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Break the Cycle of Repetition: Strategize

This situation is typical in businesses where the owner, founder and entrepreneur is still in place. He or she likes what’s been done to create the company and its early success. But what got them there won’t necessarily keep them successful. There’s too much variability and change out there today to stay the course.

So how do you move from habit to the next level of business success? It’s not as easy as you think. Companies with innovative products and solutions can last a long time if the marketplace allows it. Paying attention to the evidence that sales have fallen off by 12 percent in the last three years may not shake an owner into action. It should challenge them to look further into what’s happening. What product is showing the slowest growth? What customer has stopped ordering? These are the faint signals that change is occurring. Better take some action.

Dealing with repetitive tactics is the same as dealing with a habit. You don’t even realize that it’s a habit until someone points it out. Habits have lost their cognitive component some while ago. There’s no longer any thought, just rote activity. Such behavior is the end of a senior executive’s career. So what can be done to change that behavior?

Open and candid discussions within the firm that are spontaneous — with no judgments for any comments offered — are certainly a first signal. CEOs and owners who listen to their teams and listen well by repeating back what was said so it registers will begin to hear some reasons to change how business gets done.

Open-ended questions allow for greater detail than simple yes or no answers. Ideas for shoring up the company’s products or services with additional features may provide another one or two years of sales. Calling on customers is another idea to find out what they are really looking for. If they’re honest and want to continue to work with you, they’ll be candid. Otherwise they will find a way to make you feel good, then order from a competitor.

For radical changes to be made there’s a need to organize the process and to candidly assess where you are with your team and then stretch the limits of thinking by not only finding a compelling reason for change, but to also find the right path to future sales and success. This is not an easy exercise. For one thing the owner or CEO cannot be the driver of change, another team member must be.

Anyone with a time horizon of yesterday is automatically disqualified. Anyone with a process that was used elsewhere may help as long as it’s not adopted verbatim. A person who likes to give people forms to fill out as a way of changing behavior is also disqualified.

It’s now the middle of the last business quarter for 2015. This is typically when I’ll get called to help facilitate the end-of-the-year strategy meeting to plan for 2016. If it’s just to plan for the next year, the focus is usually operations and an extrapolation of last year’s results pushed forward.

Real planning begins when I hear that the planning focus is at least three years forward. Strategy is management’s game plan for strengthening the performance of the enterprise a few years ahead. That’s an opportunity to build on the past and not be buried there.

It’s an opportunity to expand the dialog. It’s about talking, challenging, debating and listening. Courageous communication, it’s been called. Strategizing is another descriptor. It’s about looking at data in real time and learning from the patterns that you discern. Then see how long the patterns last in the discussion before changing them. A business need not fear strategizing. It’s not something mystical but very practical.

For how long will you continue to make the same products in the same ways and expect sales to grow? Why not, every three years, look at what can be successful strategies to adopt to keep your company viable and profitable in the marketplace? Strategies take into consideration both the short-term and long-term goals of a company.

A typical strategy planning process includes a rigorous assessment of strengths and vulnerabilities, examining data trends from the marketplace and from your customers, looking at a few business possibilities based on company strengths, shoring up areas that are weak, and making a realistic prediction of what the market will do and how your company will succeed in that market or one that you create.

Your senior team, whether two or more people, should participate in the strategizing process. An outside resource who can facilitate the meetings allows you to participate more freely without having to juggle the agenda and your thoughts at the same time. Discussions follow the rules of no judgment of the ideas presented: Candor is encouraged, relevant data and evidence are prepared in advance and presented when appropriate. An open mind to new ideas is expected. Willingness to change routine and try new practices is a must. Allow your board of advisers, if you have one, to provide input to the discussion.

Open communications, questions to ask for clarifications, critical thinking and the courage to say, “Let’s try that” will make the process succeed. Be careful not to influence too much of the discussion so team members are encouraged to speak their minds. Consider asking thought-provoking questions like, “So how do we navigate the unchartered waters that lie ahead?” and “Is this strategy sustainable; what obstacles does it have?” Be the provocateur to get the most out of the process you use.

Business owners like to write the draft of the final plan. You may want to run the draft by selected members of your team or the whole team if it’s small enough. Implementation is the last step and that’s informing the rest of the team what direction the company will be taking in the next few years and what mindset they can adopt to make it happen collectively and individually. Embracing individual goals tied to the new plan is critical for implementation and taking the time to assure they are understood and agreed to is very important.

As the strategy is implemented, the monitoring process begins. What results is it achieving? Where does it need to be tweaked? Periodic reviews can evaluate the success of the effort.

Letting go of habit thinking, to thinking that is collaborative, realistic, forward-looking and optimistic is the new challenge for sustainable success. Mr. Anonymous said it best: “Sometimes people with the worst past create the best future.”

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