Posts Tagged ‘business’

Outside the Lines

Have you ever watched a small child who was learning to craw go exploring?  They move about three to five feet, stop, look back to see if you are still there, and then take off again.  The more comfortable they become, the less they look back.  Somehow, many of us as adults, have lost that drive to “explore.”  Why?

Obviously, a young child doesn’t know when they are moving toward something that will cause discomfort.  Over time, they will learn, and become more selective about what to explore.  In any case, during the maturation period, they will lean toward exploring, and not worrying too much about discomfort.  They will grow up in a world riddled with rules, limits, and restrictions; even so, they will continuously test the rules.  By the time they are adults, they know where the lines are and have a predilection to stay within them.  –  Whoa, I better not go there.  It’s comfortable here.

From a business perspective, we need to operate more like an exploring child, than someone who lives within the lines.  Often the ‘fear of failure’ is the deciding factor in trying something new.  However, if you want to survive, you must go outside the lines.  And believe me, from a resource (time, people, and money) perspective, it is much better to choose to explore, than to be forced by outside forces to cross the lines.

While there are many processes that business owners use to play outside the lines, most can be narrowed down to a few simple steps.

  1. You must understand your comfort zone, AND why you are comfortable there. This is your first line to cross.
  2. Determine the best and worst-case possibilities for your journey. What is the best thing that can happen to your business and what is the worst thing that can happen to your business?  This is your second line to cross.
  3. Visualize what success looks like. This is more than a glossy picture, or sketch, of your business.  You must identify the most critical attributes of that visualization.  It’s like, being able to describe your (future) business to a new acquaintance.  Mentally, spend time there.  This is the third line to cross.
  4. At every step of the journey, you must capture the learning process.
    – What resources do you need? (time, people, and money)
       – What did you try? Did it work, or not work?  Why?
    – What competencies and capabilities are you building?  What are you going to
    need when you get there?
    – What is happening to your base business as you move along?
    –  In other words, craw three to five feet, stop, look back, and then take off again.

To create that future business, you must play outside the lines.  Successful businesses who succeed in this transition will be those that follow a plan that enables them to manage risks and seize opportunities along the way, while continuously pushing their organization forward.

It is an exciting journey; enjoy the trip.


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Maineville Manufacturing (FICT) was a medium size second generation company producing metal parts primarily for a handful of larger companies.  While competition was challenging, their long-standing reputation for quality and service usually placed them near the front of the line with their customers.  Like many privately held companies their supplier base, for the most part, had grown up with them.  One of their oldest suppliers (OS) was also a second generation business whose relationship was established by the founders of both companies.

After a long battle, Maineville Mfg., finally landed a large customer who needed a sophisticated component part for a new product.  The new customer would generate very good volume but with much smaller margins than Maineville Mfg. was accustomed.  They knew that they could build the capacity to produce the component part; however, it required a very high-quality precision fitting.  (The prototype component part was internally produced by Maineville at a very high cost, primarily the result of the precision fitting.)

Maineville Mfg. had identified two outside suppliers that could produce the precision fitting; one was highly recommended by the new customer.  Their only existing supplier that could produce the precision fitting was their long-time friend OS.  All three provided a good sample fitting during the development stage.

Maineville’s problem was that OS was excited about possibly being part of the new venture.  However, Maineville knew, based on experience, that OS might not be as reliable as the two outside suppliers.  Over the years, Maineville had developed internal quality control processes, at their expense, to occasionally catch and fine-tune parts received from OS.

Now that Maineville had landed this new customer, they had to lock in their precision fitting supplier.  The next step required Maineville, within sixty days, to produce a test batch of component parts, validate engineer processes and quality control standards, and confirm reliable sourcing relationships and specifications.

Which supplier should Maineville choose to produce the precision fitting, and why?  What did Maineville do?  What would you do?  — This might surprise you.  They worked with OS to put in place a rigorous quality control process at OS.  Their long-term relationship was that important to them.

Looking back, it would have been much better if Maineville had addressed the quality issues with OS when they first started, rather than covering for them over the years.  Don’t worry about “hurting feelings” when business issues are at hand.  Be respectful, be considerate, be understanding, be fair, but most of all be honest about the situation.

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Recently I observed a conversation between two business men where one individual was trying to sell the other.  It was obviously a first meeting.  Out-of-the-gate, the seller took an aggressive posture hell-bent on closing the deal.  He was dead in the water and didn’t know it because he violated some fundamental lessons that I learned many years ago when I worked for Dun & Bradstreet.  It turned out to be a short meeting.  What were the lessons?

Lesson 1.  Do your homework before the meeting.  Know everything you can about the company, its owner(s), markets, industry, etc.  This gives you a foundation to understand comments made about the business.

Lesson 2.  Get to know the person you are talking to.  Ask them about their company, what they do, what they make, who they sell to, their competition, etc.  Also, ask personal questions.  Tell me a little about you.  Why did you start your business?  What keeps you up at night?  Questions that promote insight and discovery.

Lesson 3.  Be very clear about your purpose for the meeting.  For example, ‘my purpose for meeting today is to take a little time in understanding your business and the issues you are facing to determine if my services/products can help you.’  Establish a constructive foundation for the dialogue.  You want to help the buyer see their issues from a different perspective.

Lesson 4.  Get the owner’s permission to ask certain questions.  For example, can I ask you about your biggest challenge today?  Would it be okay to talk a little about ……?  Establish a safe environment for dialogue.

Lesson 5.  Determine as quickly as possible whether your products/services can help the buyer.  Identify how you can help; be clear in your explanation.  Provide tactful suggestions.

Lesson 6.  Determine if the person you are talking to is the decision-maker for buying your products/services.  This includes having the authority to spend the funds.

Lesson 7.  Listen, listen, listen, listen from the perspective of Lessons 1 and 2.  Stay connected; don’t drift off into your own world.  Listening establishes the foundation for advanced discussion.

I can’t say for certain whether these lessons would have gotten him the sale.  But I am certain they would have gotten him the conversation.


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Last year, the Future of Jobs Report developed by the World Economic Forum identified the Top 10 Skills in 2020.  The top six were:

  • Complex Problem Solving
  • Critical Thinking
  • Creativity
  • People Management
  • Coordinating with Others
  • Emotional Intelligence

Finding this very interesting, I did some research to see if I could identify critical skills identified in 2007 to see what has changed in just ten years.  Here are a few:

  • Communication Skills
  • Honesty and Integrity
  • Strong Work Ethic
  • Computer Skills
  • Teamwork
  • Analytic Skills

While there is some connection between these two sets of skills, the change is telling.  Let’s look at a few:

Complex Problem Solving.  According to the World Economic Forum report, complex problem solving is defined “as the capacity needed to solve new, poorly defined problems in complex situations.”  It is the ability to solve real-time problems that are not clearly defined in a dynamic and complex world that cannot be addressed by routine actions.  Whoa!

Critical Thinking.  According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, critical thinking is defined as “… that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it….”  The focus is on objectively analyzing a problem by assessing evidence (data), patterns, relationships, etc. in order to arrive at an informed decision.

While the skill definitions seem overwhelming, in the simplest of terms, both are ‘mind sets.’  It is how we think about the problems/opportunities we are facing.  In other words, recognizing that many of the problems/opportunities facing business are not only below the observed surface, they are also complex, dynamic, and often obscured by fuzzy signals.

Compare these two to the 2007 skills, which are important, and think about how we have been educating and training our workforce for the last ten years.  Interestingly, the number one challenge I hear from business owners is that they cannot find qualified workers.  So, how does someone acquire these skills?  How does a company even begin to interview for this talent?  Where does it begin?

It begins with the leadership of the company “challenging the conventional thinking” within the organization.  It is a new mind set; it is a culture.  The first step is recognizing you will often have to dig below the surface of the observed problem/opportunity in order to grasp the substance/complexity of what you are dealing with, ‘before’ applying resources (time, people, and money) to act on it.  The descriptions say it all, we live in a more challenging environment than we did just ten years ago that requires a different skill set to survive and prosper.  Your move.

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I was recently talking to a young executive in a large corporation who was frustrated with his boss.  His frustration centered around his perception of his boss’s indecisiveness, guidance, and commitment to a very important project.  He said, “I can’t believe the executive team doesn’t see what is going on.”  If you have been in business long enough, you no doubt have experienced this frustration.  Maybe not with your boss, but certainly with a coworker or fellow manager.

It has been my experience that in most situations the level above the young executive, and all those impacted by the project, know what he is dealing with.  So, they are all watching.  Not only the progress of the project, but also how he is managing himself in a difficult situation.  Early in my career I was made an assistant manager of a department where the department manager had his issues.  I had to learn how to effectively manage the department in spite of the challenges.  It was only much later that I learned the Vice President of the division knew the situation and was watching/hoping I could get the department back on track.  I did, but it was frustrating because I didn’t think people knew how bad it was.  I never forgot this.

However, I don’t believe that above example is the norm; it happens but not often.  More often the frustrated young executive “believes” that their boss is disconnected when in fact, they are challenging the young executive to figure it out without a lot of hand-holding.  I have distributed responsibility and provided direction to many managers over the years.  I was crystal clear in what I needed but I wanted them to develop their own ideas and processes to carry out my direction.  Sometimes I knew that they had to deal with difficult people in order to be successful, but they had to figure it out. – Not only was I watching, in many cases, so was my boss.

One of my favorite sayings I tell young managers is that “You have to be able to sit at a table with Mother Teresa on your left and Attila the Hun on your right, and still carry out your direction/responsibilities.” – Remember, they are watching.


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One of my early recollections of a ‘sound bite’ was “War is Hell.”  Our fathers, the greatest generation, had returned from WWII and this expression was occasionally heard in those rare conversations about the war.  What was the substance of this simple snippet?  Four years of global war that touched every family in this country.  It was a fact; war is hell.

With the onset of the digital world, social media, instant news, and our rushed lifestyle, we have become more dependent on sound bites to find out what is going on in the world.  Just look at the number of twitter messages you receive in a day.  The problem is you cannot determine the substance of these sound bites/snippets.  Let’s look at what I believe was the biggest sound bite used in our recent political campaign.  First, let me say that I am not taking a political position on this example.

Make American Great Again. – How many people cast votes driven by this slogan?  I am all-in on wanting a great America; we all do.  Personally, I think we are still great.  However, I wonder about what is meant by ‘again.’  Greater than what period?  Pick a decade in the last 100 years that defines the point of reference for the word ‘again.’  What do you want to return to?

In the months following the election, I have had the opportunity to occasionally ask people what the slogan meant.  There were many responses that identified singular issues that bugged them, e.g., taxes are too high.  Others were more general, e.g., Washington D.C is broken.  However, no one could adequately describe the ‘again.’  To many, it was a catchy ‘feel good about America’ statement, so they ran with it.

The greatest contribution each of us can make when referencing a sound bite/snippet that we find interesting is to investigate the substance of its meaning, and then, describe it in our own words.  Don’t just pronounce it like everybody else.  Doing so you are accepting the absence of identifiable substance, and missing the opportunity to add real value.  You either help to debunk it, or support its message.  Either of which is of real value

One symbol and motto, widely used in the election, would have been better served if its “history” was known.  Two hints: it first appeared on a drum and Marines.  What is it?

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square peg round hole

Did you ever watch a toddler trying to put the pieces of a wooden puzzle in the proper hole?  Over and over again they try to find a way to get the round peg into the square hole.  It is an interesting learning and discovery process to observe.  Eventually, they discover the right hole and then move on to the next piece repeating the process.  Over time, they figure the puzzle out.  Interestingly, as adults, we have a natural tendency to continue to play this game.  The difference is we don’t know we are playing it.

While the world has gone through significant change over the past five to ten years, some have struggled to adapt to the changes.  Harder and harder they bang on the round peg believing that it must fit into that square hole.  Nowhere is this more apparent than with our political system.  What they fail to realize is that what we are experiencing is nothing like what we have experienced in the past.  It is a new playing field all together.

Unfortunately, the strongest point of reference for dealing with the “new” is often what worked for us in the past.  In effect, we tend to see the new through ‘old’ glasses.  So, our options quickly come to the surface.  And then we get upset with the results.  Maybe if we hit the peg harder.

What is interesting about change is that most businesses quickly figure it out, younger generations embrace it, and advanced institutions are riding it into the future.  However, many of our political pundits are stuck in the government labyrinth and will never figure it out. –  It looks impossible.

Many years ago, I came up with the following quote: “Nothing is more disruptive to the current state than a change in reality.”  What we are dealing with today is a change in reality, and it is disruptive.  No matter how hard they hit the round peg it is not going into square hole.

I wish I had an answer for our political quagmire; because it is painful to watch.

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