Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

6 Keys to Effective Strategic Planning

mini-peepsI am currently preparing to facilitate three strategic planning meetings, for an association, a technology company and a Fortune 100 client. Here are a few things that I see as foundational for creating an effective strategic plan.

  1. The key to a successful strategic plan is: FOCUS. Every company, regardless of size, has limited resources and strategy is all about effectively deploying an organization’s resources where they will have the most positive impact in the marketplace.
  2. To mirror my first point, one of the most important things a great strategic thinker does is figure out what to say “NO” to. What markets will we not compete in? What products or services should we not try to sell? What current projects should we abandon?
  3. If you have 10 strategic objectives, you do not have a strategy. All of the successful companies I’ve worked with were able to focus in on 3 to 5 major strategic initiatives. Anything more than that causes a lack of focus and ultimately a lack of success.
  4. When examining business issues, are you trying to solve a puzzle or a mystery? With enough data and information, you can find the right answer to a puzzle, but no matter how hard you try it is impossible to find the exact right solution for mystery. Because of this, as much as I hate to admit it, a large part of strategy is simply an educated guess about what might happen in the future.
  5. Alignment is critical. If the senior team is not 100% committed to strategic direction of the organization, the plan will fail.
  6. It’s an age-old business cliché, because it is correct: What gets measured gets done. A major reason that many strategies are not effectively executed is because there is no way to determine exactly what the expectations are. Ambiguity Breeds Mediocrity.

Those are just a few of the key ideas I try to help my clients keep in mind as we move through a strategic planning retreat. I will also add one more critical point; to make sure you follow through and implement your plan, you should spend just as much time on strategic execution planning as you do on planning the strategy. This is a very important idea that few companies truly embrace.

What are your thoughts?

Loose-Tight Controls for Business Success

37827-watches_teaserI recently presented several workshops for client company with an absolutely brilliant CEO, among the best I’ve ever met. He was a new to the organization and had been brought in to turn around the company, which was facing very severe financial troubles. This was very bureaucratic organization whose main customer was the government. They were slow to make decisions, reluctant to take any risks, complacent in their attempt to grow their business and keep margins strong, which landed them to more than billion dollars in debt. The CEO gave an impassioned speech about the need to be more entrepreneurial, while still having a culture of disciplined execution around the core strategies. He described it, much like Tom Peters did in his wonderful book In Search of Excellence, saying that the company needed to have “loose-tight controls.” They need to have elements of loose  control around entrepreneurship, innovation and prudent risk-taking, while maintaining areas tight of control around their values, strategy, alignment and accountability for positive business results. He told them that in order to be successful they would have to balance a strong entrepreneurial ethic while still embracing a focused culture of discipline – and summarized his idea in the graph below.

So, where does your company sit in this matrix?

Best Managed Companies graphic

Four Things That Kill Companies

business conceptI am doing a strategic planning retreat for a multi-billion dollar company tomorrow and another similar retreat next week. In 2015 I facilitated perhaps a dozen such meetings and here are four key things that I have seen companies struggle with time and time again as they looked at their current performance and began planning for their future success.

Lack of Focus: This has got to be one of the major issues that many businesses have a hard time with, trying to do too many projects, working in too many markets and trying to serve too many different types of customers with too many different types of products. Here is a phrase I just learned that sums up my thinking on this issue, “Simplicity Now – Fancy Later.” Heck, I wrote a book on this topic so it’s pretty clear I believe it is hugely important to keep the focus of your business Awesomely Simple. Another way to put this powerfully is:

Deciding what NOT to do is just as important in a strategy as figuring out what to do.

Lack of Execution: This is a problem I have been tracking for the last 15 years, and in the last five years it has become the leading issue in almost every company I work with. There is no shortage of cool, innovative, bold strategies, but there is a massive shortage of organizations that can take those strategies and execute them with discipline.

Lack of Agility: Let’s face it, the marketplace has never moved faster and it is not going to slow down anytime soon. When I began leading strategic planning retreats more than 20 years ago it was not uncommon for us to work on a 10 year planning horizon, today I rarely work with a business that looks out more than three years. Wildly volatile economics, changing customer expectations, nontraditional competitors, global competition and the incredible velocity of technological change are just a few of the factors that demand companies be agile, nimble and highly innovative – just to stay in business.

Another factor around agility is the failure to make decisions quickly. Too much hierarchy, aversion to risk, resistance to change and the need to get consensus on every major (and sometimes minor) decision is an all too common obstacle for many organizations.

Lack of Talent: It is one of the key themes in all my work, “The future success of your business is directly proportional to the quality of the people that you can get, grow and keep on your team.” However, I run into far too few companies that take this idea seriously and actually look at talent acquisition, talent development and talent retention as a strategic objective. Although it is essential to have a deep bench of talent in order to run a sustainably successful business, I have had too many clients tell me something like, “We are being held hostage by our worst employees, they know that we don’t have anybody to replace them with, so they feel secure that no matter how poor their performances is they won’t get fired.” It almost makes me cry.

So in working with dozens of companies all over the world those are the four major issues I see companies grappling with when attempting to create a thoughtful strategy that has a high potential for success. My advice to you? Make sure that you have a strategic plan that addresses these issues and makes them a strength in your business that creates opportunities not a weakness that exposes you to competitive threats.

I Am Never Right

Business IdeaWhen I first got into the training and consulting business I really believed that it was critical that I demonstrate an exceedingly high level of competence and a strong confidence in my ideas. Often times when a client felt that I was wrong, I would argue with them and defend my position with vigor in an attempt to prove that I was right and they were wrong. Then one day I had an epiphany…

I was not right.
Actually, I am never right.

The truth is there are often multiple right answers. My ideas are based purely on my opinion and every person in my classes has a right to their opinion too. Each of them has a unique background, with unique experiences and they have seen, read and learned all kinds of things I have never been exposed to. No matter what my answer is to a question, it is extremely rare that my answer is the only right answer.

As soon as I realized that, everything became easy.

I no longer had to defend, argue, persuade or attempt to prove that I was right – because I knew I wasn’t. Sure, I’ve had a lot of business experience, read thousands of books, worked in hundreds of different companies all over the world – but still, at the end of the day, I’m just giving a thoughtful guess as to what I think the answer might be. I could be completely wrong, I have been several times in the past, and I will be several times in the future. However, there’s also a very good chance that I will be right, or at least my idea will work well, perhaps as well or better than other people’s ideas.

Adopting this position allows me to be fearless, because it is impossible for me to fail.

I offer my opinion, I give some feedback, I suggest the very best ideas I can possibly think of, and then is up to the other person if they want to accept my idea or reject it. It’s just an idea. If they hate it, that does not matter at all, they are perfectly welcome to think that my idea is terrible. But here’s the most important point: that doesn’t mean I’m terrible or stupid or incompetent, it just means they didn’t like my idea. Big deal.

Luckily, the people that hire me are typically inclined to be interested in my ideas and most often think they are pretty good and even sometimes excellent. Again, that’s nice, but it doesn’t crush my soul if someone feels I’m completely off-base and have no idea what I’m talking about.

It’s just an idea…big deal.

I look forward to your thoughts – do you think I’m right?

20 Questions To Make Better Business Decisions

8D9xPlllM2WzeTfM4McZ-Tl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBU8NzMXDbey6A_oozMjJETcYears ago I attended a class on Precision Questioning and Precision Answering, it was a tough class but I learned a lot. One of the most important things I learned, which I had experienced many times in the business world, is that very few people use a process in order to make important decisions, they just go with general ideas and a gut feel. Again, from years of experience, I have watched many senior executives make huge decisions, multi-million-dollar decisions, not using any kind of a formal process for organizing their thinking. Here is a list of 20 questions I use when helping organizations to make important business decisions.

  1. What is the real timeframe for this decision?
  2. Who needs to be involved in making this decision?
  3. Who does not need to be involved in making this decision?
  4. Can this decision be overridden by a person higher in the organization?
  5. If so, why are they not making this decision?
  6. Do we have the data necessary to support making a good decision?
  7. How do we know that the data is reliable and up-to-date?
  8. Do we have the financial numbers necessary to make this decision?
  9. If so, how do we know that they are accurate and up-to-date?
  10. Who else in the organization will be impacted by this decision?
  11. Do they need to be involved in making this decision?
  12. How, specifically, will we implement this decision?
  13. What metrics will we use to track success or failure?
  14. Who, specifically, will be responsible for the implementation of this decision?
  15. What is the real timeline for the overall implementation of this decision?
  16. What do we expect, specifically, as a successful outcome from this decision?
  17. Is there anything we would have to stop doing or change in order to implement this decision?
  18. Will this decision have a major impact on our brand in the marketplace?
  19. Well this decision have a major impact on our customers?
  20. What are the ramifications if this decision is wrong or poorly implemented?

If you have to make a major decision in your organization I strongly encourage you to use this list of questions in order to ensure that you are making a good decision. I can’t guarantee that the decision will work out perfectly, but I can almost surely guarantee that if you don’t go over this list and at least entertain several of the key questions, there will be a good chance that the decision will fail.

Are there any questions that I missed?