Business musings

Articles and thoughts about planning

Posted by Debbie Stocker, stored in: Innovation  Our News  

Earlier in the year, we ran an innovation masterclass at the Coventry Growth Hub for the Coventry and Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce. It was great to see everyone getting their heads around innovation and what it means for their business. The event has been featured in C&W in Business and we thought you’d like to see the article.

Participants explore how to become more innovative during the Chamber’s January Masterclass run by strategic innovation consultancy Stocker Partnership

It’s looking like 2015 will be the year of innovation…

For the 30 businesses that attended the Chamber’s Innovation Masterclass run by Stocker Partnership, it’s looking like 2015 will be the year of innovation.

The well-attended event was relocated to the conferencing facilities at Cheylesmore House due to high demand from business professionals wanting to learn how to apply innovation in their businesses.

Innovation specialists Matt and Debbie Stocker from strategic innovation consultancy Stocker Partnership challenged participants to think differently about their businesses and to step beyond their everyday experiences.

They opened the group’s eyes to the fact that it is possible to innovate anything and everything within a business, rather than innovation being limited to the creation of new products alone.

Sarah Hickman from Public Marketing Communications said, “Innovation can seem like a daunting subject that doesn’t necessarily apply to your business on a day to day basis. When you think about innovation you tend to think of organisations like Apple. You might think, ‘I could never aspire to be an organisation like that.’

“The Masterclass has been useful because we’ve learnt ways that you can actually apply innovation to your business. Even if you’re a small business or a sole trader, you can still innovate and there are practical steps you can take to introduce innovation.”

The Masterclass covered a number of powerful innovation tools, from disruptive thinking that challenges accepted norms in your marketplace or company, to using the power of silent crowdsourcing to generate ideas and solve problems through BrainSwarming.

It also looked at how approaches from another industry can be introduced to expand thinking and unlock new ideas as the latest Software as a Service revenue models were applied to create new income streams. Participants worked hard throughout the morning to develop practical ideas that they could implement as soon as they got back to the office.

Matt Stocker, Director of Stocker Partnership, shared, “It was great to see everyone beginning to view themselves as innovators and starting to understand the value of innovation in their businesses at a deeper level. Innovation is a hugely powerful tool that can be used to drive revenue growth, reduce costs, solve complex challenges and differentiate businesses from the competition. I’m excited to see how the great ideas that everyone came up with will be applied in their respective businesses over the coming year and the impact that this will have.”

This article originally appeared in the May/June edition of C&W In Business, Coventry & Warwickshire Chamber’s official magazine.


Officially opened in April 2000, Crocus is an online garden centre offering over 4,000 different plant varieties – the biggest choice of plants in the UK. Loved by both top garden designers and amateurs alike and a regular at the Chelsea Flower Show, Crocus has an enviable reputation and has won many awards, not only for its gardens and plants but also for best practice in business.

Whilst Crocus normally only retails online or through its wholesale outlet, it opens its doors to the public on four special days throughout the year. The first of these days for 2011 was held Saturday just gone (16 April) so I headed off to Windlesham for a girls’ day out.

Crocus Open Day

I had planned to track down some bargain plants and to have a day discovering what goes on behind the scenes but I also found myself being wowed by best practice in business and amazed by just how much we can learn from the logistics involved in growing and selling plants!

Much of what I gleaned was by and large thanks to a tour given by Mark Fane (one of the founders of Crocus) and Mark Straver (a top plantsman and member of the wholesale team).

Learning from plants

Aka process driven excellence

The organic nature of growing and selling plants creates a business model that is inherently dependent upon planning and logistics to an extent that is somewhat unusual within other business contexts. A plant is not a product that can be quickly manufactured and plucked from a shelf in a warehouse. Rather, it is a growing entity that literally has a life of its own, subject to nature and innumerable other factors.

To produce prize winning plants for Chelsea, the growing process must ideally begin almost a year in advance. Throughout the year, plants are juggled between the outdoors and 10 polytunnels each with slightly different climactic conditions (or even sent abroad to Spain as in the case of the 2010 Telegraph Garden) to maintain, speed up or slow down their growth as necessary, ensuring that they are in peak condition for the all important show dates. For the online store and wholesale, stocks must be carefully managed, rare and unusual plant requests sourced from around the world, buying trends predicted in advance and much, much more. To thrive and succeed in this industry, excellence in planning and logistics are an absolute must.

The challenges of Chelsea

Aka innovation and project management

The Chelsea Flower Show itself intensifies this need for excellence and Crocus’ results speak for themselves: in the last 9 years, they have won 3 Best in Shows and 11 gold medals for gardens that they have built and grown plants for.

Project management is vital and Crocus are now in talks with the Telegraph to begin planning their 2012/2013 gardens. In the 20 days running up to the opening of the Chelsea Flower Show, an entire garden (including hard landscaping and fully grown trees) must be built and planted from scratch.

Year on year Crocus perfect and hone their project management skills and develop innovative ways to manage the logistics involved. In April of this year, work began at the Crocus nursery to build the dry stone walls for the Telegraph Garden, ensuring that the sections can simply be transported to Chelsea and pieced together, potentially saving huge amounts of time on building the walls from scratch. Luciano Giubbilei (this year’s Laurent-Perrier garden designer) also visited Crocus to position the trees for his garden in advance, ensuring that they can simply be planted in their desired location at Chelsea and valuable time is not wasted. And this is just the tip of the project management and planning iceberg!

In an article published by the Telegraph, April 2009, Mark Fane described himself as “the control freaks’ control freak” and the author observed that “Those who don’t have Fane’s quasi-military discipline are often seen planting frantically the night before”. It is precisely such planning and discipline that wins awards!

Subject to the elements

Aka disaster contingency planning

Another factor that is intensified and brought into sharp focus by the organic nature of plants is the need for disaster contingency planning. To ensure that Crocus can supply exactly the right quantity of plants in peak condition for the dates of the Chelsea Flower Show, they are currently growing around 8,000-10,000 plants for this year’s show (for a garden requiring 30 specimens of a particular plant, Crocus will grow 100). Any plants not used in the show can be sold to consumers once they are ready.

Crocus also carefully monitor their polytunnels for signs of pests or disease – perils that become more of a problem in a warmer environment. Fans are used to ensure air circulation and at the first signs of any potential problems, action is taken. Any large scale problems of this kind that had not been nipped in the bud early (excuse the pun!) could be disastrous.

For a business that is dependent upon its living, growing products, the discipline of anticipating potential problems and ensuring that contingency plans are either already in place or can be quickly actioned is another absolute must.

Winning awards

Aka end-to-end excellence

And finally, as evidenced by Crocus’ award-winning Chelsea pedigree, Crocus are in the business of creating and delivering excellence. However, their attention to detail doesn’t just start and end with either plants or gardens; rather, it extends throughout their business.

Not long after they started out, Crocus won the Best Commerce Site Award in 2001, beating the likes of In the same year, they won the small business category of the Sunday Telegraph’s @chievement Award, alongside other category winners such as and And more recently, they have also collected a design award for their custom-designed packaging.

Crocus deliver excellence in customer service throughout their shopping experience and are rightly proud of the fact that their return rate is currently under 1%. Whilst their success and reputation are enviable, once you begin to look behind the scenes these results are also understandable. Excellence in business really does make a difference and we could all learn a great deal from the lessons Crocus has to teach us.

To keep in touch with Crocus’ journey to Chelsea, check out their Chelsea Flower Show blog

Update 25 May 2011

More excellent results for Crocus as they are the proud winners of not only two Gold Medals at Chelsea (one each for their two gardens) but also Best in Show!

Photographs of Crocus' Daily Telegraph garden and Laurent-Perrier garden at Chelsea Flower Show 2011

Posted by Matt Stocker, stored in: Performance Improvement  

One of the key challenges in business improvement is “holding the gain”.

Holding the gain means ensuring that, once improvements to your business have been implemented, the area you have been working on stays improved. Continually.

Without a focus on holding the gain, you run the risk that when you move onto the next development project, all your hard won gains from the last are lost. As your focus moves elsewhere in the business, there is a danger that you leave the previous improvements to slowly deteriorate.

So how can you make sure you don’t lose your hard won gain? Shewhart/Deming’s PDCA Cycle is a good place to start…

  • Plan. Work out your improvement plan before you start implementing it so you know exactly what you’ve agreed, how you are going to measure it and what you are expecting to be the result.
  • Do. If you don’t actually carry out the improvement, you won’t find out if it works! “If objectives are only good intentions they are worthless. They must degenerate into work.” (Drucker, 2007, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, p.101)
  • Check. If you don’t check your target measures (e.g. volume of sales) before implementing the improvement and after it has been implemented, you’ll only be guessing as to whether the improvement worked. Checking these measures allows you to find out if the improvement is achieving the results you expected. A note of caution however – make sure you allow enough time for the improvement to bed-in before you jump to conclusions about the results.  Some measures may take several months to achieve the intended results; checking them in the first week may lead you to believe the improvement has not worked, whereas really it just needed time to get up to speed. Over time, you will then need to keep checking these results at regular intervals: this allows you to compare performance to the results you got first time around and to your expected results over time, thereby assessing whether the improvement is still performing at the expected level or whether it has lost its gain over time.
  • Act. Having planned, done and checked, you now need to act. If the improvement has had the desired results, you need to act to hold your gain, or if it hasn’t performed as expected, you may need to start again by re-planning. It can be tempting to quickly move onto the next area of improvement without actually putting in measures to ensure you hold your gain. Measures to hold your gain may include (for example): revising processes; (re)writing policy; implementing ongoing staff training processes, and so on. And, at this stage, don’t forget to schedule the next time you’re going to check your results again to ensure you’ve held the gain over the long term.

Once you’ve done all of the above, you may proceed to plan your next improvement!


There has been a lot of talk recently about businesses having to fight to survive, but is this really the right approach in this current economic climate? Is it ever the right approach whatever the economic climate?

Fighting to survive

Often ‘fighting to survive’ is understood as working in the same way as usual, only harder. Working harder, selling more, but without fundamental change to the way in which this is done. And, in the current economic climate, whilst trying to do all this on a cost-cutting budget.

Sadly for many businesses this doesn’t work and the approach actually damages the business rather than helping it. Fighting to survive, without change, releases very little, if any, untapped potential within the business.

The Darwinian Approach explains why this is the case.

The weakest businesses in a marketplace struggle to survive
Even without a changing environment, we still see natural selection in action: the weakest businesses die or are killed by predators/competitors.

An unchanging business in a changing environment dies
Businesses operate in an always changing environment. Most of the time businesses can get away with slow evolution, or in a strong market, not evolving at all. However, when a market changes rapidly it often isn’t enough to do that. Nor is it enough to just fight by doing the same things as the business has always done.

How can we use the Darwinian approach to create a new strategy for survival?

  1. Survival of the fittest: building a strong business. A business is the sum of its parts: its people; its processes; its product/services; its culture; its financial position; its marketing; its customers etc.. The business needs to be strong to survive. Some are already strong; but all can be stronger.
  2. Design your business for evolution and change. A strong business is always growing, always developing and always moving forwards – in every area. If a business isn’t doing this, it’s going backwards. This is often about the culture of the corporation, and about the leadership who drives the movement. There does need to be someone in the centre who has the authority and ability to sponsor change – without that there is no permission for the organisation to change. It is about designing and building an organisation with the cabability to change. If this isn’t happening already, change is possible: it won’t be an easy journey but it is vital for survival.
  3. Understand the changing environment. Awareness of what is going on around you and enough distance and awareness to make intelligent decisions about how it will effect your business is critical. It requires looking ahead and around, then taking space to think, consider and understand. Only then can you respond.
  4. Respond: strategy and implementation. Strategy can be developed only from taking a holistic view internally and externally and deciding on a waypoint (it’s not a destination as you never actually stop journeying). Implementation comes from understanding the implications of that strategy and planning your journey, being ready to react and revise along the way. Without effective implementation there is no movement or change.

In the present economic climate, as markets change in unprecedented ways, adaptation of businesses to the environment is vital. Without adaptation, re-positioning, understanding the changing environment and reacting accordingly, businesses will struggle to survive. Business evolution is paramount.


As businesses are starting to report a slowdown in sales and a weakening in their financial position, there has been a lot in the news about a serious recession pending for the UK, especially after the report from the British Chambers of Commerce.

So, how should you respond? Do you know how you can make your business stronger and more competitive and therefore better able to deal with a recession? Markets shrink in a recession so where there were lots of people wanting and willing/able to pay for your product or service before, there are now less people able to purchase what you have to offer. That means you are going to have to change your strategy to win the remaining customers and fight off your competitors.

Here are 5 steps to prepare your business for a recession…

  1. Plan for the future
    Don’t just meander along hoping for the best – plan! Your business will work best if you know where you are trying to go and what you are trying to achieve in the next 3-5 years. It doesn’t have to be a long, detailed or ‘impressive’ strategy, but it does require thought!
  2. Draw up an action plan on how to get there
    You will need decide on short, medium and long term actions out of the strategy you drew up. These are specific actionable things that you can start working on, starting immediately. There will be both big things that you can do to improve (break these down into manageable parts) and also lots of little things. Don’t forget to prioritise.
  3. Forecast your money
    Prepare a 3-year financial forecast or get someone to do it for you (like your accountant). Add in your costs and expected benefits from the action plan above. Even with a positive economy businesses often over-estimate sales, so be careful. Try cutting your revenue in half and see what it looks like; how would respond if that actually happened? Try cutting it in half again. Keep updating it monthly so you can see where you are against your plan. This will give you early warning of when you might run into problems. If things get really tight, then move from a monthly cashflow forecast to a weekly one, and watch your money like a hawk. When you see a problem do something about it in advance – don’t just wait for it to hit you!
  4. Spend time working on your business not in it
    In order to implement your plan you will need to starting working on your business. It’s the difference between say, restoring and renovating a house and just cleaning it. It can be hard work and uncomfortable knocking walls out, getting a plasterer in etc. but you end up with a much better house at the end of it. Don’t fall into the trap of just doing continual maintenance work when  actually there is significant change that needs to happen. Don’t get me wrong, maintenance is important but it won’t significantly push your business forward. Your business needs to be the best it can be in every area. If you don’t have time to do this, then you either need to make time or find someone to work with you to implement the action plan.
  5. Don’t stop marketing, just do it better
    As things start looking tight many companies start to reduce their marketing budgets. Proceed with caution on this one. You should do a separate 12-month marketing plan that links into both your strategy and your general business action plan. You might not know how effective your current marketing actually is; measuring its effectiveness can be hard but certainly not impossible. Marketing shouldn’t just be seen as a cost – it should bring in more business in monetary terms over the year than you spend on it. It is worth noting there are no silver bullets when it comes to marketing; it is about a consistent, focused approach in line with your branding and strategy (hence the plan!). By all means, put your marketing effort under the microscope and work to make it more effective, but don’t just cut it to cut costs; there is a real danger that you’ll end up cutting yourself off from your life blood – your customers!

Though it would seem that there are difficult times ahead, don’t panic and don’t give up. Times like these can actually be a real opportunity. Whilst you might worry about what is just around the corner, the fact that you are looking at what you can do about it now puts you in a much stronger position than most. This could be your opportunity to build a stronger, more resilient organisation and to outshine and outperform your competitors.