Posts Tagged ‘focus’

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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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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One of the great benefits of the rapid development and integration of computers in our lives is that information/data is ubiquitous.  It is basically available to anyone who wants to discover it.  So, some say, original thoughts are simply a compilation of existing information; a new recipe of existing ingredients.  It reminds me of a quote I ran across years ago:  Charles H. Duell was the Commissioner of US patent office in 1899 when he said that “everything that can be invented has been invented.”

Think of the journey the Wright brothers traveled to develop the foundation of manned-flight.  Remember the term “wonder drugs?”  They were ‘magical’ discoveries.’  I remember the conversations I had with my Uncle Frank, who was born in 1914, about some of the discoveries he experienced in his lifetime.  Even as an engineer, he marveled at the atomic bomb, and in later years personal computers.  Society couldn’t begin to understand the substance of these early discoveries.

For me, I remember in 1964 when I was at the World’s Fair in New York City; we were young kids.  Several of my friends and I walked into a room to get something to eat.  We were directed to a cooler that had hot dogs in small plastic bags.  Quite surprised, we turned to the clerk and said “these are cold.”  He pointed to a machine of some kind and told us to put the hot dogs in it and press the hot dog button.  Sixty seconds later we had steaming hot dogs out of a machine that didn’t get hot.  It was magic.  We couldn’t wait to get back to Kentucky and tell our friends about this magic box.  The funny thing is that we couldn’t adequately explain it.  The magic – a microwave oven.

So, what has changed?  Is original thought dead?  My answer, a resounding NO.  What has changed is the “expectation” of discovery.  Just a few decades ago, society did not expect some of the inventions that have become part of our lives.  Now society recognizes the power of the technology/information/data we have at our fingertips, and how it is going to change our future.  Original thought is not seen as ’discovery;’ it is simply an expectation.  Even to the point where you hear “Why is it taking so long?”



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Everything that is going to happen to your business is already in the making, so why don’t you see it?

I recently read a somewhat scientific article on why we fail to seek risk, or opportunity. Simply stated, it is how you have developed the ability to process information and act on it. Your body does this naturally just to maintain its survival. Just watch animals, they have to be very good at processing information and acting on it or they won’t survive. What about businesses?

The article’s perspective was mostly biological, my perspective is much simpler. We have become very good at being dismissive of signals that are the early signs of change, both good and bad. Why is that? It is easier. Why spend time on things that don’t seem to impact the here and now. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve talked to business people who stated that “I didn’t see this coming.” But when you dig into why they didn’t see it, in many cases, the early signs were everywhere.

I learned long ago that very few things just happen. There is a reason for their existence. You don’t have to dwell on every little thing that pops up, but you should hesitate long enough on those signals that sort-of get your attention. Think about them for a minute and ask yourself: What’s going on here? Is it going to impact me or my business? Do I need to get additional information? Should I keep my eyes on this for a while? I remember a regional sales manager dismissing a small foreign entry into a well-established domestic market by saying “it’s nothing.” Three years later they were a major competitor.

The value of this simple process is that it plants a seed in your thinking that becomes invaluable if the signal comes up again in the future; because when it does it most often will be in a different form. It also provides a perspective that challenges the opinion of others in your organization. How do you know that? Why do you think that?

The future is there to find, but you have to be in a constant state of awareness to have the best chance to be part of that future.

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Why is it so hard for people to maintain a focus on those significant issues that are impacting their lives or businesses? Looking back over the years, I can tell you many stories of how people in business rationalized not dealing with the ‘tough stuff.’ While the stories are as varied as the businesses, the eventual outcomes were similar. In most cases it was like a bad cold that never went away, or in some cases got worse. Eventually, they came to believe that having a bad cold was normal. – Why?

A few years ago, there was a CEO of a fairly large third generation business that was struggling with how to recapture the strategic focus of the business; they had lost their energy and just existed in a slumbering market. Revenues and earnings were suffering, morale was down, and customers were looking for something new. The CEO just couldn’t bring himself to focus on this challenge. Financially, the family was doing ok. Fast forward to today – no change. They have come to accept their lot in life but their future is uncertain.

On the other hand there was Jack and Ashley. Jack is in his late twenties, works two jobs and is a full-time student studying business. After high school, Jack wandered in and out of school and different jobs not really thinking about the future. Then one day, he sat down and began mapping out where he was headed and where he thought he wanted to go. He told me that where he was headed scared the bejabbers out of him; he had to do something. So he mapped out where he wanted to end up and began taking steps to get there. That was three years ago and he hasn’t lost his focus.

Ashley is in her mid-thirties, works one job, and is studying to become a Registered Nurse. This young lady had an extremely rough childhood, left home when she was eighteen and has been on her own ever since. After crashing at the bottom, she made the decision to make something of herself. She had a lot of catching up to do in her academic studies, took extra classes, and worked long hours; all while maintaining a full class load. Failing to achieve her goal was not an option. She will graduate in about a year and is already talking about getting her Masters. Her focus is solid.

You might be asking why I used these last two stories to compare to the one about the CEO. Who runs companies? People. It is all about individual decisions. Entities do not make decisions about what to focus on, CEO’s do. If Jack and Ashley had continued down their original path for a few more years, they might not have changed and simply adjusted to their current state. However, both got to the point where they recognized that the pain of not changing was greater than the pain of changing. Thus, they started to focus on a new path to the future, in effect, they developed a plan of action to do whatever it takes to get there. While their plans weren’t formal like you would expect in business they had many of the same attributes; e.g. strategies, actions, progress, setbacks and adjustments.

It doesn’t matter if you are struggling as individual or a business, your mind will not accept what it is not prepared to deal with. This is the point of reality; the point that you realize you must do something. It’s the beginning of focusing, planning and taking actions for a new future. What are you waiting for?

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