In this blog we consider working practices you and your teams can adopt to accelerate your development and implementation of business strategy through successive phases of growth. Paradoxically, many of these involve ‘slowing down to speed up’.
When businesses start up and move through early phases of growth, their founders and leaders rightly value speed of decision and action: they are in hot pursuit of product-market fit, and the demonstrable results to incite further investment. Most if not all decisions are reversible so the maxim is to fail fast. In later phases, leaders of successful companies know that the costs of pivoting increase, yet may still feel under pressure to think and act quickly as growth accelerates, headcount, overheads and management complexity all increase and competitors continually up the ante.
The risk this presents is that opportunities are missed in the frenzy of the moment that compromise your longer-term, sustained progress: opportunities to refine your product, capture new customers, remedy an unhelpful cultural issue before it gets amplified or simply to achieve a better alignment between stakeholders. Issues that catch your attention and warrant further thought are swept away before you can focus on them as successive waves come rolling in. On some days this ‘surf’ may feel invigorating, on others, like you’re drowning in it.
Critical Focal Points
Whilst there is no one-size-fits-all approach, we recommend that you review the balance between speed, quality of thinking and clarity of decision-making in the critical source actvities highlighted below. We have chosen these focal points in the light of our experience in growing businesses because they are all key drivers of later outcomes where less haste really can result in more speed and sustained progress in each case.
The resulting changes to your working practices may help you feel invigorated rather than swamped, and prompt further ideas about how best to accelerate and sustain progress in your particular context.
Clarity of Purpose
In his annual letter to CEOs in 2019, Larry Fink, the Chairman and CEO of Blackrock Investment, the largest fund manager globally, wrote that ‘when a company truly understands and expresses its purpose, it functions with the focus and strategic discipline that drive long-term profitability’. He also considered the difficult trade-offs companies inevitably face as they execute strategy and expressed his view that “clarity of purpose helps companies more effectively make these strategic pivots in the service of long-run goals.”
Even if achieved at a given moment in time, such clarity of purpose needs to be periodically reviewed and if necessary, renewed. Ideally, a company’s ‘north star’ will remain consistent year to year, whereas change elsewhere is to be expected: in its leadership, management teams and external stakeholders, meaning not everyone will be equally understanding of and connected to this purpose.
It may be tempting to treat company purpose as a ‘given’ or something that is ‘known’ and beyond challenge, rather than invest precious time and energy into a periodic review. However, we believe this is a mistake and that such challenge can serve as a powerful mechanism for renewal and stakeholder alignment both internally, and externally.
Without such clarity, you will be much more open to distraction and deviation from your chosen path, resulting in slower progress towards your goals and according to Mr Fink, reduced long-term profitability.
Documenting strategy and plans
The act of writing and sharing a strategy before adopting it exposes the gaps, choices and trade-offs within it and creates a vital opportunity to also record the context in which it was created. This is vital both for understanding and ownership in the present, to incorporate lessons from the past that may otherwise be lost due to staff turnover, and for learning and review in the future. It also resists the temptation to rewrite history later to fit results.
As well as creating opportunities for challenge and refinement, documenting strategy enables you to leverage the collective wisdom of your people if you know how to tap into it. There are some effective tools available to help with this today that leverage the power of AI, and one in particular that has caught our attention is Circlelytics. This seeks to remove many of the limitations and biases inherent in traditional surveys and to solicit much more considered and meaningful responses from participants.
These processes vastly increase the likelihood that the resulting strategy will be robust and earn stakeholders’ emotional buy-in and sustained commitment, with one important caveat: nobody wants a book-end. Strategy must be documented as simply as possible in a format that is easily shared and can be updated as a living management tool.
Once again, there are some great tools available and one of our favourites for use by SMEs is Liveplan. This has been designed around the principle of the ‘minimum viable plan’ and takes a lot of the legwork out of creating an engaging and effective business plan. Liveplan also offers great customer support.
The alternative to the above – an unwritten strategy or one that has not been exposed to challenge and refinement nor earnt stakeholder commitment – has the potential to waste time, energy and resources, undermine company culture and reduce progress to a crawl.
Invest the time up front to document and socialise your strategy amongst stakeholders and to explore some of the tools we have outlined here, and you will likely save countless hours and resources in its implementation and achieve more sustainable outcomes.
A company’s purpose, strategy and culture must all align to underpin sustainable financial performance. If any one is mis-aligned with the others, progress will be compromised.
This requires a clear understanding of what we mean by culture: its components, the meanings attributed to them in a particular company and how these things interact to affect the pursuit of purpose and commercial performance.
Here again, we strongly recommend that you investment time periodically to ensure that this alignment still holds. Cultures are the result of every choice made in a business, which in turn creates a climate that promotes or inhibits different behaviours. This process is ongoing and dynamic, meaning that unless you deliberately choose to review and refine your culture from time to time – we might call this culture by design, one or more cultures will evolve across different departments, divisions or territories anyway – culture by default.
A very useful tool to help with the process of making this essentially intangible concept more amenable to deliberate management is the Culture Design Canvas, created by Gustavo Razzetti.
This will help you to consider the core, emotional and functional aspects of your culture, such as whether your business and teams are still operating from an appropriate set of beliefs and values – or whether new and unhelpful beliefs have pervaded the organisation, for example.
Similarly, it will prompt you to consider if your culture creates a sense of psychological safety for your employees and stakeholders, and if so, what if anything ensures that this will be sustained?
A variety of tools is also available to help you consider if your culture is promoting diversity and profiting from the different approaches and preferences this offers. One that we like and use is called Prophet, which will help you leverage diversity to improve individual and team performance.
Please feel free to call or contact us if you would like further insight into any of the tools mentioned above.
The understandable desire for speed and efficiency can result in ever more focused management routines and meeting agendas, and clearly there are many occasions when this is appropriate.
Whilst it might feel counter-intuitive, there is also value in creating deliberate spaces in your routines to allow thoughts and feelings to emerge that may otherwise pose a risk to delivery. This will also create opportunities to recall some of those issues that may have escaped you in the frenzy of the moment yet continue to nag at your unconscious which knows that they warrant your attention.
Team check-ins, including some with no predefined agenda, can be invaluable to maintain cohesion and to avoid unhelpful mis-understandings and hearsay that will otherwise inhibit collaboration; especially in the era of remote working.
These restorative mechanisms can be very important to maintain your speed and direction of progress in the face of competitive challenges and external headwinds.
Behaviours and skills
The three behaviours we have chosen to highlight here all have the potential to contribute meaningfully to the acceleration and consolidation of your progress, no matter which phase of growth you are navigating nor the size of your business.
Furthermore, they all appear superficially simple – how often have you heard that said about the best ideas?
Rather than repeat the works of others that amply make the case for each of them, we have instead shared one or two sources that have influenced our thinking.
Three recommendations associated with this topic are:
- Time To Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind, by Nancy Klein
- The Coaching Habit, by Michael Bungay Stanier
- NLP at Work, by Sue Knight
There is so much insight available to us simply by paying closer attention not only to what others are saying, but also, for example, the language they are using to say it, the beliefs they may be operating from and what they may be filtering in or out, consciously or otherwise. Listening is a fascinating and rich topic that can transform team performance, for example, and all of the sources above offer insights and practices that you can apply immediately.
Deliberately seeking out and trying to understand the perspectives of others is another skill that we can easily embed into day to day individual and team routines. It offers significant potential to strengthen innovation and decision-making and hence accelerate progress towards long-term goals.
We have provided a helpful link below to an article from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania that explains the research and neuroscience behind perspective-taking and contains a further link to practical brain hacks that you can do to strengthen this particular ‘muscle’.
This skill is integral to so many aspects of leadership and yet its components and how they interact to create an engaging narrative are less widely recognised.
Just as with culture, a tool or framework is helpful to distil this and make it more amenable to management, which is precisely what Donald Miller offers us in his book entitled Building A Story Brand. Once again, the book offers practical tools and tips and its insights are applicable to all contexts where a coherent story is needed to engage and influence an audience.
Investing a little time to explore these insights and refine your narratives will very likely pay back through greater engagement with both internal and external audiences.
There is seemingly a business tool for every conceivable need today and more are being developed all the time, not least as AI starts to transform the efficiencies and insights on offer.
A key challenge for growing businesses is to create a coherent and scalable infrastructure that will promote efficiency and support growth at proportionate cost and complexity.
In some cases, truly scalable solutions can prove too expensive and unnecessarily complex in the early phases of growth, and so as always, a key challenge for management is to judge when critical junctures will arise that demand pivotal, rather than incremental infrastructure investments. We will cover more on this in a future blog.
Meanwhile, the challenge remains to avoid an unnecessary proliferation of tools in the business that will require consolidation later. You can do this by managing use cases and the actual use of tools carefully, and by conducting periodic reviews to ensure that both still make sense as your business evolves.
The risk of inaction is that tools and channels of communication become saturated with less and less relevant content, blunting their focus and reducing their value to your teams. They may then react by adopting alternatives, compounding the problem over time.
In the moment, reviewing your use of tools may feel like an investment of time that you would rather skip. However, it is our experience that to do so is to risk a hidden ‘drag anchor’ both on your progress and on the efficiency and motivation of your teams.
There are many reflective strategies and habits you can develop individually to accelerate and sustain your progress towards the outcomes you want.
A simple yet very effective example is journaling – the simple act of noting down regularly what you have done, what you have noticed and what you have learnt that you could apply in future. This can bring insights to our consciousness that might otherwise get swept away, as explained earlier.
You could equally reflect on all of the headings above from a personal perspective:
- Do you have clarity of purpose?
- What strategies are you running to achieve your personal goals and what choices and trade-offs do these entail? Are you exposing these to challenge and refinement by third parties?
- What behaviours and skills do you most want to develop, perhaps by observing and modelling them through the actions of others?
Physical and mental well-being
Finally, the pandemic has brought into sharper focus the value of attending to our physical and mental well-being. Research such as that referenced above by the Wharton School demonstrates how valuable it is to give our brains a rest from problem-solving, which can actually increase our capacity for innovation.
So take out the earpods and switch off the external stimuli from time to time. As Gino Wickman points out in his useful book for which a link is provided below, ‘traction’ (progress towards a goal) is the opposite of ‘distraction’.
Finally, consciously engaging third-party support can be another way of accelerating your own progress. One or more of mentoring, coaching or peer group networks, for example, can all help you expose your strategies and ideas to the constructive challenge of peers, advisors and partners. They can help you refine them and address any gaps, blockers or ambiguities that you might otherwise overlook or avoid.
The approach we are advocating in this blog is not to act slowly, nor to slow down per se. It is to ensure that speed and quality of thinking and decision-making are held in an appropriate creative tension in key source activities. These focal-points will help accelerate and underpin your progress and determine outcomes during the present (and possibly next-) phase of your business’s evolution. An excess of speed at the expense of the other two will likely slow you down over time.
In the real-world, these activities can and do happen in parallel – constant reflection whilst moving at speed is something all entrepreneurs and leaders will recognise. However, significant benefits flow from consciously building in space and time at critical moments and into regular management routines.
The returns on your investment of a little extra time for reflection, exposure to challenge and to sharpen your skills are likely to include:
- An energetic reconnection with your sense of purpose and meaning
- A closer alignment between your purpose, culture and strategy
- The discovery of diverse new perspectives and strategies
- Increased buy-in and ownership of strategy across all your stakeholders
- More efficient use of available capacity
- More aligned energy across different teams
- Improved collaboration between business functions
- Accelerated and more sustainable progress towards the outcomes you want
Would you like to find out more about accelerating your strategy development and delivery with the help of a business coach? Book a call below, contact us online or call 0345 222 5618 to start the conversation.