Business musings

Articles and thoughts about Performance Improvement

Beware the Bermuda Triangle of business: the definition of which is a situation, department, organisation that can absorb limitless time, energy and resource with no discernible improvement in performance. Usually caused by the wrong people, wrong managers, wrong processes, wrong systems or all of the above. Proceed with caution should you be lost forever!

15
Mar
Posted by Matt Stocker, stored in: Business Excellence  Leadership  Performance Improvement  

Do What You Say You Will Do When You Say You Will Do It

Also known as…

DWYSYWD WYSYWDI

I know, you’re looking at this thinking, “That’s an entirely unmemorable acronym!” and I agree. It’s completely forgettable and unpronounceable in fact! Except, the person who introduced me to this acronym was one of my university lecturers who also happened to be Welsh. So, when he first wrote the acronym on the board, we all assumed he was writing in Welsh! But, for all its superficial forgetableness, the unusual nature of the acronym has enabled me to remember it all these years later.

So why am I introducing dwysywd wysysdi to you now?

On the surface, dwysywd wysywdi looks rather innocuous. What’s the worst that happens if you don’t dwysywd wysywdi? Nothing? No big deal,right? In reality, when you don’t dwysywd wysywdi, it’s rare that nothing happens. Generally a lot happens—but it’s probably not the stuff you want to! From people losing trust in you, to customers walking away, to losing that promotion. Dwysywd wysywdi is a critical skill in all areas of life. (more…)

For my 30th birthday a couple of years ago, my family joined together to give me a TAG Heuer watch, which I absolutely love. From a design and brand perspective, it’s perfect and it makes me smile each and every day—just as good design should.

Sadly however, it has needed to be serviced by TAG Heuer twice under warranty—both for minor faults but still not really what you’d expect from a luxury watch.

Yet, it may surprise you but it’s not the fact that I’ve had to send it back twice that bothers me. No—it’s the fact that when I put it in the post I know that I won’t get it back until around three weeks later. Three weeks! That’s three weeks wearing my old watch which is missing its bezel, has a worn surface, and generally looks very old and tired. Three weeks without my TAG.

Ignoring the fact I shouldn’t have to send it away in the first place, the fact that it takes three weeks to turn around—when the only issue is a minute speck of dust under the glass—is simply unacceptable.

And the strange thing is that, however much you spend on a watch, this situation doesn’t change. Whether you spend £100, £1,000, £10,000 or £100,000 on a Rotary, Breitling, Rolex or Omega, you’re still looking at a 3 week wait—even with next day delivery at both ends!

Maybe the watchmakers expect you to own several expensive watches: “Oh, I’ll just wear my spare Rolex today.” Or maybe they just don’t care.

I suspect, however, that it’s more likely they have simply accepted that this is how it’s always been. Just as sofas normally take 10 weeks to deliver, taking 3 weeks to fix your watch is just the way it is.

But my guess would also be that if they were to assess the value chain through which the watch itself passes, I can’t imagine that it would take a total of more than four hours to complete the work needed to remove said speck of dust…

  • Send postage- and insurance-paid envelope to customer
  • Customer posts watch to service centre with next day delivery
  • Receive watch at centre
  • Assessment of watch carried out
  • Disassemble watch
  • Fix watch
  • Reassemble watch
  • Return watch to customer with next day delivery

However, having experienced TAG Heuer’s online watch status system (which only gives minimal updates at best!), this is my best guess at what actually happens…

  • Send postage- and insurance-paid envelope to customer
  • Customer posts watch to service centre with next day delivery
  • Receive watch at centre
  • Enter watch onto computer system
  • Put watch on shelf
  • Wait a bit
  • Take watch off shelf
  • Assessment of watch carried out
  • Update computer system and order new parts
  • Put watch back on shelf
  • Wait for parts to arrive
  • Take watch off shelf again
  • Disassemble watch
  • Fix watch with new parts
  • Reassemble watch
  • Update computer system again
  • Put watch back on shelf
  • Wait a bit
  • Return watch to customer with next day delivery

To double check my theory, I also had a look at TAG Heuer’s website.  Although a full service has the potential to take longer, even allowing for an hour’s ultrasonic vibration cleaning, I would be surprised if such a service would take longer than four to six hours. And, in my case, no cost estimates were needed nor did TAG need to contact me as the watch was under warranty. I was similarly astounded to read that TAG Heuer’s master watchmakers can “draw from a stock of thousands of items,” suggesting that they don’t even need to order the parts as they are all held on site!

From experience, the fact that even a simple, pressurised battery change takes the same amount of time as a more serious issue also suggests that the length of time involved is not caused by the quantity of work but rather an ineffective process. And, quite possibly, a lack of motivation by the watchmakers concerned to change this situation.

Until such a point in time as the manufacturers concerned decide that lightening quick after sales service is a key differentiator and opportunity to create competitive advantage, it would seem that, as consumers, we’re just going to have to keep that cheap Casio in the draw for emergencies. Or alternatively, wear our spare Rolex, darling!

21
May
Posted by Debbie Stocker, stored in: Leadership  Performance Improvement  Psychology  

Last week, I wrote about how nothing breeds success like failure but ended on a crucial question: How? How do we affirm failure correctly and effectively? How do we encourage perseverance and daring? How do we embrace failure and turn it into success?

My reading around failure has uncovered several suggestions and I would love to add a few of my own.

1. Stop the denial

Failure happens—fact! You will fail; if not today, then tomorrow, next month or next year. Your failure may be big or small, catastrophic or common, but the one thing I can guarantee is that you will experience it.

We need to stop hiding from failure, avoiding it and denying it. As individuals and organisations, it’s ok to admit failure and to put it right. Starbucks has even adopted this as part of their customer service ethos: “Your drink should be perfect, every time. If not, let us know and we’ll make it right.”

At a deeper level, we also need to “acknowledge that some people—even ambitious people, smart people, talented people, tenacious people, good people—experience failures that turn out to be more than mere bumps on the road to success.”

Before we can turn around failure of any form, we must “strive for transparency,” both within our organisations and in the interactions we have with one another.

2. Disown failure as an individual identity

Did you know that in 18th century English, failure as an identity did not exist in our language? Scott Sandage points out that “the usage ‘he is a failure’ or ‘I feel like a failure’ was unknown; people spoke of going into business and ‘making a failure of it’. The striver was still responsible for paying for (and learning from) his own mistakes—but the shop or the counting house was the failure, not the person.”

Such depersonalisation makes failure much easier to face. It also enables objectivity and more effectively facilitates learning. Further, this perspective is a much closer reflection of the truth. We rarely fail entirely alone or entirely through our own fault—usually, circumstance is much more complex than that.

3. Exempt ourselves and others from the obligation to succeed

Closely related to failure as an identity is the pressure to succeed. Real or perceived pressure to ensure that we don’t let others down, disappoint or fail to meet expectations. None of us should be living in fear of the consequences of our failure for, if this is the case, we will never have the courage to try.

Those who experience failure can be ostracised and may experience emotions such as shame and humiliation. High profile failures, such as that of Gerald Ratner, reveal the stigma that can be attached to failure. For some the effect of this stigma is extreme. A study on the relationship between debt and suicide in Japan showed that some consider suicide preferable to their financial failure—in one 52-year old debtor’s words: “Bankruptcy means you’re a loser for life.”

Although it is inevitable that certain failures will, and should have, consequences, we need to ensure that these consequences are not permanent and nor are they terminal. We need to create a culture in which failure does not engender blame and retribution but that consequences are fair and representative of the action.

Similarly, we need to take down the pedestals upon which we place others and accept that they, like us, will fall. Second, third, fourth, or even one hundredth chances should be available to all.

4. Set realistic expectations

Success is rarely instantaneous but, in a culture that craves instant gratification and “admire[s] instant…effortless brilliance,” this is all too easy to forget.

We need to recognise that success takes time and there will be failures along the way. As organisations and as individuals, we need to set realistic expectations about what is is possible to achieve. In the words of Aza Raskin, former Creative Lead for Firefox, “Your first try will be wrong. Budget and design for it.”

5. Understand the failure spectrum

As I mentioned in my last article, failure is nuanced. At one end of the spectrum is failure that forms “an essential part of a [learning] process” but at the other is failure with “dark” and catastrophic consequences. We need to be able to recognise the different types of failure and employ effective strategies for each.

Within our organisations, we need to create processes, systems, cultures and budgets that allow for and encourage “intelligent” failure.

However, where catastrophic or abject failure is a risk, multiple failsafes should be built in. All too often, “individuals can be quite adept at picking up on hints of failure in the making [but] organisations typically fail to process and act on their warnings.” Such failure is not to be encouraged. At whatever point on the spectrum failure lies, “leaders…must shape cultures that are open both to the possibility of failure and the need to learn when problems do occur.”

6. Create a learning culture

I love this tip from Richard Watson on Fast Company: “Try to fail as often as possible but never make the same mistake twice.” We need to create organisational cultures that both accept and learn from failure. Prototyping, agile methodologies, even basketball or piano practice, do not involve doing the same thing over and over again. Rather, they require that we “learn from [our] failure and try again differently.”

We also need to ensure that we learn from our failures as quickly as possible. Aza Raskin tells the story of Paul MacCready’s efforts to solve the problem of human-powered flight. Whilst others were spending upwards of a year building planes that were destroyed within a matter of minutes and could not easily be rebuilt, MacCready set out to “build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours not months.” Such an approach enabled him to rapidly iterate and the “relearn cycle went from months and years to hours and days.” Suffice to say, it was MacCready’s planes that claimed Henry Kremer’s rewards for turning his dream of flight into reality.

7. Dare to do things the wrong way

Sometimes, in order to achieve success, we need to dare to do things wrong. Sir James Dyson suggests “initiat[ing] a failure by doing something that’s very silly, unthinkable, naughty, dangerous. Watching why that fails can take you on a completely different path.” In creating the Dyson vacuum cleaner, the conventionally shaped cyclone simply wouldn’t work; it was only when Dyson tried “the wrong shape” that he discovered his key to success. “It was wrong-doing rather than wrong-thinking. That’s not easy, because we’re all taught to do things the right way.”

Alberto Alessi describes this as “danc[ing] on the borderline between success and disaster.” He points out however that “working close to the borderline is very risky, because you cannot see it with your eyes. It is not clearly drawn or marked. You can only feel it by using sensibility and intuition…One step more, and you risk falling into the not-possible area.” Dare to do things the wrong way but do so wisely.

8. Aim for fallure not failure

In Hitting the vertical wall: realizing that vertical limits aren’t, Jim Collins tells the story of attempting to complete an on-sight climb of a route known as the Crystal Ball. A challenging climb, Collins found himself exhausted only three moves away from the crystal. He gave up and let go. In his words, he “failed in [his] mind.”

Learning from his disappointment, Collins went on to discover what he has coined climbing to “fallure, not failure”. When climbing to fallure, you may still fall but you do not choose to do so. Mentally and physically, you give it your all, until either you conquer the rockface or it conquers you.

Collins applies this idea to life and to business. “Going to fallure in life is scary, but not dangerous. Whether it be starting a business or publishing a book or trying an exciting new design, fallure rarely means doom. And most important, [fallure is] the only way to find your true limit.”

9. Know when to quit and when to push on through

Closely related to fallure is the need to know when to quit and when to push on through. Seth Godin talks about the idea of “the dip”—the slog that occurs between learning and mastery. Often such dips need to be beaten and perseverance will lead to success. However, what looks like a dip can also be a “dead end.” We need to be able to recognise the difference.

Similarly, fallure should be used wisely and must be combined with our understanding of the failure spectrum and its risks. Collins later relates the story of the time he convinced another, less experienced climber, to continue climbing a cliff named Cynical Pinnacle even though a storm was approaching. His partner’s rope lodged in a crack and they found themselves trapped “with the temperature in the fifties and dropping, [and] facing a full early-spring front.” Fortunately, both men lived to climb another day but it should be said that continuing to fallure in the midst of a perilous and dangerous situation is sheer folly.

10. Learn the skills to handle failure

Daniel Ostrower, in a comment on Jamer Hunt’s article, pointed out that a “special set of skills (both emotional and intellectual) is required to diagnose and learn from failure.” He argues that, “Not everyone can do it, and even those that can will have more difficulty in certain situations than others.” While I agree that handling failure can be difficult, I wonder whether it is possible to learn skills that would enable us to handle it more effectively. Through studies, such as that of Life after business failure, we can begin to understand the processes that occur and uncover strategies for dealing with failure more effectively.

It should also be said that learning from failure is a process. Business failure involves loss and the psychological effects of such have been likened to those of grief. Just as grieving is a process, so is recovering from failure. Failure can be painful and we need to allow ourselves “time to recover from the hurt”. Only when we have done this, can we engage in “critical reflection,” examining the reasons for the failure and learning to move beyond them.

Michael Jordan—a final word

To return to where we began this journey, Michael Jordan has had astounding success but it has been founded on hard work, dedication, perseverance and failure. In another famous Nike advert, he says:

Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I led you to believe it was easy when it wasn’t…Maybe it’s my fault that you didn’t see that failure gave me strength—that my pain was my motivation. Maybe I led you to believe that basketball was a God-given gift and not something I worked for—every single day of my life.

Maybe I destroyed the game.

Or maybe, you’re just making excuses.

 

 

Michael Jordan was never shooting to lose but that didn’t mean he never missed. We need to dare to fail in order to succeed. As organisations and as individuals, if we allow ourselves to be paralysed by our fear of missing, we will never take the shot that wins or loses us the game.

What can you dare to fail at today?

And for those of you who like the research…

Collins, J. (2003). Hitting the wall: realizing that vertical limits aren’t. Jim Collins

Hunt, J. (2011). Among six types of failure, only a few help you innovate. Fast Co.Design

McGregor, J. (2007). Gospels of failure. Fast Company

Raskin, A. (2012). You are solving the wrong problem. Aza Raskin

Salter, C. (2007). Failure doesn’t suck. Fast Company

Salter, C. (2007). Failure doesn’t suck – part 2. Fast Company

Sandage, S.A. (2012). Get back in the saddle. Times Higher Education

Ucbasaran, D., Shepherd, D., Lockett, A. & Lyon, J. (2012). Life after business failure: the process and consequences of business failure for entrepreneurs. CSME Working Paper.

Watson, R. (2008). Celebrate failure. Fast Company

West, M. (2003). Dying to get out of debt: consumer insolvency law and suicide in Japan. The John M. Olin Center for Law & Economics Working Paper Series, 03-015.

Wylie, I. (2007). Failure is glorious. Fast Company

 

18
May
Posted by Debbie Stocker, stored in: Leadership  Performance Improvement  Psychology  

It is an inevitable and unavoidable truth that we will all, at one time or another, fail.

Individually. Collectively. Personally. Organisationally.

But the less obvious truth is that failure can lead to success.

To err is human

I missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

Believe it or not, these are the words of Michael Jordan, arguably basketball’s “greatest of all time.” His accomplishments include “two gold medals, six finals MVP awards, five league MVP awards, three All-Star MVP awards, ten scoring titles, Defensive Player of the Year and an induction to the Hall of Fame in 2009.”

 

 

Before creating the revolutionary vacuum cleaner we know and love today, Sir James Dyson invested 15 years, nearly his entire savings, and built 5,127 prototypes before he got it right.  In his words that means, “There were 5,126 failures.”

Scott Sandage (author and associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University) says:

To paraphrase the anthopologist Marshall Sahlins, academics can be certain of two things: someday we’ll be dead and eventually we’ll all be proven wrong. (Sahlins’ tip for a successful career: make sure the first precedes the second.)

Of entrepreneurship, Charlie Gilkey says:

You’ll make too little and sweat it. You’ll make too much and blow it. You’ll say Yes and kick yourself for it. You’ll say No and spend the rest of the year remembering the ‘wrong’ forks you took.

And the good news is…?

All of these people have experienced failure. They’ve admitted failure. And they’ve known success.

While failure is uncomfortable, difficult, embarrassing and, at times, devastating, it can also be a catalyst for learning, change and reward.

In some cases, failure is essential for achievement and inherent to attaining a goal.

Alberto Alessi, winner of the Design Award for Lifetime Achievement and third generation head of the iconic Italian design firm, told Fast Company:

I have to remind my brothers how vital it is to have one, possibly two fiascoes per year. Should Alessi go for two or three years without a fiasco, we will be in danger of losing our leadership in design.

Walking the winding road to success

Much as we like to think of the journey to success as being like a Roman road, straight and unswerving, in reality it almost always involves roundabouts, u-turns, blind alleys, detours and hairpin bends.

I love the below cartoon (attributed to Demetri Martin, This is a book) and, having become an online meme over the last couple of years, it would seem that it has resonated with others also.

Two cartoon sketches side-by-side, both titled 'Success'. The cartoon on the left shows a perfectly straight arrow with the caption 'Success: what people think it looks like'. The cartoon on the right shows another arrow but this time with a tangle of wiggly lines in its centre and the caption 'Success: what it really looks like'.

Following such a winding path does however require persistence, tenacity, determination and resilience—it is not easy to keep going in the face of multiple setbacks. Honesty, transparency, maturity and humility are also all needed.

Yet, numerous authors have observed that it is these very traits that can be the source of reward.

For more than 100 years, psychologists and scholars have shown that perseverance seems to be inherent to success over and above either talent or intelligence. Honesty and transparency can also result in the development of credibility and trust.

Avoiding the anti-failure bias

Accepting and admitting failure requires us to confront our fears. It also involves risk—risk of rejection, risk of misunderstanding and risk of consequences. Perhaps this is why we naturally shy away from failure and seek to avoid it whenever possible. Rita McGrath (a professor at Columbia Business School) has coined this tendency the “anti-failure bias.”

But, as we have already seen, failure does not always have the negative impact we so fear. In fact, McGrath points out that an avoidance of failure can itself have unintended and negative consequences. Ironically, failure can be caused and exacerbated by a blinkered desire for success.

We therefore need to create a culture in which it is acceptable to fail, both individually and organisationally. A culture that encourages experimentation and learning. A culture in which individuals and organisations are encouraged to admit their failures and move beyond them.

Many designers and developers have already learned this lesson and agile methodologies encourage their users to: “Fail early, fail fast, fail often.” In essence, this involves rapidly prototyping ideas to test their strengths and weaknesses, discover their failure points, and unearth future improvements. Rather than investing vast amounts of time and money into a fatally flawed project, such an approach ensures that “every failure is a step on the path to success.”

A big, fat BUT…

In writing this article, I do not wish to portray the idea that all failure is good. Circumstances in which failure has resulted in crippling and catastrophic consequences are within all too easy reach: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster; the global financial crisis; or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, to name but a few. In both these disasters and within our own circles, there will be people “for whom failure is a crushing reality, not an inspiring lesson.”

Failure is never without a cost. In a working paper on life after business failure, the authors identify entrepreneurial failure as having three primary costs: “financial, social and psychological.” In some cases, it is possible to moderate and recover from these; at other times, the costs can prove debilitating.

Tellingly, the authors also observe that struggling ventures that delay cessation have variously been referred to as “‘permanently failing’…’unproductive’…’chronic failures’.. and ‘the living dead’”. It seems safe to assume that none of these are desirable states.

Whilst the journey to success is undoubtedly a winding road, ploughing ahead in the face of warning signals at every juncture is surely a fool’s errand. Failure is nuanced and we need to understand this.

Jamer Hunt, writing on Fast Co.Design, suggests that “we need a failure spectrum.” I believe this is a brilliant idea and it is one that I intend to explore further in a later post.

In the meantime, it is enough to say that we need to be able to identify when failure is (or at least can be) productive; when it is a sign that something is wrong and we should quit; and when preventative measures should be taken to avoid it.

Breeding success—a failure how to

All in all, this therefore begs the crucial question: How? How do we affirm failure correctly and effectively? How do we encourage perseverance and daring? How do we embrace failure and turn it into success?

That, my dear readers, is something for another day… Breeding success—a failure how to

And for those of you who like the research…

Hunt, J. (2011). Among six types of failure, only a few help you innovate. Fast Co.Design

McGrath, R.G. (1999). Falling forward: real options reasoning and entrepreneurial failure. Academy of Management Review, 24(1): 13-30.

Salter, C. (2007). Failure doesn’t suck. Fast Company

Sandage, S.A. (2012). Get back in the saddle. Times Higher Education

Ucbasaran, D., Shepherd, D., Lockett, A. & Lyon, J. (2012). Life after business failure: the process and consequences of business failure for entrepreneurs. CSME Working Paper.

Wylie, I. (2007). Failure is glorious. Fast Company

Acknowledgements…

Special thanks must go to Scott Sandage whose article inspired this discovery into failure and from whose writing the title of this article was borrowed.

It might sound somewhat geeky but I love software! By software I mean the programmes that sit on our computers, mobile devices and in the cloud that have been designed to make our devices useful and our lives easier. We live in an age in which there is unprecedented access to high quality software, both at home and in business. Software is a growing, thriving market, with low barriers to entry, and the fact that investors are willing to back software is only increasing the availability of great solutions.

For me, I love comparing and choosing software, using it, getting to know it and learning about the efforts and ideas that developers have put into their baby. I love the power that software has to transform an action, a process or even an entire organisation.

The trouble is that choosing and using software can be a bit of a Marmite process—especially in a business environment. You’ll either love it or hate it. Software inevitably transforms your life one way or another—for good or for bad! Generally, the more core a software solution is to key business processes, the more this is true. Choose and commit to the wrong software solution and you can bring a business to its knees very quickly. I’ve seen this happen a number of times to unsuspecting organisations and it’s not pretty!

Think of selecting software as a little like marriage—it’s easy to commit but hard to get out of. When you achieve the perfect match, life couldn’t be better. But get it wrong and separation tends to be a painful, messy process.

So what are the rules of software commitment that minimise the risk of marrying in haste and repenting at leisure?

1. Understand yourself and what you are looking for

If you don’t understand yourself, your organisation, and how you work, you won’t be able to decide what you’re really looking for and whether there is a good fit or not. Most people have some sort of list for ‘My ideal partner is…’, based on their own understanding of themselves and what they feel would work in a relationship. Choosing software is not much different. Although ideal partner lists aren’t always 100% correct and you may later discover that certain assumptions were wrong, developing an ideal software list is a great start to the selection process. Before you begin to select any software, it’s vital that you first understand your business, the core processes that make your business tick, and what success looks like for you. What features can you really not live without? What are you happy to compromise on? What are the end objectives that you want to achieve? These are the criteria that will help you to find your ideal partner.

2. Work through stuff together

Looks aren’t everything, right? While aesthetics are obviously important in the attraction process, there is a strong case for the ‘It’s what’s inside that counts’ perspective to gauge how well you will get on as a couple over the long term. And the only way to really find out what’s inside is to work through important stuff together. You need to find out whether your individual approaches to life are remotely on the same page. Committing to software is much the same. It’s vital to work through real business scenarios with the software yourself and you should always insist on both a demo and trial that uses your own case studies, data, processes and tasks. Don’t just rely on standard demos and don’t let a salesperson do it all for you—they are practiced at making their software look brilliant and easy to use, even when it’s not! By working through practical scenarios and day-to-day processes, you’ll soon begin to see whether you have an attraction that goes beyond the first few clicks!

3. Dig deeper

With software, as with people, sometimes not everything is as it appears on the surface. That’s to be expected—we don’t always like sharing our weaknesses, especially when they make us vulnerable. A software sales person is even less likely to be completely open and honest with you as it’s in their best interests to make a sale. The website of a software product is also unlikely to list everything that the software can’t do. That’s why it’s up to you to ask the right questions and dig deep. Software sales can be a case of ‘truth by omission’ so it’s your responsibility to find out what they haven’t told you. Unfortunately, this courtship tends to be a bit more one-sided than is ideal but, with software selection, I’m afraid that’s the way it tends to be. Caveat emptor—let the buyer beware!

4. There is no such thing as the perfect partner

As Debbie may occasionally tell you on a bad day, there is no such thing as the perfect husband—I know, shocking right?! And likewise, there is no such thing as the perfect software. Unless you buy a bespoke solution, no software will have been designed for you personally but rather for someone a bit like you. This means that it’s highly unlikely you’ll find software with a perfect fit. You therefore need to look for best fit solutions—software that most appropriately fits your processes and that you can live with on a daily basis. Of course, each solution will have its own strengths and weaknesses but inevitably you’ll be able to live with some, whilst others are going to drive you insane! The secret is choosing the former and avoiding the latter.

5. Know where to draw the lines

Different relationships work in different ways—it may be that you’re responsible for the admin and your partner looks after the garden. Maybe you co-parent your kids. Wherever the responsibilities lie in a relationship, it’s always an idea to play to your strengths. If both of you suck at housework or DIY, you might hire a cleaner or a handyman. Knowing where to draw the lines between software works in a similar fashion. It isn’t often that one piece of software can be all things to all people. Indeed, software that claims to do everything is, in reality, often unwieldy and mediocre at most things, whilst being excellent at few. You will therefore need to decide which software solutions will best look after which processes. You’ll also need to consider how the solutions will effectively integrate with one another without things dropping through the cracks. Making these decisions often requires a bit of juggling as you work out what fits where and the boundaries will, on occasion, require reworking and renegotiation. But, as with any successful relationship, that’s all part of the fun!

6. Don’t think you can change them

Starting any relationship with the aim of changing your partner into something they are not is a dangerous plan and one that’s doomed to failure. The fact is, people don’t change easily. Evolve? Yes. Change? No. Established software is similar in its inability to accommodate significant changes. The sales people or developers may promise change but in reality it’s not that simple. Software tends to be built around a fundamental concept, philosophy and envisaged use scenario, so promising change is the equivalent of an architect promising to create a mansion out of a bungalow. Yes, it’s technically possible but only if you knock it down and start again. In most cases, you might as well have bought a mansion in the first place! As a rule of thumb, tweaks are fine but you should be very sceptical of promises for deep changes to core functionality. Such changes are usually risky, expensive, create more problems than they solve, and are often no more effective than putting lipstick on a pig! Software as a service (SAAS) solutions tend to be even more inflexible. By its very nature, SAAS offers a one size fits all solution—the entire business model hinges on solutions for the masses. Whether software as a service or boxed software, whatever you do, don’t commit to it based on a vague promise of added functionality sometime in the future.

7. Ask the children

I’m not for one moment suggesting that your staff are your children or that you should treat them as such! However, much like parental decisions not only affect the adults but also influence the children, you need to realise that a software partnership isn’t just between you and the software provider—others within your organisation are going to have to live with your decision day in, day out. Get your colleagues involved at an early stage. Involve them in developing the statement of requirements, invite them to meetings, and ask them to test the software themselves. Be conscious of those people who will be most impacted by your decision—they will usually be the ones who get shouted at if they can’t do their job properly due to poor software and they won’t thank you for a poor choice! Where possible, make a business-wide decision as to which solution to commit to. Remember, unlike children, your colleagues can walk out if you get it really wrong. Businesses have lost good staff through poor software selection and implementation because dealing with bad software on a daily basis made their jobs nigh impossible.

8. It’s not just about the wedding

Long-term marital success is as much about life after the wedding as it is about your partner selection and promises of commitment. You need to give each other time to settle in and adjust. Make time for one another, continue to talk, resolve differences, and put one another first. In a successful software partnership, continued commitment following the initial selection process is vital. Surprisingly, choosing your software is actually the easy bit of the process. Without a full and proper implementation, you could in fact create a failed project even if you have selected the right partner. In rolling out the software you should be aware that staff will need training; an effective transition from the old way of working to the new will need to be made; and there are likely to be teething issues that will need to be resolved. Longer term, adjustments will need to be made to ensure that the software continues to evolve with you. Of course, you can’t do this on your own. Both you and the software provider need to remain completely committed for the long haul, even—or should I say, especially?!—after the initial honeymoon period is over.

9. Trust is important

Trust is important for any relationship and especially for one in which there is a long-term commitment. Without trust, a relationship can be at best difficult and at worst impossible. Likewise with software, the concept of trust is critical. You need to trust the software’s security, its resilience, your backup of the data, the service level agreement (SLA), and the fact that the future road map of the software is going where you need it to. After all, you are entrusting your business to this software. Not only that but you need to remember that you are not just choosing the software itself but also the people and the organisation behind it. You will be reliant upon the competence of the team who develop and build it; the responsiveness and helpfulness of those people who answer your urgent support requests; and the wisdom of the owners and managers who determine the long-term direction and success of the business. Can you trust them to do good by your organisation? Do they really understand your needs? Are they consistent and congruent in their relationships? Are they people you’ll enjoy working with well into the future? By doing your due diligence upfront, you’ll reduce the risk of being disappointed and heartbroken later on.

10. Money matters

Research suggests that money is one of the topics most argued over in a committed relationship. Differing expectations and differing priorities have to be worked through, compromises made, and a shared understanding developed if money isn’t going to become an issue that gets in the way of a relationship. If this kind of understanding can’t be reached it begins to suggest the partners might indeed be incompatible. Likewise with a software partnership, financial priorities and budgeting can be an issue. Knowing how much to spend on software is not always obvious, especially when price is not directly correlated to quality or even value. In reality, you can only ever really make a comparative decision between differing software options, balancing the complex mix of functionality, best fit, price, licensing model, consultancy and training fees, ease of implementation and upgradability. In the end, you’ll need to choose the solution that you feel provides the best return on investment. It may be that you have a natural tendency to spend very little or to spend a lot. At the end of the day, it’s not about your personal spending preferences but about the business case, the range of software options available to you and, ultimately, what will be best for your business—even if it takes you out of your comfort zone.

Enjoy the process

Hopefully I haven’t scared you off either marriage or software selection after all that! As I said at the beginning, I love software and, as Debbie will testify, I get particularly absorbed during a software selection project largely due to the fact that I’m having so much fun! I’m also an advocate of healthy and happy marriages—after all, I found not only my wife but also my business partner too.

Whilst some businesses are happy to approach software selection with little more thought than a drunken and impromptu wedding to a stranger in Vagas, only to wake up the next day regretting the fact that they didn’t put a bit more thought into choosing a more suitable partner, there are some who are wiser and heed the call to approach software selection as you would a serious courtship. Hopefully, you, dear reader, fall into the latter category!

Also, do remember that, much like marriage, you need to go into software selection knowing that you’ll always have a lot to learn. So be willing and able to get stuck in. Grow. Make mistakes. And, most of all, enjoy the process! Sometimes, even if you follow all the rules and do absolutely everything right, it won’t always work out, but at least you’ll be able to look yourself in the mirror and say, “I gave it my best shot.” And, after that, you will pick yourself up and start over again.

12
Apr
Posted by Matt Stocker, stored in: Performance Improvement  

Much of the time, instigating change within a business is about new initiatives and new improvement projects. However, what starts as rapid and exciting organisational change can lose steam over time, slowing performance improvement down to a crawl.

In cases like these, the tendency can be to attempt to overcome resistance by redoubling efforts, increasing the number of improvement initiatives and hoping that, with enough management sponsorship, progress can be maintained.

In reality, once an organisation has reached a certain point on its improvement journey, the more you implement, the harder it can be to hold the gain—let alone achieve true transformation. When you get to this stage, adding more is no longer an effective solution.

What about a different approach? In order to catalyse change, why not take away rather than add?

What you choose to subtract will depend on the transformation you want to achieve, your specific business and your individual situation, but here are a few examples to give you a little inspiration.

Customer service

Do you want to achieve true transformation in customer service? You’ve written the guidelines, done all the training and worked with your staff to ensure service improvement, yet you still feel you lack a certain ‘wow’ factor in the service your organisation delivers.

Time to take away

Take away the restrictions that govern how your customer service staff support customers and move to an ‘If it makes the customer happy, do it!’ approach. By taking away restrictions, you shift focus onto the customer and the relationship that your staff have with them. If this approach feels risky and dangerous, it could reveal that you don’t entirely trust your staff and it is restrictions that keep the wheels turning rather than a great culture and core values. If this is the case, it’s not surprising that you don’t have the customer service wow factor! You need staff you trust, who value your customers as much as you do, and who have the power to make a difference.

Culture change and engagement

What if you’re looking for culture change? Are your staff tired, demotivated and fed up of the rules? Maybe you’re looking for an opportunity to shake things up and transform internal staff engagement.

Time to take away

Organisations can inherently communicate resistance, stuffiness and a lack of trust—often through rules, expectations and management looking over shoulders all the time. Want to communicate trust? Let people decide their own holiday quota as long as they get the work done. Bums on seats mentality? Let people work when they want to or allow them to work from home—you could even follow Plantronics’ example and take away desks so there are not enough to accomodate every one of your staff. Want to increase productivity? Do what Best Buy did—take away the work day and move to a results only work environment. Risky? Maybe. But if your staff stop working or you don’t know what they’re up to, this reveals a more serious performance management issue that needs confronting. Removing such safeguards would certainly motivate managers to focus on engagement and collaboration too!

Sales and profitability

Are you looking to increase sales and improve profitability? Often, in our attempts to make ours the company to buy from, we default to adding to product and service ranges or adding features. This isn’t always a sure fire route to increased profits

Time to take away

Maybe your extensive product range is getting in the way of client decision making. Too many options have been proven to reduce sales rather than increase them. What about product features—are your products overwhelmed and overflowing? Halve the number of features and focus on creating a small, high quality feature set that out shines that offered by anyone else. Are you making customers jump through hoops to buy from you that, if you’re honest, are just there to make your life easier or exist only as a legacy? View the buying process through the eyes of your customer—get rid of the hoops and make it as easy and frictionless to buy from you as possible. Try out an exercise in reduction: reduce options, reduce features, remove hoops. Risky? Sure. But you’ll soon find out if complexity is making up for quality or if abundance is hiding an uncompetitive offering.

Subtraction can give you more

What you subtract from your business is very much up to you but it’s important to understand that it’s not just the addition game that can result in the magic 2 + 2 = 5. Subtraction can also reward you with 5 is the magic number!

At the end of last year, Debbie took an in depth look at the art of simplicity and the idea that less can be more, both for your customers and your bottom line.  Whilst Debbie’s article focused on simplifying product ranges and services, less can be more in performance improvement and change initiatives too. Assessing what you could take away to achieve results (rather than what you could add) gives you a completely different perspective on problem solving and can help to reduce organisational friction too.

Although removing safety nets can feel dangerous, having the faith to trust your staff and your organisation can have surprising results. It can also give you a great insight into areas that may be functioning adequately but are in reality only propped up by the safety nets that hold them in place. Dare to embrace subtraction, to catalyse change, and to achieve added value in the process.

02
Nov

Browsing Twitter yesterday, I happened across a tweet that intrigued me.
Screen capture of a tweet by @lucgaloppin. The tweet reads, "Simplicity often lies at the other side of complexity (Eric Berlow Video on TED.com) ow.ly/7fw3x"
Following the trail, I found myself at TED watching a video of a short talk given by Eric Berlow. An ecological networks scientist, Eric approaches problems with a network or systems perspective to connect the dots amongst problems, concepts, people, projects and more.

In a highly succinct and lucid talk, Berlow demonstrates that complex doesn’t always equal complicated and shows how visualising vastly complex situations, systems and connections can actually lead to surprisingly simple answers and insights. He even distilles and crystallises an infamous Powerpoint slide that was designed to portray the complexity of American military strategy in Afghanistan and of which General Stanley A. McChrystal is said to have remarked, “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war!”

If you have a spare 3 minutes (the talk really is that short!), I’d really encourage you to watch the video.

For me, the stand out quotes from Berlow were…

The more you step back and embrace complexity, the better chance you have of finding simple answers. And it’s often different than the simple answer you started with.

…Simplicity often lies on the other side of complexity, so for any problem, the more you can zoom out and embrace complexity, the better chance you have of zooming in on the simple details that matter most.

You may be wondering however why I am writing about this on a blog entitled ‘Business Musings’. Well, for me, what Berlow is saying really does apply to business. Matt and I have oftentimes found that the more one steps back and embraces complexity in strategy, marketing, performance improvement and more, the clearer the situation becomes. With complexity also comes an increased likelihood that you will find an answer that delivers the outcomes you are looking for.

Chatting to Matt earlier, he cited the example of sales being a frequent focus of financial objectives and concerns. When targets aren’t being met and a business isn’t growing at the rate you hoped it would be, it’s tempting to assume that you simply need to drive more sales and for your sales people to work harder. Their targets have been set, they must achieve them!

However, this can be a simplistic and naive outlook. In reality, although a failure to reach sales targets could be due to the underperformance of your sales people, there are a whole host of other factors that might be influencing this outcome. It may be that your target market is declining or your market has shifted such that your product or service no longer meets the needs of your audience; a new competitor or a substitute product/service may have appeared in your marketplace making it difficult for you to compete; your marketing may be failing to generate an adequate number of leads or to encourage trust and loyalty to your brand; your branding and positioning may have become outdated or may no longer be relevant to your market; or it could be that your sales targets are in fact inaccurate. And that is just a handful of the factors that could be involved. To paraphrase Berlow’s vocabulary, by focusing only on the sales and finance ‘nodes’ in this situation, you risk missing the fundamental root cause that is in reality your key to success.

In almost all business situations, it’s vital to examine the broader situation, to consider a host of contributing variables, and in the end to hopefully arrive at a clear, accurate and potentially simple solution. Whilst embracing complexity doesn’t necessarily guarantee either success or simplicity, I would personally take complexity over a simple but fatally flawed outlook any day.

10
Feb
Posted by Matt Stocker, stored in: Performance Improvement  Technology & Web  

pile-of-papersChances are, if you are anything like most businesses, you have a lot of paper to deal with in your office and in your job. The fact is, we rely to a large extent on paper: to communicate, to record, to remind, to sell. The promise of a paper free office remains a technological fantasy for many.

However, it is important to recognise the scalability issues of paper as a technology: paper can only be in one place at one time so it doesn’t work well across multiple sites; revision control is tricky; and it can be hard to back up – do you have duplicate copies of everything if worst came to the worst?

Even if we cannot remove paper entirely, there are things we can do to consign it to a supporting role rather than the main deal within a business.

Steps to creating a paperless office

1. Analysing your processes

The first idea to grasp is the fact that paper usually relates to a process or processes within your organisation. Understanding this will provide a solid foundation for beginning to deal with the paper as the processes themselves provide the structural foundation for creating a paperless office. By analysing the papers for clues about the activities the paper itself represents and following this paper through the system, you can outline your processes, giving you an accurate view of ‘now’.

2. Revising your processes

The next step is to revise your processes in order to maximise efficiency. This includes:

  • Eliminating bottle necks and their resulting backlogs
  • Removing unecessary steps within the process(es)
  • Assessing crossover and interdependency of processes within the wider organisation to ensure integration
  • And, overall, designing as lean a process as possible.

Value stream mapping may be a good tool to use at this stage. The people involved in each process within your organisation will also be a vital source of information and feedback as they are the people on the ground who are involved in the processes day-in, day-out.

3. Integrating paper and technology

Having created a coherent set of lean processes, the next challenge is to reduce the use of paper where possible. This can be done by assessing the processes to find out which parts of them can be automated and then developing an IT and technology solution that has your best practice processes inherently embedded into its system. In other words, the IT and technology solution reflects and is built around your processes, rather than the processes being built around the technology.

4. Sustainable continuous improvement

Once you have found a solution that works for your organisation as a whole and that maximises your efficiency and effectiveness, it is important to maintain the momentum of improvement. Ongoing assessment and revision will ensure that as your organisation grows and develops your processes continue to support the delivery of your organisation’s objectives. New technology is also continually emerging that may provide a solution to paper based systems where a solution did not previously exist. Staying abreast of these developments allows you to continually improve organisational performance and efficiency.

5. Reducing risk

Although it is not always possible to eliminate the use of paper completely, you should not be relying on paper for mission critical functions. However, neither should you be relying on technology without a business continuity plan in place. Whatever system and solution you are using, you should always make sure that fail-safes and redundancies are built into the process(es).

If you would like any advice or support in creating a paperless office for your organisation, please contact me or call me on 02476 100 193 – I would love to help!

01
Feb

I went to the Barclays ‘Let’s Talk More Profit’ seminar in the latter half of last year and have been meaning to post this blog for a while. Robert Craven, author and consultant, spent half a day talking to around 200-300 companies about how to increase their profits. I found it really useful and practical, so thought I’d share the key message.

There are only 5 ways you can increase your profits…
and not all of them are created equal!

Here are the only 5 ways you can increase your profits:

  1. Raise your prices
  2. Lower your direct costs
  3. Fix the underperformers
  4. Increase volume
  5. Lower your overheads

And the winner is…

We looked at each of the five methods of increasing profit, and looked at how effective they each were. In reality, increasing your prices is by far the most effective way of increasing your profits.

Let me give you an example:

If you sell a widget at £100, with a cost of sale of £70, this creates £30 gross profit
However, if you reduce the price by just 10%, and sell it at £90, with the same cost of sale of £70, this only creates £20 gross profit.

Therefore, you would have to sell 50% MORE widgets just to make the same amount of profit you had been previously.

So, raising prices has the opposite effect. Sell at £110, less cost of sale £70 = £40 gross profit. A 33% increase in gross profit.

The counter argument is that, based on the supply and demand curve, you would expect to sell fewer widgets if you are charging a higher price, therefore making less money. The bit about selling fewer is true; the bit about less money depends on the demand curve. There is more profitable flex in this than you might imagine.

Say you sold 100 widgets at £100 making a total gross profit of £3000 (£30 profit on each widget x 100), then increased your prices to £110. You would now only need to sell 75 widgets to make the same profit (£40 profit on each widget x 75 =£3000), resulting in less work (and therefore overheads) for the same amount of money.

In addition, it is likely that your ‘worst’ customers are also the most price sensitive and will take up the majority of your time.

So, let me put it this way…

If you would like to work less, earn the same, and get rid of your least favourite customers… consider putting your prices up!

You can then spend the time you have saved looking for new, higher paying customers. When you have found these new customers and returned to selling 100 widgets, you will now be making £4000 profit instead (an extra £1000).

The only proviso is to be aware of demand sensitivity: if your business’ particular demand curve is very price sensitive (for example, if you were raise to prices by 10%, you would lose over 25% of your customers) you will then end up making less money, not more. That said, this sensitivity may be counteracted by upgrading your branding, customer service, or product/service differentiators to justify the price increase and thereby retain more existing customers. Raising your prices might mean raising your game, but then when has that ever been a bad thing?!

And finally, what about the other 4…?

The other 4 listed above are also very valid. Robert Craven suggests you work down in order, from 1 to 5. Implement each element and then move onto the next. By working in order, you ensure that you start with those that will have the most impact on your business’ profitability.

So, why not consider giving it a go!