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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Business Rocks – Turning Off The News

This week’s focus: I’ve stopped watching the news on TV. I find it all just too depressing and it’s no longer the way I wish to either start or end my day.

Don’t get me wrong; I still want an understanding of what’s happening in the world and will scan the newspaper that’s delivered each morning. But I can’t cope with the hyperbole that accompanies most TV news stories.

Everything on the TV news, it seems, must be a crisis.

A bit of bad weather approaching? Let’s send an army of reporters, with their wellies and pac-a-macs, to all corners of the country to stand in a bit of wind and rain and check whether or not the River Ouse in York will burst its banks again (usually it doesn’t!).

An MP caught with their hand in the till? Let’s bring into the studio a stream of commentators and reporters to let us know that we are not simply witnessing an isolated case of corruption, but a decline in the moral standards of the nation equivalent to the fall of the Roman empire!

The key to success in life is, I’ve found, a healthy level of optimism. That doesn’t mean being blind to reality, but it does mean focusing your time, focus and efforts on finding ways to make the most of your situation, rather than simply wallowing in its negatives.

If your team is filled with negative doom-mongers, it’s probably time to change your team. Life – and certainly business life – is simply too short to become caught up in the attitudes of these energy suckers. After all, they needn’t worry, as they will be perfectly suited to life as a TV news reporter!


Off The Record: Going Underground by The Jam

We talk and talk until my head explodes

I turn on the new and my body froze

Those braying sheep on my TV screen

Make this boy shout, make this boy scream!


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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11 Ways To Achieve More From Your Strategy Off-Sites

These 11 ideas can help your strategy off-sites and retreats to become genuinely productive and drive higher levels of profitable growth for your business

We’ve all been there. The annual strategy away day is a fixture for many management teams. And yet, all too often, these sessions generate more heat than light. Real breakthroughs are remarkably thin on the ground.

Over the years, I have run dozens of these events and there are some very specific factors which will determine the event’s success – or otherwise!

Here are my top 11 ways to get more from strategy retreats and off-sites:

  1. Clarify your objectives well in advance.

    One or two specific objectives should be set 6-10 weeks ahead of the meeting to allow relevant information to be gathered and the session to be planned effectively.

  2. Match participants to the objectives.

    Getting as many senior people as possible in the room is not necessarily the best way to achieve your objectives. If you are after new ideas and thinking, a diverse and larger group is appropriate. But if you are after making some critical decisions fewer people in the room is generally best. Conversely, if you want to focus on implementing your priorities with excellence, you must ensure that you have sufficient front-line managers involved in the meeting.

  3. Share the data before the meeting.

    Nothing kills an off-site session quite like a series of PowerPoint™ presentations. Instead, share relevant data ahead of the off-site. Both through short and pithy(!) papers and through individual or small-group briefing sessions. Alternatively, ask your team to spend time on the front-line of your business. Directly observing your customers using your products and services, visiting benchmark companies from other industries, and/or shopping your business. This provides great data to compare with any quantitative reports you might prepare.

  4. Focus on the future.

    More people are turned on by discussions and dialogue on the future of your business than they are by in-depth reviews of current performance. What’s more, gaining a shared commitment to the future direction of your organization will encourage your people to share their concerns and risks about the potential pitfalls in achieving it.

  5. Raise the bar – significantly.

    Don’t just focus on how you can be a little bit better tomorrow. Focus on how you can transform your company’s results. Raising the bar on performance encourages people to be more creative, to share new ideas and to think differently. At one recent off-site, the team set a goal of doubling the sales of the business over the next five years. The energy that was released by agreeing to this goal enabled the team to create new and genuinely exciting ideas that sub-teams are currently developing.

  6. The route to success is genuine involvement.

    The off-site’s #1 driver of success is meaningful involvement. Find ways to get participants actively involved in the meeting, rather than becoming passive observers of the session. I aim to have over two-thirds of each event to be spent on the team working through specific issues and questions. In smaller sub-groups if necessary.

  7. Leaders beware!

    If you’re the leader of the organization, be very careful not to hog the limelight. If you take up all the airtime you will simply shut down debate and remove any sense of energy in the room. Instead, use the opportunity presented by the off-site to listen to your team’s insights and ideas. Learn more about their hopes and concerns and build their ownership and commitment.

  8. Get some customers in the room.

    There’s nothing better than some real-time, direct customer feedback to get your team focused on what really matters. If you can’t organize anything for the day itself, you can always use video to help establish this external perspective on the business and generate new thinking and discussion.

  9. Remember, you don’t need to solve everything.

    I recently facilitated an off-site where the group agreed 3 growth priorities. But they were unable to agree on which others, from a list of 15, should be taken forward. This wasn’t a perfect outcome, perhaps, but it was certainly a success that led to specific action and progress.

  10. Follow-up.

    There are three follow-up actions you should take: (1) Determine the actions required and assign responsibilities; (2) Decide how you will manage progress of your agreed next steps; and (3) Agree how you will communicate the conclusions and outcomes of the retreat to the wider organisation.

  11. Have an independent person to manage the process.

    The use of an independent facilitator and guide for the session not only allows everyone else to be focused on the content of the discussions, rather than the process of the day. But it also ensures that you deliver the objectives you set for the meeting without being unnecessarily diverted by individuals’ pet issues. What’s more, a skilled facilitator will encourage wider and deeper involvement in your discussions of critical business issues, enabling you to move your big ideas forward.

Which of these 11 ideas can help your strategy off-sites and retreats to become genuinely productive and drive higher levels of profitable growth for your business?

© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

Posted in Leadership, Strategy | Leave a comment

Business Rocks – Falling Into Your Niche

This week’s focus: The death of Mark E. Smith was reported widely across the news media this week. I feel sure, however, that 90% or more of the people watching or reading this news item had never previously heard of him.

The Fall, his post-punk band, had not enjoyed even a single ‘hit’ over its 40-year existence, despite producing over 30 albums of material and many more singles and EPs. What’s more, The Fall didn’t play at large arenas, but only at smaller, off-beat – sometimes very off-beat – venues.

So, why was Smith’s death so high up the news editors’ list of stories? There are two reasons. First, he influenced so many other rock musicians. Second, The Fall had built up a relatively small, but hugely loyal fan base that was completely devoted to The Fall and, more specifically, Mark E. Smith.

Personally, I found it hard to engage with The Fall’s music. In particular, I found Smith’s grating, almost sneering vocal style to be interesting for a while, but difficult to take in large doses!

But I guess, that was the point. The Fall were not for everyone. They were for a particular niche; people who were prepared to put in the time, effort and commitment to genuinely understand, enjoy and appreciate their music.

To build a sustainable, lasting business you must not simply attract customers, but attract customers you can turn into real fans. That means that you must create an offer, an experience and a brand that delivers real meaning and value to your chosen customers.

It might not be for everyone, but it should be clearly for someone. That’s what a genuine customer strategy – and a customer-driven organization – is all about. The only record by The Fall that I own is their so-called greatest hits album. Its title is “50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong” and you can’t get a better summary of a niche customer strategy than that!


Off The Record: Theme From Sparta FC  by The Fall

We have to pay for everything

But some things are for free

We live on blood, we are Sparta FC

English Chelsea fans, this is your last game

We’re not Galatasaray, we are Sparta FC!


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – Small Steps and Giant Leaps

This week’s focus: For the past four years or so, I have been limited in the amount of exercise I can undertake. A series of problems with both of my shoulders has prevented any substantial physical activity (my mum was right when she told me to stand straight all those years ago!).

Lifting weights at the gym was out of the question, as was swimming – too much shoulder action. Running also led to severe shoulder pain and even riding a bike caused problems when I leant on the handlebars for more than 30 minutes.

So, after an operation, a series of injections (some successful, others less so) and some brilliant work from my physios Joe and Lucy, I found myself looking forward to a first visit to the gym this week.

My trainer Ollie (also brilliant) asked me about my goals and how quickly I wanted results. I was tempted to say that I want to lose 20-30 lbs in the next six weeks, but that’s both unrealistic and unlikely to be sustainable.

Sometimes the quickest route to lasting success is to initially set a smaller, but nearer, milestone, building the confidence and momentum for further gains. All too often, I see companies launch big change programmes, only for them to become rapidly stuck in the inertia of daily business life and too many, conflicting priorities.

Giant leaps start with small steps. As a result, even though I do want to lose 20 lbs, my first goal is simply to go to the gym and lift weights at least twice a week for the next four weeks. Once I’ve achieved that milestone, I will then set my next milestone and embed the actions, behaviours and disciplines necessary to reach my bigger goal. Watch this – hopefully diminishing – space!

What is the biggest, most ambitious giant leap that you’re looking to make? And how are you turning this big ambition into a series of short-term, action-driven steps and targets that you can rapidly achieve?


Off The Record: Walking On The Moon  by The Police

Giant steps are what you take

Walking on the moon

I hope my legs don’t break

Walking on the moon


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Engagement: The Secret To Performance Acceleration

Towards the end of last year, I was talking to the CEO of a large UK retailer who was bemoaning the lack of progress in delivering his company’s strategic agenda. Earlier in the year, he and his executive team had spent several days developing a clear new growth strategy. The team had then run communication and engagement sessions with managers from across the business, set up a handful of cross-functional strategic projects and ensured that progress was tracked each month at the executive meeting.

While some initial actions had been taken, the CEO felt that there had been a lack of follow-through and he had become frustrated with his team’s inability to do more than their ‘day job’. As we talked it through, it became clear that the organisation was not fully engaged with the new priorities.

Engagement is bigger, far bigger, than communication. While building a shared understanding of the strategy is important, people must also be involved in establishing the resulting performance and delivery challenges and, even more importantly, developing the solutions required. They must also feel that they have the skills, tools, capacity and support to deliver.

The chart, above, shows how bottom-up engagement interacts with the quality of the top-down strategy and leadership of the business to drive the speed of change and delivery. There are four different execution speeds:

  1. Dead Stop.

    An absence of both top-down direction and bottom-up engagement creates a catatonic organisation. Like the movie Groundhog Day, each day, week, month and year repeats itself. As a result, sales are likely to flat-line, at best, and the business will find itself increasingly using price as the only effective marketing lever.

  2. Stand By.

    Here, the organisation has created a culture where colleagues feel engaged and an integral part of driving the company’s future success. However, there is a lack of genuine direction or clarity about how the company will win in the future. In these situations, you will often find teams engaging in continuous improvement-style initiatives – using the power they have over their own performance –  but the business lacks the step-change improvements that a clear strategy can bring.

  3. Half Speed.

    Where the strategy is clear and the agenda has been clarified, but the organisation is not fully engaged, success requires constant top-down ‘push’ to drive delivery. This can work for a while,but is not sustainable over time. As the executive team reduce their efforts the pace of delivery will immediately wane. It is the situation that was faced by the CEO I met and often leads to his question, “Why don’t they just get it!?!”

  4. Full Steam Ahead.

    All the successful strategy programmes with which I’ve been involved have managed to combine top-down direction with genuine bottom-up engagement. As front-line, grassroots ownership is developed the pace of delivery can take on a life of its own and the need for big, set-piece projects to deliver the changes required is reduced. This is when ‘strategy’ and ‘the day job’ become inseparable.

Which speed best describes the pace of delivery in your business, and what steps should you be taking to accelerate its speed of execution and performance growth?


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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