Business Rocks: The Best Time to Plant a Tree

I’m working with a client that is looking to develop a far clearer and more compelling strategy and proposition for its business. While the management team are excited about the emerging future direction, they are equally frustrated that they didn’t do it years ago. It’s so much harder, they argue, to catch up with the market leaders now than if they’d made this move much earlier.

The answer to this comes from a Chinese proverb that goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

It can be easy to believe that you’ll never be able to catch up with the ease and convenience of the best on-line businesses, or match rivals with strong track records of product innovation or beat those that are able to sustainably deliver low cost solutions to their customers. Amazon, Apple and Ryanair, for instance, all planted their strategic trees at the very best time – 20 years or more ago.

But the second best time is still now. 


Ten years or so ago, for example, Tesco looked unassailable as the UK’s leading grocer. It might not have seemed worthwhile to take on this retail giant. Yet the investment and focus from Aldi and Lidl, in particular, has shifted customer behaviour and has completely changed the dynamic of the UK grocery market.

You may think that you’re behind your competitors in some areas of your business, but what new strategic trees could you be planting now that, over the next few years, could help your business to grow, blossom and thrive?


Off The Record: Let It Grow by Eric Clapton


Standing at the crossroads, trying to read the signs

To tell me which way I should go to find the answer

And all the time I know

Plant your love and let it grow


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Hidden Successes

Not all successes are obvious or clear. During difficult trading conditions, in particular, it is tempting to dwell on the problems, rather than the opportunities. But even in the trickiest situations, my experience is that there will still be successes out there – if you’re willing to look for them.

One of my clients, for example, is struggling to deliver growth from its core product ranges. So, we segmented the ranges more carefully and found that although many of the cheaper sub-ranges were suffering declines, there were clear growth stories from some specific added-value products.

What’s more, customers were telling my client that no-one else had anything like these products available in the market. Unsurprisingly, my client is now working out how it can develop and drive greater growth from these ranges, and not simply determining how it can halt the drop in revenues from its entry-level products.

Twenty years ago, IBM shifted its business model – and its fortunes – from being a seller of hardware to becoming a much broader-based consulting and solutions provider. This shift followed the realisation of the new CEO, Lou Gerstner, that the customer service teams, which were a cost centre rather than a profit centre at that time, were seen by customers as a key point of differentiation. In other words, service and expertise were a hidden success and potential driver of growth for IBM.

Where are your hidden successes? And what steps could you take to find them, nurture them and exploit them to drive even greater growth for your business?


Off The Record: Suddenly I See by KT Tunstall

Suddenly I see

This is what I want to be

Suddenly I see

Why the hell it means so much to me


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Attractive Markets Aren’t Always So Great


It was announced this week that New Look, the UK fashion retailer, is exiting from the Chinese market and closing its 120 stores. New Look’s Chinese failure follows in the footsteps of other major retailers, including M&S, Home Depot and Tesco.

China is the world’s second-largest consumer and retail market and has attracted investments from thousands of companies, both large and small. The size, growth and potential profitability of the Chinese market is a huge pull for any investor.

All of these enterprises face a strategic truth, however: it’s not the size or attractiveness of the market that determines your ultimate success. Instead, it’s your ability to establish and exploit clear competitive advantages that makes the difference.

Like its failed predecessors, New Look, was unable to establish advantages in China that enabled it to attract sufficient numbers of customers or produce the returns required to justify its investment.

And what’s true for New Look in China is similarly true for your business, whether your operating in Asia, Europe or the UK alone. Finding and spotting attractive new market sectors to enter is a key element of business growth, but only if you are able to profitably differentiate from your competitors.

What are your company’s competitive advantages, and what steps are you taking to identify build, sustain and create advantages that will drive your future success?


Off The Record: Tougher Than The Rest by Bruce Springsteen

Maybe your other boyfriends

Couldn’t pass the test

Well, if your rough and ready for love

Honey, I’m tougher than the rest


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Running Ahead Of The Ball

Finney, our cocker spaniel, loves to play fetch with a tennis ball. I’ve noticed that he starts running for the ball when my arm is raised to throw it. Even before I’ve begun to throw the ball, he’s off and sprinting in the general direction I’m facing. As the ball arcs over him he’ll then make note of where it’s heading and makes the necessary changes in direction. And if the ball doesn’t appear in his line of sight within a few seconds he stops and looks back at me to understand what’s happening.

I’m currently working with a client that operates in a similar way. Teams across the business are proactive and get on developing, testing and delivering new ideas and changes before fully creating the detailed plans that may have been traditionally expected. At times, the company’s approach can create some confusion and uncertainty, but it also generates genuine organisational pace.

In truth, the uncertainties are relatively easy managed and the tweaks in direction and focus are quickly taken by the management teams in their regular, weekly meetings. And the upside of the company’s pace has been rapid growth, market share gains and greater profitability.

How is your business tackling growth and innovation? Are you waiting until you’re certain where the ball is heading before moving, or, like Finney and my client, are you anticipating the ball’s future trajectory and getting on the front foot, confident that you can make any necessary adjustments along the way?

Off The Record: Old King by Neil Young

King went a-runnin’ after deer

Wasn’t scared of jumpin’

Off the truck in high gear

King went a-sniffin’

And he would go

Was the best old hound dog I ever did know


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: The Sum of Our Choices


I think it was Albert Camus, the existentialist novelist, who said, “Life is the sum of all our choices.” In other words, it’s the decisions we make – or fail to make – that determine the life we live.

It’s the same in business. Your own organisation, for instance, is the sum of all the decisions and choices made by its leaders, managers and colleagues, both past and present. Your best chance of success exists when these choices have consistency and coherence and when decisions are mutually supportive rather than taking the business in different directions.

As a result, you must find a way to help align those decisions and choices. A clear purpose and mission, a compelling and focused strategy and an over-arching performance goal are all ways of building alignment and encouraging consistency. They act as a compass for decision-making, establishing a ‘true north’ for decisions so that everyone ends up at the same destination.

How strong and effective is your organisational compass, and how is it helping your teams and managers to make consistent and coherent choices and decisions?


Off The Record: A Town Called Malice by The Jam

A whole street’s belief

In Sunday’s roast beef

Gets dashed against the Co-op

To either to cut down on beer or the kids’ new gear

It’s a big decision in a town called malice!


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.


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Business Rocks: The Cost of Delay


Last week I was working with a client in the US to help the business accelerate its internal pace of delivery. Like many organisations with a desire for improvement, the company is already doing many excellent things – as with this client, when it comes to change, it’s often more a question of sharing existing best practices than creating something totally new!

One of the corporation’s senior leaders told me, for instance, about a technique he uses to maintain the pace and urgency of his key initiatives. At the start of every project, he and the team determine the monthly cost of delay- how much the business will lose each month by not delivering the initiative on time.

On his latest project, he had estimated the monthly cost of delay at $20 million. That calculation had two consequences. First, it provided the entire leadership team with the shared desire to deliver as soon as possible. Second, it helped the project team to make better decisions about the best way to overcome potential delays.

At one point in the project, for example, the team decided to invest $10 million in new software to accelerate its delivery by six weeks. Even though the level of spend was high, it was cash generative in less than a month!


For how many of your big projects do you really understand the monthly cost of delay? And what changes to your decision-making and your speed of execution would it make if you did?


Off The Record: I Say A Little Prayer by Aretha Franklin


I’m conscious that I haven’t paid tribute to the amazing Aretha Franklin, who sadly passed away last month. I’m sure we’ve all turned to Aretha’s songs at some point in our life, as she seemed make an emotional connection that others just couldn’t find. If you hear other versions of Respect, I Say A Little Prayer or A Natural Woman, for instance, you realise that no-one else comes close to Aretha’s ability to capture the soul of a song. A true legend.

I run for the bus, dear

While riding, I think of us, dear

I say a little prayer for you

At work I just take time

And all through my coffee-break time

I say a little prayer for you


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Overcoming The Fear Of Learning


I am currently reading Fear: Trump in the White House, written by Bob Woodard, the legendary Washington Post journalist. It’s a fascinating insight into the internal machinations and ways of working of President Trump’s top team and their supporting officials, which, at the very least, could be called unconventional!

Yet, it was one of Woodward’s throw-away comments that struck me the most. Writing about the acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear programme since the death of Kim Jong Il and his succession by his son, Kim Jong Un, Woodward noted:

The elder Kim had dealt with weapons test failures by ordering the death of the responsible scientists and officials. They were shot. The younger Kim accepted failures in tests, apparently absorbing the practical lesson: Failure is inevitable on the road to success. Under Kim Jong UN, the scientists lived to learn from their mistakes, and the weapons programs improved.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that you or other business leaders would actually shoot those associated with failure, but you can see where I’m going!

The question is this: Does your organisation suffer from a fear of learning, immediately dropping managers who lead projects that fall short of expectations and which are deemed ‘failures, replacing them, instead, with new project leaders?

Or do you help these managers to learn from their mistakes so that they can apply those lessons to better help you to accelerate your company’s ability to grow, succeed and thrive?

© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Better Tomorrow

OK, I admit it – I’m a procrastinator! Even with this newsletter I usually wait until an hour before it needs to go out before I write it. That’s what’s happened this morning. It is the deadline that gives me the energy and motivation to get things done.

I’m also beginning to think that there is also a condition called ‘corporate procrastination’, where an entire organisation or team of people wait until the last minute before taking action. It’s uncanny how many times I’ve witnessed actions on key projects only taking place during the last few days ahead of an executive review of progress. It is the looming reality of accountability that drives action.

So, what’s the problem? Well, in most businesses the executive team may only review progress of even their most important strategic priorities, at best, on a monthly basis, with many teams undertaking quarterly reviews. It’s difficult to make consistent, rapid progress on projects when you’re only being held to account four times a year.

A faster review cycle is needed at all levels in organisations to encourage and drive greater pace and quicker progress. At Amazon, for instance, the executive team meet weekly to discuss, review and re-focus their most important initiatives.

What is the review cadence that you set in your business for your key priorities? And what improvement in performance could you achieve by increasing it?

As for me, I’m going to stop procrastinating – starting next Monday!


Off The Record: Put It Off Until Tomorrow by Dolly Parton

Oh stay, stay just one more day

Loneliness isn’t far away

Put it off until tomorrow

You’ve hurt me enough today


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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The 5 Principles of Organisational Speed

I’ve been reflecting on the fundamentals of organisational speed and distilling the key lessons for businesses to work on. As a result, I’ve pulled together these five principles of pace that could accelerate your growth and success:

  1. Be fixed on the vision, but flexible on the journey.

    This is a Jeff Bezos quote and describes the philosophy he has applied to drive Amazon’s amazing success. The key lesson is that to drive pace and growth, you need a clear strategic ambition but that you should expect to flex and shift resources and activities in response to changing markets and circumstances.

  2. Have everyone focused on the same big goal.

    I worked with Topps Tiles, the UK tile retailer, helping the executive team to craft a strategy that included a goal of growing market share from 25% to 33%. Having done that, the team cascaded the goal across the organisation – agreeing local market goals with store managers – so that everyone was focused on the same goal. The result was that Topps achieved their highly-ambitious goal within four years.

  3. Move three things a mile, not 100 things an inch.

    This is a lesson I received from business coach, Alan Weiss. Focus is a key enabler of pace. That’s why Steve Jobs spent so much time at Apple stopping ideas and initiatives so that everyone could focus on driving the speed and effectiveness of the most productive and important.

  4. Think big, start small, learn fast.

    When you’re developing something new, it’s highly unlikely that your first prototype will work. Famously, for instance, James Dyson developed over 5,000 versions of his bag-less vacuum cleaner before creating the one that first went to market. The key to success is not to avoid failure, but to maximise the speed at which you learn from it, apply those lessons and develop something even better. That is the fundamental route to organisational speed and innovation pace.

  5. Remember, you are the sprinter-in-chief.

    If you’re a leader of your business, your teams are looking at you and your behaviours. They will not hear any of your calls for greater pace if you are not demonstrating, through your daily actions, your own willingness to get things done quickly. For example, are you making rather than deferring decisions? Are you going the extra mile to complete a project? And are you focused on accelerating your organisation’s most important priorities? These are the subconscious tests your people will be making before committing to similar behaviours.


Which of these five principles could you and your business work on to drive speed and accelerate growth?


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.


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Business Rocks: Fixed On The Vision, Flexible On The Journey

In my spare time, I am the assistant coach (aka Head of Cones) of my son’s Under-13 football team, Grantham Town. Louis’s side play to a reasonably high standard, including some games against professional academies.

Earlier this week the boys played Sheffield Wednesday Under-13s (spoiler alert: they lost!). During the game, Nick, the lead coach, worked with Louis and the boys to implement four different formations in an attempt to find a winning formula (For the purists among you, the systems used were 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1, 4-5-1 and a flat 4-3-3!). For their part, Sheffield Wednesday implemented three different playing systems during the game.

Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, once said that his business was “fixed on the vision, but flexible on the journey.” In other words, like both the Grantham and Wednesday coaches and teams, he is willing to constantly evolve and adapt his plans and tactics in a bid for strategic success. The buzzword for this skill is ‘organisational agility’.

The problem for many companies is that the plan becomes the goal, and managers become fixed on delivering specific actions rather than specific results and outcomes. Agility, learning and evolution are overtaken and subsumed by fixed thinking and approaches.

If 12-year old boys can learn and apply three or four different football formations over the course of a game, your teams can also learn to be more flexible and agile in their pursuit of strategic success.

How are you leading your teams to be ‘fixed on the vision, but flexible on the journey’?


Off The Record: Right Next Time by Gerry Rafferty

You need direction, yeah, you need a name

When you’re standing at the crossroads every highway looks the same

After a while you get to recognise the signs

So if you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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