Posts tagged: Business Strategy

The Straight Line to Business Success

Walking in circlesDid you know that we humans can’t walk in a straight line without visual cues to keep us focused on our path? Not only can’t we walk straight, we actually walk in circles if we can’t clearly see where we’re going.

It seems we also drive our businesses in circles if we don’t have strong focal points like clearly defined visions, goals and strategies.

I learned this odd fact about humans walking in circles when listening to a recent NPR piece that covered a research paper on the topic written by Jan Souman, Ilja Frissen, Manish Sreenivasa, and Marc Ernst. According to the paper:

We tested the ability of humans to walk on a straight course through unfamiliar terrain in two different environments: a large forest area and the Sahara desert. Walking trajectories of several hours were captured via global positioning system, showing that participants repeatedly walked in circles when they could not see the sun. Conversely, when the sun was visible, participants sometimes veered from a straight course but did not walk in circles. We tested various explanations for this walking behavior by assessing the ability of people to maintain a fixed course while blindfolded. Under these conditions, participants walked in often surprisingly small circles (diameter < 20 m), though rarely in a systematic direction. These results rule out a general explanation in terms of biomechanical asymmetries or other general biases. Instead, they suggest that veering from a straight course is the result of accumulating noise in the sensorimotor system, which, without an external directional reference to recalibrate the subjective straight ahead, may cause people to walk in circles.

It’s easy to see the parallels in our business environments. Without a clear vision of where we’re going, it’s easy for “accumulating noise in the sensorimotor system” (I love that phrase) to send us off course. In the world of retail, we’re constantly bombarded by internal and external demands for short-term change. Those demands are often driven by overly narrow data analysis (such as daily or even hourly comps), emotional reactions, gut feel, wild ideas, competitive shifts and more.

So what do we do about it?

We can’t stop the noise, but we can provide ourselves some solid focal points and guide rails to keep us on a straight path towards ultimate success.

  1. Write a meaningful, compelling, and easy-to-remember vision statement

    I’ve often personally had negative reactions to even the idea of vision statements because so often they are overly wordy and meaningless to everyone in the company who wasn’t in the room when they were developed (which is generally almost everybody). A particularly bad example would be something like: “We are committed to achieving new standards of excellence by providing superior human capital management services and maximizing the potential of all stakeholders – clients, candidates and employees – through the delivery of the most reliable, responsive, flexible, and cost-effective services possible.” Too wordy. Too many buzz phrases. Not enough inspiration. Not enough meaning to most people in the company or its customers.

    All too often, vision statements like the previous example are created in a boardroom, printed on posters hung all over the company and almost immediately ignored. And then the business runs in circles.

    But it doesn’t have to be this way. A carefully created vision statement can be the focal point that drives all business decision and keeps the entire company moving in a straight line to success.

    Consider the following excellent examples and how they might guide your decisions:

    Amazon: “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”

    Google: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”

    Ritz-Carlton (they call theirs a “credo”: “The Ritz-Carlton Hotel is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission.

    We pledge to provide the finest personal service and facilities for our guests who will always enjoy a warm, relaxed, yet refined ambience.

    The Ritz-Carlton experience enlivens the senses, instills well-being, and fulfills even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.”

  2. Develop measurable goals that lead toward the vision
    There are millions of articles online (according to Google it’s more that 3 million) that explain how to set good business goals, so I won’t go into all of that.

    But I will say just creating “SMART” goals is not enough. The goals have to also be aligned with the vision and serve as milestones along that straight walk to success. It’s entirely possible to create a specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely goal that doesn’t progress us towards our vision. I suppose you could argue that “relevant” should be the attribute that aligns us with the vision, and it should be, but I’ve seen “relevance” twisted to individual agendas too often to rely on it without comment.

    So the goal has to lead us toward the vision. For example, a Ritz-Carlton hotel manager might have a goal that says “Improve lobby ambience scores on guest satisfaction scorecard from 83 to 85 by December 31, 2011.” That would be something that specifically aligns with the vision and tells the manager how well he’s walking the straight line to the success.

  3. Implement brand  and service guidelines to establish boundaries
    Brand guidelines are also critical to help us understand what boundaries we can work within on our straight line to success. I think of them almost as swim lanes. We might not swim perfectly straight, but as long as we stay in our lanes we’ll have the latitude to deal flexibly with changing conditions while continuing to head toward our vision. Consider Ritz-Carlton’s 12 service values:

    1. I build strong relationships and create Ritz-Carlton guests for life.
    2. I am always responsive to the expressed and unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.
    3. I am empowered to create unique, memorable and personal experiences for our guests.
    4. I understand my role in achieving the Key Success Factors, embracing Community Footprints and creating The Ritz-Carlton Mystique.
    5. I continuously seek opportunities to innovate and improve The Ritz-Carlton experience.
    6. I own and immediately resolve guest problems.
    7. I create a work environment of teamwork and lateral service so that the needs of our guests and each other are met.
    8. I have the opportunity to continuously learn and grow.
    9. I am involved in the planning of the work that affects me.
    10. I am proud of my professional appearance, language and behavior.
    11. I protect the privacy and security of our guests, my fellow employees and the company’s confidential information and assets.
    12. I am responsible for uncompromising levels of cleanliness and creating a safe and accident-free environment.

Of course, the entire process is not as simple to implement as it is to write about. But I’ve found over the years that dedicating considerable thought to providing clear, compelling direction for all employees to follow a relatively straight line can help prevent destructive business circles and keep us on the straight line to business success.

What do you think? What types of business direction have you seen that worked best for you? Would you share some examples? How about the opposite? When have you seen it all go horribly wrong? What can we learn from those failures?

The immense value of “slop time”

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about thinking. We spend such a large portion of our days reacting to issues flying at us from all directions that we can easily lose sight of where we’re headed and why we’re going there. We’re so busy that we don’t have time to think, and failing to allot time to think is ultimately counterproductive. Taking time (and even scheduling time) to reflect on past actions and consider future courses of action is more important than we often realize.

Consider this quote from former Intel exec Dov Frohman in his book Leadership the Hard Way and also discussed on this Practice of Leadership blog posting:

“Every leader should routinely keep a substantial portion of his or her time—I would say as much as 50 percent—unscheduled. Until you do so, you will never be able to develop the detachment required to identify long-term threats to the organization or the flexibility to move quickly to take advantage of random opportunities as they emerge. Only when you
have substantial ’slop’ in your schedule—unscheduled time—will you have the space to reflect on what  you are doing, learn from experience, and recover from your inevitable mistakes. Leaders without such  free time end up tackling issues only when there is an immediate or visible problem.”

Frohman makes some excellent points about the need to learn from experience and pull the value from the mistakes we make. Truly understanding the pros and cons of past decisions, ideally with the benefit that hindsight and new learning gives us, helps us better prepare for future decisions.

But there’s so much going on every day, and with staff cuts we have more work than ever. How can we possibly afford to time to think?
Well, Frohman has a ready answer:

“Managers’ typical response to my argument about free time is, ‘That’s all well and good, but there are  things I have to do.’ Yet we waste so much time in unproductive activity—it takes an enormous effort on  the part of the leader to keep free time for the truly important things.”

Of course, that’s easy to say and considerably harder to do. But it’s so important. Without taking the time to focus on the most important issues, tactics and strategies, we end up constantly fighting fires and ultimately working our way into a death spiral.

I find that if I give my think time enough priority, I can find a way to get it in. For me, actually scheduling time on my calendar makes all the difference. It also forces me to put some of the daily issues into perspective and postpone or even cancel meetings that don’t rate highly enough on the prioritization scale.

So, what do we do with this newly scheduled time to think?

Reflect on past decisions
I’ve recently started spending some time actively thinking through the decisions I made during the previous week or so. It’s amazing how hard it was at first to think of many decisions I made, particularly the numerous small decisions that happen every day. They came and went so fast that I didn’t really immediately retain them and their effects. Where they good decisions or bad decisions? It made me wonder if I could make better decisions in the future just by doing a better job of examining past decisions.

Open up to new ideas and learn something new
I am constantly hungry for new ideas. I love to read interesting new books, and I try to read as many blogs as I can. Of course, all of that reading takes time, so I look for my opportunities wherever I can. I try to read for at least a half hour every night, and I’m always looking for books that will expand my thinking.

I’m currently reading a very interesting book called How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. It’s essentially about behavioral economics (a fascinating field with all sorts of retail implications) but the twist is that he actually examines the inner mechanics of the brain to explain why we do what we do. He’s a good story teller and it doesn’t get to “scienc-y.” (Is that a word?)

Fooled by randomness Another book that has me thinking more than any book I’ve read in a very long time is Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. How much time have we mis-spent reacting to data that lacks statistical significance? Could some focused learning on the events that fool us time and again prevent us from making bad decisions in the future?

I use Google Reader to follow many thought provoking blogs, including those listed on the right column here. I also use the Newsstand application on my iPhone, which syncs with Google Reader and allows me to take in a blog or two at all sorts of random moments when I have a little bit of time on my hands. In fact, during my blog reading recently I even came upon a list of new an “out-of-the-box” ways to inject thinking in your business from Mitch Joel.

Anticipate the future
After analyzing past decisions and opening up my mind to new ideas, I try taking some time to start anticipating the future. Here, I think it’s definitely important to imagine large strategic shifts in the marketplace, but it’s also important to consider daily issues that come up with staff, marketing tactics, etc. as well. How are different types of decisions made in the organization, and who makes them? Is decision making authority matched with accountability? Are decision makers aware of their boundaries? Are the boundaries appropriate? Is the business strategy correct and clearly communicated? Are we working towards the right objectives? Should I consider a different approach when working with a particular person? Should I go with the ham or the turkey for lunch. 🙂

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You’re clearly reading at least one blog today, so it’s good that you’ve already made some time in your day. Good news! I hope you’ll be back, and I hope you’re also taking some time to read more of the really great content that’s available out there in both book and blog form. I hope you’ll come across something so mind-blowingly thought provoking that it changes the way you think about something. I hope you’ll be so open to new ideas that you won’t be afraid to change your mind about past decisions and direction. (Side note pet peeve of mine: Why do we criticize leaders and politicians who change their minds? Would you rather work with someone who can change his or her mind in the face of new information or someone who stubbornly sticks to convictions no matter what?)

And, if you haven’t already, I hope you’ll consider adding some “slop time” to your schedule to allow you to reflect on past decisions, open up to new ideas and new learning, and anticipate the future.

Now it’s your turn. I’d love to hear how you find time to think. What are your sources of expanded thinking? Will you share any great books or blogs that you’ve read? What’s changed your thinking recently?



Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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