Business Rocks: Fetch!

 

Finney, our cocker spaniel, loves to play fetch on his long, energetic walks.

 

I’ve noticed that he sets off to chase the ball before it’s even been thrown. He has a slight glance as to where I’m planning to launch the ball, but then runs away to where he thinks it’s going to land.

Sometimes Finney gets it wrong and ends up in the wrong place – in which case he rapidly changes direction and sprints to the right location – but nine times out of ten he’s within a few yards of where the ball bounces as it lands. He then shifts his weight to catch it in his mouth on the first bounce, before proudly trotting back to me to start the process all over again.

Finney’s playing the percentages to try and get an advantage to reach the ball as quickly as possible. Wayne Gretzky, the Canadian hockey player, once famously said that the secret to his scoring success was the fact that, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it’s been.” Finney has the same approach.

What about your business? Are you focused on the market and new growth opportunities as they currently exist, or, like Finney, are you using your knowledge and insight to work out where the opportunities are going to be? And how are you then positioning your organisation and resources to ensure that you’re the first to take advantage of them?

 

Off The Record: Diamond Dogs by David Bowie

Well, she’s come, been and gone

Come out of the garden, baby

You’ll catch your death in the fog

Young girl, they call them the Diamond Dogs

Young girl, they call them the Diamond Dogs

 

© Stuart Cross 2019. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Escaping The Vortex

 

Earlier this week, one Conservative minister reportedly commented that the UK government was trapped in a “Brexit vortex of s**t!” The language might be a little crude, but the metaphor is clear: the government cannot do anything except suffer day-after-day of Brexit misery. There seems no way out and the vortex seems likely to overwhelm drown the Conservatives.

While hopefully not so smelly, many organisations have their own specific vortex of urgent issues that disproportionately consume people’s time and energy, preventing them from moving the business forward. Your to-do list gets longer and your diaries become even more packed, yet at the end of the day, week and year you fear that you haven’t really achieved anything important.

My experience of working closely with over 50 different businesses over the past ten years is that three things help leaders and organisations to overcome the vortex.

First, your business needs a clear sense of purpose, a reason for being over and above the desire to make money. Second, you need one or two ambitious, meaningful goals that align the business and enable the entire enterprise to get its collective shoulder behind a handful of priorities. And third, you need the individual, team and organizational disciplines to set aside the time and resources to deliver on those priorities.

Which of these three elements are prevalent in your business and, if you’re suffering in your own vortex of whatever substance, which of them could you work on to help you focus, escape the vortex and get the important stuff done?

 

Off The Record: Sandstorm by Cast

I’ve got a sandstorm

Blowing in my head

But the only one

That’s coming through is red

And it’s stopping me dead!

 

© Stuart Cross 2019. All rights reserved.

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5 Steps To Help Your Organisation Learn From Projects

 

There is research-based evidence going back several decades that organisations struggle to embed the learning that is generated from their projects. Yet, you probably don’t need me to tell you that. The notion that ‘we keep reinventing the wheel’ is endemic in most businesses.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

When I am helping my clients deliver ‘sprint projects’ – a series of fast-paced, high-impact initiatives – learning not only takes place within the project but also happens across the organisation.

There are five key reasons for this:

  1. The sprint project is focused on results.

    We don’t run our projects to make recommendations, but to deliver results. That way, we need to identify and address issues and barriers in real-time, allowing us to share that experience across the organisation. Recently, for example, we established a 12-week sprint project with a retailer that had an objective of doubling sales in one of their key categories. The sprint focused on one store as a way of learning for the entire chain. Within eight weeks we had achieved our objective in the store and identified five key lessons that we then implemented and refined in a larger sample of stores before rolling out nationwide.

  2. Learning is a deliberate focus of the sprint.

    From the very beginning, learning is a key project objective. During kick-off planning meeting, we will identify specific learning objectives that we believe will deliver the results. Using the above example, for instance, the impact of improving the capability of the store teams and the embedding the daily disciplines of the management teams were two specific learning objectives that we focused on throughout the life of the sprint.

  3. We establish genuine accountability for learning.

    Similarly, we ensure that a member of the sprint team has real accountability to identify and embed key lessons. This may be the project leader, or, for bigger, more complex projects, maybe a different member of the team. Their individual performance review is then dependent on how well they have identified key learning points and ensured that these lessons have been applied across relevant areas of the organisation.

  4. We undertake a mid-sprint learning review.

    We don’t wait until the end of the sprint project to carry out our learning reviews. If we did, we may have lost the momentum and/or the project infrastructure to do anything about the lessons we identify. Instead, in a 12-week sprint project, we will carry out an initial learning review after around six weeks. We then have time to implement the outputs of this review, both in the project and across the wider organisation, within the 12-week period.

  5. The sprint is based on organisationally important issues.

    We only carry out sprints on those issues and goals that are genuinely important to the business and its leadership team. This means that any lessons learned are automatically seen as ‘important’ by the key stakeholders. Coupled with the fact that we have an executive-level sponsor for all our sprint projects – whose role is to maximise the cross-functional impact of the sprint – there is real ‘pull’ from the business for both the results of the sprint as well as the underlying lessons and organisational changes.

In other words, there is no need for your projects and project teams to keep ‘reinventing the wheel’. By bringing the concept of learning centre-stage, you can both improve the pace and results of your key initiatives.

Which of these five steps could your organisation implement to transform its ability to learn from its most important projects?

 

© Stuart Cross 2019. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Why You Need A Coach

 

Successful athletes understand the critical importance of great coaching. I cannot think of a leading sports star who does not have at least one dedicated coach.

But why do these men and women continue to turn to coaches, even when they are already so great at what they do? Justin Thomas, one of the world’s leading golfers, had this to say about his coach, Matt Killen: “He helps me simplify things and focus on the things I need to do to play my best golf.” Killen’s work with Thomas impressed Tiger Woods’ enough for Woods to hire Killen ahead of his amazing recent comeback win at The Masters. Speaking before the tournament, Woods said of Killen, “I really respect what he sees.

If you look at other sports people’s comments about their coaches, you get a similar view: coaches are critical to their success. Dig a little deeper and the athletes will tell you how coaches improve their performance. It’s about focus, setting goals, establishing accountability, maintaining good habits and finding the extra small margins that make all the difference to results. And it’s about getting that feedback from someone who is both truly independent of the athlete and yet has their best interests at heart.

Given the impact coaches can have on high-performers’ results, I’m always surprised how relatively few business leaders work with coaches. Perhaps they see coaches as only being required for ‘remedial’ work, or believe that, as leaders, they should be able to manage their own improvement and development. Although I work with several senior executives as a coach and advisor, many C-suite executives are often happy for mid-managers to be coached, but mistakenly decide that it’s not for them.

Athletes know different. Their careers are short and they haven’t got time to waste. An objective, third-party perspective creates the challenge that is critical to learning and improvement.

How are you continuing to improve? Are you trying to develop yourself, or are you using a coach to raise your performance to even greater levels?

 

Off The Record: Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own by U2

 

Tough, you think you’ve got the stuff

You’re telling me and anyone

You’re hard enough

You don’t have to put up a fight

You don’t always have to be right

Let me take some of the punches

For you tonight

 

© Stuart Cross 2019. All rights reserved.

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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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