Preparation Trumps Planning in Achieving Success
We hear countless reasons for small business failure: lack of a business plan, failure to create an offering that people will pay for, failure to identify a viable market, cash flow, etc. All of these reasons are valid. Yet each of these reasons leaves out a critical driver and root cause of either success or failure. Building an organization and culture that is nimble, outcome focused, and proactive is a key reason for both success and failure.
Despite the critical role that culture and capability play and the attention they receive in business writing, very little is written about actually (realistically) creating that culture. Establishing a successful culture is the responsibility of the owner/leader of a small business. You can’t manage culture, you must be a leader.
As an introduction into building successful business organizations, I’ll describe a number of characteristics that leading small businesses exhibit.
Imagine the Unimaginable. Foster creativity and imagination in your business and you’ll find new and unexpected solutions to problems, ideas for offerings, and any other particularly challenging situations you may face. Imagination allows people to break free of the past and the way “things have always been.” Our imagination is critical to innovating and developing solutions to new challenges. Encourage and allow free-flowing ideas, brainstorming, and innovation.
Prepare, don’t plan. This relates directly to the core of this article. You can never develop a plan that will last beyond the first stage of execution. The world is too complex and changes too quickly for a plan to work as it was written. For an organization to achieve the goals that the plan was developed to accomplish, the people need to be prepared, capable, and adaptive. Your plan should have desired outcomes, resources available, constraints, etc. and provide as much information as possible so that the people tasked with executing the plan can adapt as necessary and with the speed and agility to stay in front of the competition.
The only failure is a failure to try. Create an environment where people are able to experiment and try new and alternate solutions. You’ll be surprised to see the results you get if you create a bit of freedom within your organization. On the other hand, if you continuously act in a heavy-handed and controlling manner, you’ll shut down your team and won’t receive the benefit of their creativity. Micromanaging is the antithesis to this concept. Define the constraints through policy and guidance, but allow the specifics to be developed for each situation by the people on the ground. There is a classic story from IBM where an executive tried something new and the result was a $10M loss for the company. When he was summoned to his bosses office, he said “well, I expect you’re going to fire me.” His boss replied “no, why would I fire you when I just spent $10M on your education.” Consider how powerful a message that was within the organization.
Listen to your people. Most plans are created by the leaders of a business. The planners will assemble as much information as possible as they craft the plan. It is critical that the planners listen to the people on the ground. Too often, plans are created in a sterile or academic environment that views the world as the planners “see it,” but may not reflect the situation as it actually is. Trust your people, bring them into the planning process and use their experience, wisdom, and creativity to develop a better and more sustainable plan. Your people are in touch with the environment, they interact with customers, suppliers, and partners and have valuable insights that aren’t available anywhere else.
Get out of the building. Go out and interact with your clients, prospective customers, visit your suppliers, check out your sales channels, etc. You can monitor a business with numbers and reports, but you can’t gain true insight unless you augment such information with actual experience with people. Find out what is working, what isn’t working, what is missing, what they like, what brings them to you, what drives them away, and any other questions you can think of to help you develop a better experience when they interact with your company. This knowledge will help you brainstorm and come up with new solutions ahead of your competitors.
There isn’t a singular solution for implementing any of these characteristics, each leader must develop their individual style and stay true to that style. If your leadership idol is Gen. George Patton (a bold and brash American general from WWII), but you are quite mannered, then you need to select another leader to emulate. You have to stay true to yourself. If you try to act in a manner contradictory to your character, you’ll come across as phony. People excel at spotting phony behavior and you will have a challenge leading. Build your organization to be nimble and prepared to adapt quickly to changes and you’ll be amazed at the results.
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