Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Plan “the How” not just “ the What”

It may seem like a simple idea, but I have often been faced by the reality of great (or even just “good”) ideas failing in the marketplace because of a lack of implementation planning.   Too often most of the time is focused in the planning stages of a business on the “whats”; “what” has worked in the past, “what” is competition doing, “what” has been successful in a limited market or region, “what” do our customers need from us, “what are our ready-now innovation plans, etc.
 A litany of “whats” but very little time spent on the “hows.”

This came to life recently in a meeting that I had with a client in my consulting business.  We are working on a major brand/organization restructuring project and at a break I asked one of our client contacts about past “change initiatives” that have been executed by his company.  He described a few different examples of initiatives over the past few years, each of which had “gone off the rails” at one point or another.  I asked his opinion on why the initiatives had struggled, and quickly he responded that once they got 80% of the way to a conclusion, they “pulled the trigger” and moved on to the next issue/opportunity, not waiting to insure the first idea was executed fully and successfully.  That conversation reminded me of this dynamic of businesses and their leadership teams being so focused on the initiatives to deploy they forget the critical importance of executing those initiatives well…. Too focused on the “whats,” not the “hows.”

While the following is not an exhaustive list of ways to insure the “hows” are anticipated and planned for, these three ideas should be helpful in taking steps to insure that “the hows” get the right amount of focus:

Implementation Map

Before completing any project plan, ask the question to see the implementation plan or “map,” and if you are part of the project team, remember that no project is compete without one!  While not a hard and fast rule of thumb, if you haven’t spent at least 10-15% of your project planning time in building the implementation map, you have probably NOT given it the right amount of attention.  Insure that you map the steps required to “get the job done” with distinction.  Think of yourself as the general contractor on a building site, and push yourself to see what steps need to be taken to complete the project ahead of time, under budget, and at a very high level of quality!  No small task but if you don't take the time to ask yourself how to accomplish those outcomes, it is rare to accomplish them!

Competency Grid

Once the implementation map is drafted, start piecing together the “competency grid,” in other words the skills that are required to achieve success on this initiative.  If we want or need to rebuild a planning system, do we have the talent in-house to achieve that goal or do we need to go outside for the resources?  Don't get stuck on “how many” or “how much” you need (that is coming in the next phase), stay focused on the needed skills.  Working with a client recently who is in the middle of a major new product rollout, we realized that the organization didn't have any resources to call on or cover the targeted retail stores and check shelf placement and on-shelf pricing post rollout and have now scrambled to put that in place.   A better approach would have been to identify the competency required (in-store merchandiser coverage) as part of a “competency grid” and had that in place before the rollout.

Capacity Plan

Now we need to work on the “how many” and “how much” of the project plan.  Remembering the “implementation map” and the “competency grid,” now we need to actually analyze and build a model of the quantity of the capacities needed to fulfill or exceed the requirements of the “implementation map.”  This is so crucial in order to accurately build an implementation budget, so often either forgotten or only built at a surface level to fulfill project plan requirements.

As you dig into the work ahead, remember these three steps and most importantly remember to put your attention on the “hows” of your project/business, not just the “whats.”  As I have shared in earlier essays, “good” ideas executed brilliantly typically exceed the impact of “brilliant” ideas executed adequately…. Focus on the “hows!”

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Inflection Points of a business… focus on fewer things to insure success!

Over the past year, I have had the pleasure to work with more than a dozen different clients in my consulting practice, ranging from small technology and food startups all the way to global biotech leaders.  While the work is extremely varied, it has been fascinating to see a number of “common denominators” that I keep bumping into regardless of vertical, size of organization, or the specific nature of my assignment.  In many cases I see the importance and impact of personal leadership, at times as moments of success & acceleration, and at times as major barriers/impediments for organizational growth.  In many moments I have seen the importance of taking decisive action in the marketplace, turning strategies/concepts into “real” tactics and actions to affect the challenges/opportunities facing the business at the moment.  Today, I want to highlight a third “common denominator” that I am seeing in my consulting work, that being the need to narrow your focus (focus on fewer things) at the key moments that are inflection points of an organization and a business.

It has been exciting to be brought in by CEO’s/Founders, or boards to work on the challenges and opportunities facing the leadership teams of my clients.  Often times, the call to bring me in is precipitated by a critical event or issue facing a business and often times those businesses are at critical inflection points:

inflection point
·       1Mathematics 
A point of a curve at which a change in the direction of curvature occurs.

·       2US (in business) a time of significant change in a situation; a turning point.

At times these might be moments of rapid expansion and growth for a startup, or in another situation a major pivot for a large established company; but regardless of the specifics, the moment facing the business/organization is critical to its future success.  Reflecting back on this past year, these “inflection point” moments abound in my consulting work and I constantly find myself working with senior execs and leadership teams to narrow their scope and focus on fewer things.

Often the circumstances surrounding these “inflection point” moments are filled with complexity, and there is a tendency for senior leaders to try to focus on all of the moving parts at the same time.  While sometimes “do-able,” this scattered approach typically gives all things a little bit of attention, versus giving a few VITAL topics complete focus.  I am currently involved in an assignment where a young startup organization is in the middle of a major marketplace launch of a new product line.  While its certainly true that future innovation, expanded funding sources, team capacity/capability issues, along with a myriad of other topics are facing the senior team and the CEO, the truth is that if THIS launch fails, there is a high likelihood that the company will fail!  (A true inflection point for the company, and a moment that requires complete and maniacal focus on the new product launch and the work/actions required to insure its success. ) While this example pertains to a startup company that I am working with currently, the lesson is one that I continue to touch across my consulting practice and client base.

As you look at the business situations that you are dealing with, think about the “inflection points” facing your company/organization today and push yourself to “narrow your focus”, push aside as much of the “noise” of extraneous tasks in your day-to-day work life and maniacally “focus” on turning the “inflection point” that you are facing into a major moment of success!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

First ask “why” … then do it 5 times!

Its interesting how many times I see senior executives (and maybe a few consultants like yours truly) feel like they need to have the answers … all of the answers … and they always have to be right.  As crazy as that sounds, think about your own situations.  Consider how many times you have been in front of a senior exec, a board member, or a highly paid consultant and you DIDN’T expect them to have all the answers.  No leadership team or single executive, nor a board member or board, nor a consulting practice or a single consultant can or ever will have all the right answers.  It’s unrealistic and frankly not appropriate.  What is key is that we need to expect and require those same senior executives, board members, and consultants to ASK the right questions all the time and that process starts, and always starts by asking “why?”

While it may seem simple enough, we often start with the two “wrong” questions if we even start with questions versus misplaced proclamations.  Typically, we start with “who” … (“who’s in charge?”, “who’s responsible for these results,?” “who is working with whom to get this mess fixed?”, and the list goes on.) If we don’t start with the “who” questions, we often go straight to the “how much” set of questions …( “how much are we behind plan,?” how much did this budget variance cost?,” etc.)    I want us to consider that we all need to first start by asking “why”, trying to understand the core issue at hand before we do anything else.  “Why has this situation happened?” or “why is this problem continuing to recur?” or why do you feel we aren’t making progress against our goals?” are all three good places to start.  Using “why” questions is a good way for everyone, senior execs, board members and consultants in particular, to frame the issue at hand and to use the discipline of “questions” to work to gain common alignment on the problem that is trying to be solved.  A HUGE step forward in all strategic work is to define the problem you are trying to solve and to have a common understanding of the problem at hand.

First asking “why” is key and in my experience it is pretty rare especially at senior levels.  While I clearly think it's a “required” first step, it is rarely “sufficient” to do the job at hand … thus my encouragement to then “ask why” 5 times!  While there is no magic specifically in the number 5, there has been a lot of work done in this approach, focusing on the best approach to get at the “root cause” of any issue and the “ask why 5 times” is a fundamental element of that approach.  Pioneered by Toyota in the 1950’s, this discipline/technique has been applied broadly across industries, companies and functions and is one of those fundamental business skills worth NEVER forgetting.  I learned this approach in early training classes at
The Coca-Cola Company in the early 90’s and I still refer back to them today.  The image above is a simple tool that helps the process and I have filled quite a number of flip-charts over the years with these “fishbone diagrams.”  To understand more of the approach, it’s background, and application, take a look at the following link,

Regardless of the intensity of the moment or the risks at stake, work hard to try to start with a question and hopefully that question begins with “why.”  If you can frame the situation with a “why” question, then gather the team to do some “digging” and work your way to keep going, “ask why 5 times” to get underneath the veneer of the problem at hand and have a deeper understanding and deeper alignment on the root cause of the problem that needs fixing!

Monday, October 2, 2017

A tearful morning and an inspiring walk

Waking up this morning, October 2, 2017 I was floored by the reports of the mass shooting last night in Las Vegas.   “Mass shooting”, “lone gunman,” fifty dead,” automatic weapon,” “innocent concert goers,” high capacity clips,” senseless violence,” and may other headlines filled the news this morning.  Filled with shock, anger and deep sadness I began my Monday with a week of work and travel ahead.  Telling Jennie, Marie, and Bryson (via text, he a sophomore at UCLA), that I loved them, I packed my bags and headed to the airport for a flight to Miami.

Once again I looked for a moment of solace at the Atlanta airport and headed straight to Concourse E and the MLK exhibit that includes a replica of the Nobel Peace Prize that Dr. King was awarded in 1963.  I often find my way to this specific spot and you can see my writings on it in previous blog essays.  This morning, after taking a moment at in front of the Nobel medal, I went into the little “interfaith chapel” behind the display.  Sitting quietly in a plastic folding chair, I said a few prayers for the victims of Las Vegas, prayers for their families and friends who are living a nightmare of tragedy today and more broadly prayers for our country.  Senseless death, violence against innocent strangers and escalating hatred and violence CANNOT be the legacy that we leave to our next generation nor a vision of a civilized society that we share with the world.

Sitting in that little while plastic folding chair I pulled up three passages/quotes that gave me strength this morning, each of which I want to share:

  The first being a major passage from Dr. King’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech: 

o   “I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind.  I refuse to accept despair as the final response to history.  I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him.  I refuse to accept the idea that man is the mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.  I refuse to accept that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”

 The second quote is from Gandhi:

o   “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love always won.  There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall.  Think of it – always.”

 The final inspiration is a passage from the old testament, Micah 6:8,

o   “ He has told you O Mortal, what is good and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your god.”

Leaving the little chapel on Concourse E, I decided to walk back to my gate on Concourse A (always good to get some steps in!!) and started thinking about my trip ahead.  In the walkway between Concourse B & A, there is an art installation that mimics a Georgian forest scene, with sculptured leaves, birds chirping, etc.  Not paying much attention this morning, I walked upon a young family who had stopped and the kids had begun “jumping in the raindrops” projected on the floor.  At first I was annoyed that my way forward was blocked but before I knew it two or three other kids, from another family “joined in” and all five or six of them played together in the “virtual rain.”  That moment of the kids playing together floored me and quire literally “stopped me in my tracks.”   Surrounded by the despair and senseless violence and hatred of the shooting in Las Vegas, maybe there was a sliver of hope and inspiration for humanity, exemplified in the children dancing in the “rain” between concourses at the Atlanta airport!