7 Scaling Secrets – #6 – How to Stick to the Plan (Like the Tortoise Said – Slow and Steady Wins the Race)
Aesop’s Fable about The Tortoise and the Hare is a well-known story about how consistency makes a difference. But what if you’re consistently going in the wrong direction?
In his book, Atomic Habits, author James Clear uses the following example:
“Imagine you are flying from Los Angeles to New York City. If a pilot leaving from LAX adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in Washington, D.C., instead of New York.”
Clear even points out that a change of 3.5 degrees at takeoff is equivalent to a shift of just over 7 feet! Obviously, a shift that small on takeoff would not make a big difference…if the pilots correct their course along the way. However, if they kept that 3.5 degree offset until, say, Nebraska, they would have a much more significant change to make.
This idea of ‘slow and steady’ plus regular course correction is key to scaling a company. Once you’ve defined a North Star, your direction is clear. A North Pole that clarifies tangible steps allows you to share the vision with the rest of the team and empower them to take responsibility for implementation. Now it’s time for a regular check-in meeting with the team to make sure that their direction is clear.
We recommend a 1-page overview of each North Pole ‘project’ (we often call them initiatives) that’s shared with the leadership team of the organization every 4-6 weeks. That gives everyone a chance to hear what’s going on as well as provide ‘course corrections’ if needed. The 4 to 6-week timeframe allows for good progress to be made but also ensures that the team doesn’t get too far off target.
You need to celebrate the fact that you’re moving toward your North Star, just don’t forget to turn your eyes toward the skies regularly to make sure you can still see it!
7 Scaling Secrets – #5 – Being Able to Both “Run” and “Change” Your Business Simultaneously (Lessons from NASA’s Apollo 13)
As the 7th crewed Apollo mission, Apollo 13, was expected to be what pilots called a milk run. The checklists were clear, the roles were clear, and NASA had ‘been there, done that’ when it came to the moon.
Almost 56 hours into the mission, it was clear that things would be different as astronauts Lovell, Swigert, and Haise heard a “pretty large bang” that resulted from an explosion that vented precious oxygen into space. That bang led to the famous quote “Houston, we’ve had a problem” (which was altered for the movie Apollo 13 to “Houston, we have a problem”)
Oxygen was needed for both breathing and electric power, so the NASA team on the ground had to find a solution quickly. They decided to move the three astronauts into the Lunar Module which had fully charged batteries and full oxygen tanks but was only designed for two astronauts. The main challenge was quickly determined to be the carbon dioxide being exhaled because the Lunar Module was not equipped to remove it for three people.
NASA engineers devised a way to use carbon dioxide scrubbers designed for the three-person Command Module in the two-person Lunar Module “using plastic, covers ripped from procedures manuals, duct tape, and other items” – literally working on the spacecraft while flying it. There were no instruction manuals for this process, it was pure improvisation that, after an hour of work by the astronauts, led to an immediate impact in the Lunar Module…less carbon dioxide.
This is the kind of challenge that we often see for scaling companies as well. “Running” the company is almost second nature. It’s ‘easy’ to take orders and fulfill them, ensure the right levels of stock, and deal with customer complaints. It’s much more difficult to “change” the company. For example, installing a new ERP, creating a new way to go to market, or onboarding tens of people at a time when one person at a time was the norm.
To make these changes happen, we can’t leave things to chance. The urgent will almost always take priority over the important. So it’s important to start with the North Pole: what are the tangible things we want to accomplish in the next year? Then we take those ‘projects’, clearly define them on one page, and assign them to a member of the leadership team. In addition to their ‘run’ activities, they also are responsible for making sure that a ‘change’ happens and reporting on it.
Will things go perfectly? Of course not! We will have multiple business priorities that arise and need to be prioritized. However, having a list of our key activities and their final objectives will allow us to decide if they should remain in the ‘urgent and important’ box or if they need to be moved to the ‘non urgent and important’ box…intentionally.
Balancing the ‘change’ and ‘run’ activities can be difficult, especially if you don’t have a clear plan. So, start by clarifying what you need to change and then assign it to someone on your team. Who knows, they develop a brand-new solution that makes a huge difference in the life of your company!
7 Scaling Secrets – #4 – Know Your Surroundings (39 Year Old Goats and Peyton Manning’s Last Ride)
The San Diego Chargers were playing for pride on January 3, 2016. With a record of 4 wins and 11 losses, it hadn’t been the season that they had planned for. Their opponents, the Denver Broncos, had everything to play for. With a win, the Broncos would be the #1 seed in their conference for the playoffs meaning they could play every game in their home stadium.
After almost 37 minutes of game time, the Chargers led the Broncos 13 – 7 and the Broncos had turned the ball over 5 times. Brock Osweiler, who had taken the quarterback role after starter Peyton Manning was injured during the season, just couldn’t deliver in this game like he had in previous ones. It looked like San Diego’s season would end with a victory to propel them into the next season.
Suddenly, the crowd began to roar as the Broncos sent future Hall of Famer Manning onto the field. The 39-year old’s injured foot had kept him out of commission since November 15, but coach Gary Kubiak sent him in as the Broncos’ last hope. Manning led the Broncos on 4 scoring drives while the defense held the Chargers to one additional score. The Broncos had won the day and the #1 seed. They completed the season with a win in Super Bowl 50, Manning’s final NFL game.
Were the Chargers prepared for Brock Osweiler as the quarterback of the Broncos? The score of the game while he played would indicate that they were. However, what about:
· the possibility that Manning might play?
· the crowd’s renewed energy based on the veteran’s appearance?
· the offensive line’s desire to step up their game for their leader?
This is a situation we often see with companies too. Their plan is clear, and they have list of tangible things that want to accomplish to move them in the direction of their North Star. However, they often fail to consider the competitive environment and how that might impact the plan they’ve spent time crafting.
That’s why we propose you spend time working through the external forces that could impact you. Who is competing with you…and who COULD compete with you in the future? How strong are your current customers and suppliers? Is there another product or service that could arrive to displace yours?
So, once you have a plan, take it and compare it to the external environment before implementing it. You may be able to avoid some blind spots and lead your team to victory!
7 Scaling Secrets – #3 – Let’s Meet in the Middle (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Comeback Wins)
It was halftime on Sunday, January 21, 2007, in Indianapolis’ RCA Dome and the Indianapolis Colts were playing the New England Patriots for the right to play in Super Bowl XLI. The Patriots, led by quarterback Tom Brady, had won 3 of the past 5 Super Bowls and the Colts hadn’t been to the big game since 1971 so you could forgive the Indianapolis fans for thinking this was their year.
The Patriots didn’t get the memo and led the game 21-6 at the half. Obviously, the plan that Tony Dungy, the Colts’ coach, and his staff had spent the past week developing and refining wasn’t working. So, he got his team into the locker room and made some changes to the game plan: a different mix of run plays and pass plays, a new tempo, and fewer mistakes.
6 minutes and 47 seconds into the second half, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning scored on a rare (for him) rushing touchdown and the Colts were on their way to a win, the largest deficit ever overcome in an NFL conference championship game, and, ultimately, a Super Bowl XLI victory.
When we look at scaling companies, we often use a football analogy like this one. Your North Star tells you where you want to go but doesn’t consider where you are today. Your ‘State of the Union’ tells you about the current situation without a perspective on where you ultimately want to go. Just like Coach Dungy at halftime, now is the time to take into account both where you are (down 21-6 in his case) and where you want to be (the Super Bowl).
We call this today, forward and tomorrow, backward. You want to find the intersection of your current state and your long-term goals. If you remember the ‘North Star’ analogy, this intersection is called the ‘North Pole’. The North Pole is a short list of tangible things that we can accomplish in the next year that move us in the direction of the North Star.
If things aren’t going as you planned, don’t despair…just take stock of where you are, where you want to go, and get your team together to develop a short list of actions that will start moving you down the field!
7 Scaling Secrets – #2 – What’s Our Current Situation? (The President and The State of the Union)
Friday, January 8. The President of the United States stands before the Senate and the House to give them his perspective on the ‘State of the Union’. The 1089 words rang out through New York’s Federal Hall. Wait, only 1089 words?! New York?! This address was no ordinary State of the Union, it was the first ever, delivered by George Washington in 1790.
He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.
— Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution
The State of the Union today is often used for political purposes, but it was created for the President to give a big picture view of what was going on in the country and what needed to be done as a result.
That big picture view is exactly where we start when we want to scale a company.
- Who are our customers?
- What do we provide them?
- How do we provide it?
- What are our financial drivers?
The goal is to understand the big picture BEFORE diving into the details.
Often the review of the big picture highlights some opportunities for improvement:
- Are we focused on the right customer segments?
- How are we connecting with them? Is this the best way?
- What suppliers are key for us? How is our relationship with them managed?
- What makes us different from our competitors? Is it sustainable?
- What’s our cash flow situation? How would we navigate a cash crisis?
Understanding the “State of the Business” gives us the opportunity to take a high-level view while also providing some hints about where we need to do deep dives. Want to do this for yourself? Just take a piece of paper, turn it lengthwise (i.e. landscape) and draw a line down the middle. The right side is your ‘front stage’ – what the customer sees. The left side is your ‘backstage’ – what you have to do to make things happen. Then, take a step back and look for the opportunities that present themselves…we bet you’ll be surprised at what you find!
7 Scaling Secrets – #1 – Where Are We Going? (The North Star and the North Pole)
For thousands of years, the stars in the night sky have been used to help humans (and even birds and seals) know where they are going. One star in particular, the North Star (a.k.a. Polaris), was critical for determining direction before the invention and broad use of the GPS.
In the night sky, Polaris is extremely close to where the Earth’s northern axis points. So close, in fact, that while other stars rotate around the sky, Polaris stays in roughly the same place…which makes it very useful for navigating. However, regardless of how much we’ve used Polaris, no human has ever visited. At the speed of light, it would take 433 YEARS to get there!
So, what would happen if you decided to follow the North Star and go as far as you could go…where would you end up? The North Pole. The North Pole is a place that has been flown over, skied to, walked to, and visited by boats and submarines. It’s difficult, but you can get there.
This is where we start when it’s time to scale a company. What’s the ‘North Star’ for both the leader and the company? We’re looking for those things that may seem like dreams (we often use the term ‘Imagine if’) and that are free from any constraints. Are we going to get there? Probably not. However, we have a clear idea of the direction that we’re going in and why.
Later in this process, we will take an understanding of our current situation combined with our North Star and turn it into a ‘North Pole’. Specifically, what are some tangible things that we can accomplish in the next year that move us in the direction of the North Star?
Next time you can see the stars, take a minute to think about where you want to go (your North Star) and how you’re going to get there (the North Pole). Then get a warm coat and start the journey!
7 Scaling Secrets – Intro – Seeing the Empire State Building in a Whole New Light
It’s been said that all businesses are experiencing pain…it’s either growing pain or shrinking pain. So, if growth is the (sometimes elusive!) goal, how do we get there?
In the business world, we frequently think of growth as linear – invest in new resources (factories, people, capabilities, etc.) and see increased revenue…easy, right? In real life, markets determine if our work delivers the goal, and the increase is often proportional to the investment (ex: increase marketing à increase sales).
Linear growth is good (and results in growing pains which are, in my opinion, much more fun than shrinking pains)…and there’s something even better. We call it scaling.
Let’s look at the world of architecture for some context. Although it can take a long time to lay the foundation of a building, thankfully, the depth of the foundation typically doesn’t have to be equivalent to a building’s height. For example, the Empire State Building stands at 1,454 feet above ground with a foundation just 55.7 feet deep. At the Willis Tower in Chicago, a foundation just 10 feet deeper allows it to be 351 feet taller than the Wilshire Grand Center in Los Angeles (11% increase in depth, 32% increase in height).
That’s what scaling is all about. Growth that is significantly higher than the investment needed to obtain it.
In our work with growing companies, we’ve found seven secrets to successful scaling that we’ll be sharing in 2022:
- Having a clear vision of the future
- Understanding the state of your business
- From today, forward…and tomorrow, backward
- Analyzing your competition and the ecosystem
- Simultaneously “changing” AND “running” your business
- Sticking to the plan
- Finding the right coordinator for this work
So, take a break from digging today to ask yourself “is this work going to provide linear growth or exponential growth”? If it’s not the latter, ask yourself if you have the seven things above and start working on the gaps!
Hate feeling unprepared? Go ‘Back to the Future’ to get some advice!
I had just started the meeting and the team was staring back at me from the screen, expecting wise council and direction on how we were going to achieve today’s objective. As I began the meeting I felt confident but, about 15 minutes in, I realized that my preparation on the first group exercise was lacking. Just a few minutes of pre-work would have made the difference between a good experience for the team and an excellent one. I silently blamed myself for wasting the team’s time and promised myself I’d do better next time.
Many times I’ve found myself in the situation above and I’d guess that you have as well. We’re faced with so many competing priorities that we are often preparing for things at the last minute…if we have time to prepare at all! Regardless of how painful it is to be under-prepared, it seems like the pain of preparing is often so significant that we still set ourselves up for failure!
I’ve found that in the moment, I would much prefer the pain of preparing to the pain of being unprepared. But in the emergencies of the every day, I choose the opposite. Paraphrasing the Apostle Paul, I don’t do what I want to do and I hate what it is I DO do!
What’s the solution? I like Jesse Itzler‘s solution when he says “Remember Tomorrow.” Take a peek into the future and decide if future you will be happier that you knocked three tasks off your list or that you spent another 15 minutes on Instagram…and we all know the answer to that question! Then, make it happen. Remember tomorrow and take a step in that direction. I look forward to seeing you there…and you don’t even need a DeLorean!
Photo by Dziana Hasanbekava from Pexels
A secret to getting things done from Walt Disney (and maybe the Egyptian Pharaohs too…)
Have you ever been in one of those meetings that seemed to last forever? You know the ones. You entered with optimism that this would be the meeting where that thorny problem got fixed. However, 30 minutes in, you’re doing e-mail or checking facebook or (gasp!) completing just one more level of Candy Crush.
Sometimes when I’m in meetings like that, I think of the generations before me who have suffered the same way. For example, they had to plan the wonders of the ancient world like the Pyramids. I can see the meeting now…
- Project Manager: So, what’s the right percentage of straw to put in these bricks?
- Engineer: We commissioned a study that says bricks should be 50% mud and 50% straw.
- Finance: You know, the straw market is strong this year. Is there any way we could we use less to save money?
There’s a clear antidote to meetings like this…doing.
“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” — Walt Disney
So today, instead of liking your cousin’s re-post of a cat video, find one clear action that you personally can do, volunteer to do it, and report back to the team in the next meeting. You’ll both feel and be more productive. And who knows, you may inspire someone else to begin doing as well!
photo copyright: Kenneth E. Fields 2006-2020
What do you hold in your hand today? It may be more important than you think…
A couple of years ago, I moved from a Chief of Staff role focused on research and development to a more far-reaching one in a newly created organization. This new role would allow me to see firsthand what it took to run a multi-billion dollar company from the executive suite. I readily admit that I was intimidated. There were lots of big names in the company who were making huge decisions…and they were expecting me to keep them organized!
I decided that I might need to find some different ways to work with this new team so, I took inspiration from a college professor, Kevin Treu. Dr. Treu always asked a ‘question of the day’ to start each class. I had successfully used that tactic in several training classes I gave. and decided that we would start each weekly staff meeting with a ‘song of the day’.
The first Monday morning of the year, I had the song Good Morning by the artist Mandisa playing as the team walked into the room. For a few weeks, I was met with some strange looks (maybe due to my taste in music) but by soon I had people making playlist recommendations!
It’s always been challenging for me to focus on the capabilities that I do have instead of the ones I wish I had. In high school, my choir sang a song called “Moses” that included the line “What do you hold in your hand today?” That line has always challenged me and it’s my challenge to you.
Are you staring at a challenging project, a new role, or an opportunity to be ‘stretched’? If so, take stock of what you have…the experiences and unique mindset that you bring to the table. Then, pick one or two that you can start implementing. You’ll discover that what you already hold in your hand is more important than you thought!
Many thanks to Treyci Lilje for accompanying me on the journey and constantly reminding me of what I had in my hands.