Business Rocks – Spaces and Gaps

This week’s focus: I coach a talented Under 12 football team. When I say coach, what I mean is that, during training sessions, I put cones out (and collect them again), distribute bibs (and collect them again) and sort out any issues with boots. I call myself the team’s Head of Laces! The real coach is Nick, who has done a truly excellent job of developing the boys’ skills and abilities. So much so, in fact, that they now play in a national league, as well as against professional academies.

One of the things that Nick has been able to educate the boys about has been the importance of finding and exploiting spaces and gaps. When you’re on the ball, he will tell the lads, you shouldn’t be focused on beating your man, as that will lead you to moving the ball into a high-traffic area where everything becomes a struggle and a scrum (or scrimmage for my US friends!).  Instead, you should be focused on moving the ball into the available spaces and gaps, whether that is through dribbling or passing, so that you can more easily create goal-scoring opportunities.

It’s the same in other ball sports, including rugby, hockey, NFL, basketball and tennis. The key to success in all these games is an ability to find and exploit the spaces and gaps that become available on the pitch or court.

It’s also the same in business. The most successful companies are those that are able to identify and exploit the spaces in their markets where new opportunities can be found. The problem is that too many businesses and too many business leaders are solely focused on the equivalent of ‘beating their man’ – doing a bit better than their competitors – where they are inevitably slowed down in these high-traffic areas and are unable to see the spaces where new opportunities are possible.

What about you and your organisation? Are you focusing on the high-traffic areas where your competitors are playing, to the exclusion of all other activities, or are you also working hard to spot and exploit the spaces and gaps in your market and developing new growth opportunities?


Off The Record: Give Him a Ball (And a Yard of Grass) by Sultans of Ping FC

The lyrics of this punk band’s great song are based on the words of the legendary Nottingham Forest football manager, Brian Clough, and his description of his match-winning winger, John Robertson.

Give him a ball and a yard of grass

He’ll give you a move and a perfect pass

Give him a ball and a yard of space

He’ll give you a move with Godly grace


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Making Innovation A Way Of Life

In my experience, 70% or more of the attention of most senior executives is devoted to problem-solving, and up to 40-50% of it is on ‘fire-fighting’, resolving big, urgent issues as they arise.

If you wish to gain a stronger position in your market, however, you cannot simply be fixing problems.  Instead, you must devote a bigger share of your time and effort to systematic innovation, raise the bar on performance and create an organisation where innovation is a habit and way of life, rather than a strategic initiative.

A systematic focus on innovation requires these five steps:

  1. Make innovation your #1 priority.

    As a leader of your business, innovation must be your #1 priority, driving your company’s future growth. If you only give it ad hocfocus, your organisation will not believe that you are serious and will not give it the commitment you are after.

  2. Align your innovation focus with your strategy.

    What is the thrust of your strategic direction, and what kind of company are you seeking to create? For many years, for instance, Amazon focused its innovation efforts on three strategic priorities – providing customers with greater choice, lowering prices and increasing delivery speed.

  3. Engage and empower the whole organisation.

    Systematic, rapid innovation cannot be achieved by relying on a small team of R&D specialists; it requires the focus and commitment of the entire organisation and beyond (suppliers, partners, customers) if you want to create sustainable growth.

  4. Avoid bureaucracy.

    Innovation does not respond well to rigid process management. Err on the side of chaos if you want to create breakthrough growth opportunities for your business.

  5. Commit to action.

    There is no innovation without action. You will trip and fail along the way, but the fastest way to success is to avoid seeking perfection. Instead, you should take rapid action, learn fast and adapt your way to growth.

And, if you want to make instant improvements to your level of innovation, here are three initial actions you can make today:

  1. Critically review your time and identify the % spent on systematically driving and delivering innovation. Identify practical ways in which you can significantly increase this time.
  2. Reward, promote and recruit those people that embody the principles and skills required for innovation.
  3. Continuously find ways to involve individuals, teams and organisations – from both within and outside your business – in your innovation processes and projects, maximising the impact of their expertise on your future growth.

Innovation is no longer a strategic option but is a strategic necessity. How many of the steps laid out in this post could your organisation follow to make innovation a way of life for your business?


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – Strategy vs. Planning

This week’s focus: The term ‘strategic planning’ is an oxymoron. It is virtually impossible to develop a winning business strategy during your annual planning process. Planning kills strategy every time!

Most planning processes begin with a sales and profit growth target, say 5% more than the current year. Consequently, any discussion about strategy gets subsumed by a mountain of small-scale initiatives that will help achieve the budget targets. The big management discussions are not on major issues of strategy, but on more detailed budgetary matters, such as whether the gross margin target for the year should be 32.4r% or 32.7%. The results, unsurprisingly, tend to be incremental.

A strategy process starts from a different place. The first step is to develop a view of the kind of business you are seeking to build. What are your big, longer-term performance goals? What markets do you want to be in and which customers do you wish to target? How do you want to win and dominate those markets? And what kind of organisation and capabilities will you need to help make all this happen?

In short, if you start with a fundamental focus on your strategy you will end up taking actions you would never even have considered under a planning-led approach. The results can be transformational.

I’m just about to start a strategy project with a company that has, for the past several years, been driven by a planning-led approach. As a result, the business has been able to achieve profit growth, but it has not been able to dominate its market or improve its competitive position. It will be interesting to see how the company’s priorities change as a result of our work together.

How about your business? To what extent are your initiatives and actions driven by a planning-led approach, and what new ideas and possibilities could you focus on if you were to adopt a strategy-led approach?


Off The Record: Weather To Fly by Elbow

So, in looking to stray from the line

We decided, instead, we should pull out the thread

That was stitching us into this tapestry vile

And why wouldn’t you try?

Perfect weather to fly!


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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How To Kick-Start Problem Projects

In recent weeks I’ve come across several examples where leadership teams have been struggling to get important new projects off the ground. In one instance, a three-month gap had emerged between agreeing the need for a particular set of projects and any work commencing. The leadership team had become so absorbed in creating the perfect plan that they had lost sight of the real objectives.

Without a sense of urgency, however, projects can quickly wither and die, and these projects were no different. The reasons why projects spin their wheels are many and varied, including the project team already having too much on their collective plate, a lack of alignment across the leadership team about the nature and objectives of the project, the absence of a clear plan and therefore not knowing where or how to start, the unavailability of people in your organisation with the relevant skills and capabilities to deliver the project and a fear from the project leader that the project will fail and they will be seen in a bad light.

Whatever the reason for delay, there is seldom any good that comes from procrastination. The key is to stop spinning your wheels and to get going. Critically, you don’t start a car in sixth gear and you shouldn’t expect to start your project in a high gear either. Instead, get into first gear so that you can start to move forward and make initial progress. Following these seven steps will kick-start the project and move it through the gears:

  1. Clarify accountabilities.

    Identify the person accountable for delivering the benefits of the proposed initiative and ensure that they – and their colleagues – understand that they are the person accountable.

  2. Specify and agree objectives.

    I once worked for a CEO who told me that he wanted “slicker” processes in the business. He was unable or unwilling to be any more specific than that. Unsurprisingly, I found it both hard to really help him achieve his aims or to engage key stakeholders to get involved. Your objectives should spell out in a clear, straightforward way the specific improvements in business performance the project is seeking to deliver.

  3. Ask for a 90-day plan.

    You’re not asking for the world. You’re asking for how the project can get started, initial progress made and momentum built. The project is unlikely to be finished in 90 days, but you want to know that it has started. If necessary, the project leader should limit the initial scope so that a trial takes place, an initial prototype or two is be developed and tested, and/or customer research is carried out.

  4. Review the 90-day plan.

    Sit down with your leadership team and jointly review the 90-day plans of all your identified projects. Use this time to agree objectives, identify critical issues and barriers to progress, and make decisions to resolve them. The plan should be a series of actions and milestones – with owners for each – that works back from a 90-day goal that is in line with the project’s longer-term objectives.

  5. Undertake monthly progress reviews.

    Sit down with the project owner, either individually or with the leadership team, to review progress and resolve ongoing issues. I find that many leaders can get bored carrying out this task, but it is a necessary discipline that (1) demonstrates to the organisation that the delivery of the project’s benefits is important and (2) maintains and deepens accountabilities.

  6. Ask for longer-term, next-stage plans.

    Once the project has stopped spinning its wheel, you should ask the project leader to determine how the delivery of the benefits will be accelerated and the initiative will shift through the gears. Where the project has the potential to consume major financial and other resources, demand that a series of stage-gates are included in the plan whereby you can make a series of yes/no decisions to release the necessary funds in line with progress and evidence of success, rather than being forced to make a single yes/no decision.

  7. Continue to review progress.

    Discipline is the key to ongoing success and you must continue to review progress on a regular basis. Even with long-term projects I find that an ongoing focus on the next 90-day plan keeps everyone’s attention on making material and rapid progress, and also enables the project to react to the inevitable environmental and organisational changes. Yes, complex projects need longer-term plans, but for most initiatives an overview of the milestones for the next 12-18 months coupled with a more detailed, specific focus on the next 90-days keeps the emphasis on real progress today, rather than promises of progress tomorrow.


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – Who Are Your Heroes?

This week’s focus: As someone who has worked with many of the UK’s leading retailers, it has been both interesting and depressing to see the recent decline of the likes of Toys R Us, Carpetright and Maplin.

All of these retailers have operated in difficult markets, but, as Darwin put it, the evolution race is won by those who are most able to adapt. Unfortunately, these companies were slow off the blocks, showed little acceleration and had no finishing kick in that particular race!

The only way to adapt is to try new things. This means you must have a deep willingness and desire to learn and an ability to innovate. It means accepting the small risks of project failures so that you avoid the big risk of corporate failure.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And yet the even simpler lesson is that these once large and successful retailers were unable to learn, innovate and adapt.

I don’t know these organsiations, but I’d guess that managers were more comfortable ‘fixing’ operational issues – trying to get the most out of the current business – than they were developing and testing new, innovative ideas that might not work.

Who are the heroes in your business, ‘fixers’ or ‘innovators’? One thing’s for sure: the only route to lasting success is to embed a genuine desire to learn, test and grow at the heart of your organisation and to make ‘innovators’ the heroes of your company.


Off The Record: My Hero by Foo Fighters

There goes my hero

Watch him as he goes

There goes my hero

He’s ordinary


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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The Benefits of a #1 Goal

Do you have a clear and compelling #1 goal for your business? If not, what steps can you take to develop one to accelerate the growth of your organisation?

Every organisation I’ve ever known or worked with has had a myriad of goals, objectives and targets. The trouble with too many competing objectives, however, is that it results in unnecessary confusion and complexity.

When I work with my clients we determine their #1 goal and use that goal to drive the company’s strategy and agenda. The advantages of this approach are that it gives you and your team a clear focus, aids communication across the organisation, helps you make better and quicker strategic decisions and accelerates organisational momentum.

When I first worked with Topps Tiles, for instance, the company did not have a clear goal – so we immediately set about developing one together. The company’s goal became to grow its share of the UK tile market from 25% to 33%.

As a result of this goal, the organisation’s actions and behaviours changed. Non-core product categories – including wooden flooring and decorating materials – were removed from the offer, as they were irrelevant to the goal. Conversely, a greater focus was placed on relationships with local traders and installers, as these customers were critical to the achieving a 3% share.

Here are some of the behaviours and actions that change as a result of a clear and compelling goal:

  • Managers think more broadly about the strategic options available to the business –which creates new growth opportunities – rather than just trying to fix or improve the current business;
  • The leadership team are able to set a clearer strategy for the business. As Ian Filby, the CEO of DFS, once put it to me, “A strategy has to meet a clear goal. Without agreement about the goal, you can’t settle on the strategy.
  • The strategic agenda changes. New initiatives are launched and some existing projects are stopped or amended;
  • Leaders are able to talk about their decisions in light of the overarching goal they’re working towards, enabling everyone across the organisation to feel part of a collective effort;
  • Successes along the way to the goal are celebrated, bringing the organisation closer together and building the confidence for further initiatives and actions;
  • On a day-to-day basis, managers are able to make better decisions by asking which possible course of action would take the business closer to its goal;
  • Managers and colleagues reach out more across functional boundaries to work with other teams on issues that will help the company achieve its goal more rapidly;
  • The organisation is able to deliver its projects more quickly, as the organisation gets rid of initiatives competing for scarce resources in pursuit of different goals.

At Topps Tiles, management gave the business a 5-year challenge to deliver its goal of 33% market share. In the end, however, the benefits of greater focus, alignment and speed enabled the company to achieve its goal a year early. As CEO, Matt Williams, put it at the time, “A specific and clear goal galvanised the entire organisation and has been a key part of our success!

Do you have a clear and compelling #1 goal for your business? And, if not, what steps could you take today to develop one and use it to focus and accelerate the growth and success of your organisation?


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – Death of a Star

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

A little drop of claret,

Anything that rocks!

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

Sitting on a potty,

Curing smallpox!


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Cross Shots – The Best Time To Review Your Project Performance

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



You can view previous episodes of Cross Shots here

© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – The Most Important Word In Business Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

I’m jist a girl who can’t say no

I’m in a turrible fix

I always say, “Come on, le’s go!”

Jist when I orta say “Nix!”


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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

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

Breaking points affect organisational performance, too. I once worked with the valet team at a Ritz-Carlton hotel in the USA. The team performed brilliantly most of the time, but when demand reached a certain level, such as Sunday lunchtime, their performance collapsed as dramatically as this week’s rail timetable and, as a result, cars were backed up along the hotel’s driveway and onto the road. You can often see this effect in busy shops, too, when a queue can rapidly form at peak times, even though all the tills seem to be staffed, or at restaurants when, at busy periods, you wait seemingly forever for your meal.

There are three solutions to improving the breaking point of your key customer services: increase capacity (e.g. the number of people in the team), enhance the capability of the team or system, or improve its organisation and management. If you ask the team, the chances are they’ll ask for more resource, while most managers look to improve the capability of the system (either training or systems development) as the way forward.

In my experience, however, it is the third option, improving the organisation and management of the team, that has the biggest and quickest impact on performance. At the Ritz-Carlton, for instance, we established clear roles for all the team members and appointed a ‘captain’ to marshall the team at peak times. These two actions had an immediate and dramatic impact on performance and the peak-time queues were no longer an issue for the hotel’s guests.

How about you? What’s the breaking point of your key services, and how could you better organise and manage the points of peak demand to deliver a better customer experience?


Off The Record: 19th Nervous Breakdown by The Rolling Stones

You better stop, look around

Here it comes, here it comes, here it comes, here it comes

Here comes your nineteenth nervous breakdown


© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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