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Thursday
Feb272014

Strategy Execution Life Cycle 

Sometimes it takes seeing strategy execution in a different way to help get the most out of it. This infographic is an awesome resource to quickly reference to see if your execution is on point. It covers 6 steps over the course of 3 months that you can repeat, adapt and modify over time. Saying you have a strategy is great but actually doing something about/with it is an entirely different story. The beauty of a tool like this is that you can keep the cycles going at any stage of your business and for any projects you are trying to tackle. As with anything though this type of strategy process only works when you are using good information and are being honest about what is really happening - not just what you think is happening or worse, what you wish was happening. 

I think the strategy flywheel is an awesome pair to Success After The Start Up too :) 

The Execution Flywheel
Explore more infographics like this one on the web's largest information design community - Visually.

Monday
Feb242014

How To Get Good Information For Strategy

Where do you get your weather forecasts from? Hopefully a pretty trustworthy source. Has to be right? How else are you going to decide what to wear? What about the information you use to make all your other decisions everyday? Where does that information come from? Just going out on a limb but I’m guessing it’s a combination of experience, intuition, education, and any kind of just-in-time learning you employed to help you make that decision in the moment.

Making good decisions (there's a whole chapter on the decision making process in After the Honeymoon: Success After the Start Up) are hard. Most of the time you probably do pretty well but when the choices and plans get really tough - people (you and even me) make mistakes. The degree of those mistakes vary a ton but at the core lies the information you gathered before you had to make that tough choice.

The same kind of weight and importance should go into the choices you make when you are creating a strategic plan. It BOGGLES my mind that business owners, young and old, create “strategic” plans but have done ZERO research or critical thinking. They are just following some antiquated formula for what they think success is. Seriously, boggled.  

Here’s a crash course on the places you should start looking for information when you are getting your next strategy together.

1. You can study your market for free! Sites like the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov) and the US Census provide oodles and oodles of great information. It can be a little intimidating because there is a lot of information for you to rifle through but if you take the time and really drill down to figure out who your audience is - you can learn all kinds of stuff about them on a hyper local level.

2. After your market comes your industry. You can learn all kinds of information about your industry without a $2000 annual IBIS subscription. (If you have one though it makes it easier because they do all the work for you.) Again, time to start with the Government - USA.gov. They keep track of all kinds of neat business trends and information. After that turn to your local Federal Reserve Bank. Depending on what industry you’re in you can find some very detailed information revolving around spending and growth trends. Lastly hit your search bar of choice and go hunting through academic resources. Colleges and universities are always releasing free information that pertains to trends in various industries and because it’s coming from very well researched sources.

3. Lastly it’s time to pick your head up and look around. Yup, do a little Prairie Dog’ing. Go find your best competitors and scour their web properties for information. You want to not only document their behavior over time but you want to try to get a handle on why they chose the behaviors they did. A big part of strategy is making decisions and then watching your competitors react - it’s a competitive advantage seeking ebb and flow. Looking at your competitors will also help you find some insight on where the latest trends and answers to customer expectations are going. Remember your competitors are vying for scarce customer dollars too!

Sounds like common sense but you would be surprised at how quickly would-be strategists shy away from the work because it’s a little data intensive. If you don’t have a handle on what’s going on in your business, to your business, and around your business how can you expect to make good any kind of good inference. Resources are scarce for most businesses, unless you are Facebook apparently and are acquiring WhatsApp for $16 billion. So if you aren’t facebook your strategy needs to be full of good decisions coming from good foundational informations.

Happy researching!!

 

Monday
Feb172014

Execute Like A CEO

Strategy isn’t just conversations in corner offices. It’s not memos circulated through the office. It’s not just your vision and mission. It’s execution. Execution is how hard-working people push their businesses forward everyday. It sounds pretty simple, and almost like it’s a little more common sense then it is worthy of being a full out blog post. You’d be wrong if you thought like this though. In this post I have listed 5 tips to help you get passed your anxiety, biases, and the hurdles that try to slow down our execution and create a “need” to go back and tinker with the strategy. If you're looking for a litte more help you should definitely check out After the Honeymoon: Success After the Start Up

1. Keep it simple. Goals, mission statements and corporate visions do best when they are succinct. Especially goals. You need to be able to clearly decide what your business is and what it isn’t and keep planning from there. When you are taking your overall strategy and trying to create processes and systems to accomplish your goals it’s best to make them as simple as possible. Remember you have to collect this information too so simple goals with simple outcomes will help you make the most out of the data you collect. It will also help you measure how successful you are in reaching your goals if they are direct and actionable. There’s no limit to how many goals you can have - just make sure you create them in a way that moves your business forward a bit every time you work towards them.

2. Continuously monitor your performance. This is work - I am not going to hide this fact. You worked to break your goals out so that they could be worked towards and measured. Don’t forget to do the measuring! Don’t let the fear of not achieving a goal disway you from even trying. If something isn’t working you’ll be able to see why and what happened when you are monitoring your performance. This goes for the rest of the business too - not just your operations plan. Your strategy might not change all that often but you you approach it, the processes and systems you use,and assumptions you made have the potential to change all the time. Make sure you are watching how your business is working in your market so that you can piot and adapt as your customers do around you.

3. Identify your priorities. Everything can not be a priority. Nothing is on fire and needs to be instantly addressed - unless something is literally on fire then you should totally stop reading and go take care of that. But make sure to comeback. You need to objectively look at your business and decide what needs to be a priority, when it needs to be addressed and by whom. (Even if you’re the only “whom”) It’s important that you make your biggest strategic goals and priorities visible so that everyone involved, even your stakeholders, understand they how’s and why’s of your business operations.

4. Get good at executing. The best strategies in the world are only as good as the team executing it. If you are a team of 1 that means you have to up your gain. It’s been quoted by professors at Harvard that the average utilization rate of a business's strategy it about 60%. It’s only 60% because it’s either the wrong mix of team members or the people responsible for execution haven’t honed their “action-taking” potential yet. If you have a small team or it’s just you at the kitchen table you have to put the time and effort into being a better do’er. The better you up your execution ability the more success you will see from your strategy. Don’t get stuck just being a day dreamer and well-wisher.

5. Skip the Minimum Viable Product and start asking, “How Fast”. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some MVP but it’s getting old. The concept is great but entrepreneurs and young businesses are spending too much time sprinting through a first draft that they lose sight of all the other parts of the business. You need to be asking yourself the “How Fast?” question instead. Think about your strategy in the next few weeks and honestly answer your “How Fasts?”

- How Fast: Can you get your sales pipeline going?

- How Fast: Can you organize your supply chain?

- How Fast: Might competitors respond?

- How Fast: Can I get a professional website up?

- How Fast: Can I start to develop a sense of community around my brand?

Your business will have it’s own unique “How Fasts?” and when you can lay them out in front of you it gets easier to plan. Set up times to ask yourself your “How Fasts?” periodically to work on the businesses efficiencies and relevance to your rivals in the market. It will also better help you manage your resources and help to keep you running lean. No one likes to pay a premium for anything when it could be avoided by a little honest foresight.

This is how CEO’s execute and execute successfully. It takes practice, I like to think that I’m still working on a few of these. When you use these 5 tips you will hopefully regain any perspective on your business you may have misplaced as entrepreneurs are notorious for keeping their heads down and just working until we think the job is done. The trick with strategy is to realize the job is never done.

Thursday
Feb132014

Strategy Secrets Consultants Don't Want To Share (For Free)

Strategy is great to talk about and looks even better on paper. How do you make sure you give that strategy and your business the best chance at success? It’s in the execution. I have a few strategy secrets that I want to share with you. They’re the kind of secrets that “consultants” don’t want to share because it’s what they use in their “coaching”. Yes, egregious use of “” but I’m not mad about it and it’s going to happen a lot in this post.

I’m putting all the untrained and inexperienced “business consultants” who charge for strategic planning on blast right now. Strategy is not something that should be locked in the safe at the end of the day and it’s not information that should be kept behind long contract obligations and expensive retainers. --> Side Rant: Working with a strategy professional is great because they can potentially bring in new perspective, insight, and infrastructure when helping you build a strategic plan. They are the ones that help make complex concepts simple and actionable for you and wherever your business is at the time.

Rant over.

Let’s get some secrets going. The first thing that you can do to give your strategy a fighting chance is be extremely clear on who gets to make decisions. Not only the who but, what kind of decisions they get to make and why their input is critical. You are literally describing and clarifying the rights that decision maker has. You want to call them “rights” because it will help bring the expectations to a crystal clear level and you will avoid problems around who owns that decision. Let’s get into some of the why’s in terms of this being important:

- Help people that you rely on understand how their day to day decions affect your businesses bottom line. Feel free to get brutally honest and transparent about the real costs.

- Helps increase the way information moves through your business. This is super important even if you are a solopreneur.

- Helps with delegation of tasks, resources, and responsibilities. Again even if you are a small business, (even a one person shop) deciding where to spend your time is critical. To decide well you have to clearly define what kind of decisions get made in the business, when they happen, and how you follow up on those decisions.

The next and final ingredient in the secret strategy sauce that “consultants” will charge you for is helping you understand how information flows through your business. You might not think that’s important but in order to help push your business forward having quality information that’s reliable is crucial - winging it doesn’t make businesses go. (Well go for very long any way.) First is making sure you are collecting the right kind of data. Decide what matters and track those things. You would not believe how many times I witnessed businesses just throwing away their end of day sales numbers. If you are a retailer or a service provider how can you make good decisions is you don’t have an accurate picture of one of the most important pieces of information your business collects. Here’s what you need to think about in terms of information flow:

- Look at your organizational structure. Is how you run your business day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month providing you with good operational data when you make your decisions? If not time to reorganize.

- Are your incentives aligned properly. Even when you are a business of one, if your incentives don’t match your workflow or needs it’s easy to get lazy. Lazy leads to bad information and bad information leads to bad decisions.

- Get cross-functional. Are you looking at your business from a holistic enough lens. That might sound “fluffy” but when you are trying to make decisions that will make your supply chain more efficient it’s important to measure that against the entirety of your business. Do you use all the information your business collects to make decisions?

-It’s easy to just keep your head down and keep working. Are you picking your head up enough so that you can look around and make sure the information you are collecting and using is relevant?

Those are the biggest things to consider when you are trying to keep your strategy successful. Consistency is important but you would hope when everyone involved in your business (or just you) is using good information to make decisions that they own then consistency won’t be an issue. All the other parts of the strategic planning process can be worked on over time. Keeping your competitive advantage, finding the cheapest suppliers, and making sure your margins are not pricing you out of the market can be tweaked in the very short-term. Setting the stage for good information flow and better decisions are changes in behavior take a little more time, effort, and follow through. So go decide some stuff and make your business a strategy executing machine!

Wednesday
Feb122014

Find Your Competitive Advantage In Less Than 5 Minutes

At least I hope it takes less than 5 minutes to read this post. If not I am doing somthing wrong! 

Have you ever experienced the phenomenon of purchasing a new car and then seeing your make and model all over the road? Maybe not a car but how about a phone, kitchen washer, new puppy? I’m having that very same experience here with this topic - as soon as I changed gears to talk about the things that I am passionate about, strategy related, I’ve started seeing everyone talking about it. What I want to cover today is something that I have been seeing all over the place - competitive advantage.

Competitive advantage is what you do that makes you a little bit special, a little bit more efficient, and ultimately a little bit more profitable. What I keep hearing all over the place is that businesses need to get clear about their differentiation or to define their unique value/selling proposition. That’s good, but fluffy. Real strategy doesn’t come from fluffy. It comes from work.

What kind of work you ask? The kind that comes from making conscious decisions about very specific aspects of your business, business processes, or resources that move your business forward. If you are just dipping your toes in the competitive advantage pool you can start to think of it in terms of where you want to be better than just good. We all have limits in terms of the resources we can allocate to doing the stuff that makes our businesses go. To be better than good you’ll have to allocate resources deliberately and design around positioning your business as a customer-centric or an operational-centric one.

Customer-centric businesses create the most value for their customers by caring the most. These are the businesses that heavily focus on engagement, customer service, and experiences created. Hopefully they are proud of their good or serivce but it doesn’t mean that they are the cheapest or even the highest quality in their market. The customer experience is more than just how you were treated at check out. It’s about the process that led you to the brand, the interaction before the transaction and the ease and comfort of your design. It’s about the experience at checkout, and then the follow up. Lastly it’s about how your customers talk about you even when they aren’t consuming your good. If as a business owner you can place a value on each one of those stages you will absolutely differentiate yourself in terms of substitutes in your market. Remember you don’t have to be the cheapest or the highest quality - people just want to feel like they matter.

Operations-centric is a little easier to streamline because you are dealing with tangible processes. How efficiently can you organize your supply and distribution will have a direct impact on your profitability. That doesn’t mean you stop caring about your customers it just means that you are pouring more of your resources into getting as much output as you possibly can per dollar spent. Think about how your products or services are brought to market, the time you spend advertising or posting on social media, the process of getting your stuff sold. Even the systems around how you pay your bills. Time is a valuable resource and if you can streamline your time you can also reinvest that into your business as well - making yourself more efficient.

Most businesses try really hard to do both. That’s noble but not effective. There’s nothing wrong with spending time and money trying to grow your business but if you are struggling with how to differentiate then you should start by asking yourself one question.

Do I want to focus on the people or the process? There’s no right answer, some might be better than others though, so just pick with it and plan from there. The most important thing I hope you walk away with from this post is that just slashing your prices to undercut in an attempt to steal market share is not strategy, and it’s not competitive advantage. Most importantly it’s not sustainable and that’s not what’s going to move your business forward.