. The result was not only an improvement in the quality of the strategy, but also, and more importantly, a step-change in the level of engagement with the strategy across the leadership team.
  2. Relentless communication. The strategic intent should form the basis of all communication with the organization. Communication isn’t so much about the big conventions and set-piece events, it’s about the corridor conversations and one-to-one meetings you have whether it’s in your office or on the front-line.
  3. Resource allocation. Resources should be allocated on their ability to deliver the agreed strategy, and not simply reflect historic trends and decisions. Your strategy is only as effective as your willingness and ability to invest the necessary resources – financial, people or key assets – to help deliver the results you’re after.
  4. Talent deployment and development. Your best and most able people should be leading the delivery of your key strategic priorities. Not only does this increase your chances of success, but it also sends a signal to the organization about what you consider important.
  5. Setting accountabilities. Individual performance, and the collective performance of the top team, should be directly based on implementing the strategy. At one of my clients the executive team broke down the company’s biggest priorities into specific targets and objectives, with managers and executives made accountable for each. The CEO now uses this summary of objectives and accountabilities to hold his team and other managers to account. As a result, strategy implementation is part of the company’s everyday activities, and not something that happens when the ‘day job’ has been completed.
  6. Agreeing corporate KPIs. Your KPIs should mirror the strategy, as should your associated rewards and bonuses. Focusing the management and reporting of your strategy’s delivery around KPIs, and not just project plans, also ensures that people remain focused on delivering results and not just managing tasks.

Don’t leave your strategy at 50,000 feet. The success of your business is based on your ability to bring your strategy down to earth so that your people can implement it and deliver on-the-ground success. This requires a focus on the six translation tasks and not simply the creation of an implementation plan.

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – The Heart Of Leadership

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This week’s focus: The business world is moving so rapidly that leaders must be ready to make rapid decisions, often on partial information, to change and even destroy successful initiatives and business models in order to be even more successful in the future, and to work with diverse teams and customers to create new, innovative solutions on the back of a series of rapid, low-cost prototypes.

But what are the critical leadership skills and characteristics that can deliver these results? In my experience, the real trait at the heart of successful leadership is a healthy level of self-esteem and self-confidence. This allows the best CEOs to demonstrate these five behaviours:

  • The desire to follow their passions and to have the ability to stand out from the crowd, even when it’s not a popular place to be;
  • An ability to be bold enough to make big decisions, but sufficiently self-aware to also seek help, support and challenge from others;
  • A willingness to experiment and an appreciation of the need to fail – both fearlessly and rapidly – in pursuit of a bigger goal;
  • The skill to engage others and enable their managers and teams to deliver and take the credit for success, rather than needing to take all the glory themselves; and
  • A knack of looking for simple, customer-driven and common-sense solutions that can be deliver rapid results, instead of relying on the latest, often overly-complex, management ideas and fads.

An absence of genuine self-esteem means that you can be overwhelmed by events, not knowing which way to turn, while excessive self-esteem that turns into hubris and smugness – the belief that you know everything and have nothing left to learn – can lead you take poor investment and resourcing decisions.

Contrary to popular views of the autocratic, arrogant boss, I’ve found that most leaders need to increase, not rein in, their level of self-esteem. That means you should be finding ways to put yourself first, to appreciate your strengths and recognise you’ll never be perfect, to acquire, develop and apply new skills continuously, and to find the personal emotional support network you need to maintain perspective and build resilience.

What steps are you taking to ensure that you develop and maintain the healthy levels of self-esteem that will enable you to maximise your leadership effectiveness?

Off The Record: Leaders Of The Free World by Elbow

But the leaders of the free world

Are just little boys throwing stones

And it’s easy to ignore

Till they’re knocking on the doors of your homes

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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