Thursday, October 24, 2013

Strategic Planning Analogy #512: Working on the House

I was recently eating at a Taco Bell restaurant where the inside temperature was only 63 degrees Fahrenheit (about 16 degrees Celsius). It was so cold, I had to eat lunch with my coat on (and it is only October). This got me to thinking…

Imagine that you have a home-based business and that your home is extremely cold. The extreme cold in your house causes your typical day to have problems like these:

  1. Much of your day is spent trying to create warmth, doing things like:
    1. Chopping wood for the fireplace.
    2. Doing exercises to warm up.
    3. Checking the thermostat.
    4. Heating pots of water on the stove. 
  1. Working on your laptop, smartphone and tablet is difficult because you are bundled up in bulky clothes and wearing mittens on your hands. 
  1. Lots of money is wasted on utility costs in a futile attempt to warm the place. 
  1. Because of the pre-occupation with the cold, you find it hard to concentrate on anything else (like your home-based business).

If you had to deal with problems like that day after day after day, I suspect that your home-based business would be a disaster.

Now let’s suppose that instead of focusing on trying to do work IN the house, you tried to do work ON the house. You go around inspecting the house. What you find is that there are several big holes in your wall exposing you to the cold outside environment. In addition, you find that the insulation in the walls is missing.

After spending a little time working ON the house (fixing walls and insulation), you quickly notice that it becomes a lot easier to do your business IN the house, because now it is comfortably warm all day.

  1. You gain back all that time wasted on trying to heat the house.
  2. It is easier to work on your devices when not wearing mittens.
  3. Your utility bills go way down.
  4. It is easier to concentrate on the business now that the distraction of being cold is gone.

And now the home-based business is a lot more successful.

In the world of business, you have two choices on how to spend your time. You can spend your time either:

  1. Working IN the business (doing the daily stuff which keeps the process in operation); or
  2. Working ON the business (doing the big-picture stuff which improves the structure of the business and its ability to win in the marketplace).

Both are important; both need attention. But for leaders, more time needs to be spent working ON the business rather than IN the business.

I believe that leadership in most businesses under-allocates time working ON the business. It’s easy to understand why. Fixing the crisis of the day (IN the business) sucks up time leaving little left for the examining the big structure (ON the business). But, as we can see in the story, that approach is very unproductive.

The crisis of the day in the story was the cold temperature. Extensive time and money were wasted trying to find ways to get the work done in this environment. Dealing with trying to work through the crisis was crippling the business (working IN the business wasn’t working).

However, by taking time to step away from the day to day and look at the big picture, one could easily see that the overall structure of the house was inadequate. After fixing the structure (the holes and the insulation), the crisis went away. Productivity skyrocketed. By spending time ON the business, the work being done IN the business got a whole lot more productive—more productive than what could be achieved by merely working in the business.

The principle here is that structure matters. How you structure the business can have a big impact on how effective the work is inside the business. Even if your employees are hardworking and want to succeed, if the structure is wrong, that effort will be as effective as trying to use devices with your mittens on.

Structural Questions
Structural issues would include questions like these:

1.     Do you have a winning position in the marketplace (a reason for customers to prefer you)? If you have no reason to win, then you will lose, even if you work hard. Working hard at mediocrity or in offering the same as everyone else will not get people to prefer you. The winning position is the foundation of your structure. Without a solid foundation, the structure will fall and crush your operations. Everyone gets all excited about the smartphone business, but keep in mind that only Apple and Samsung are making a profit in this segment. The others are working very hard IN the business of smartphones, but they are losing because they have not developed sustainable positions which create a natural reason to prefer them. Unless they first address this issue (working ON the position), their efforts IN the smartphone business will be wasted. You can read more about this concept here.

2.     Do you have a business model which is designed to give you an edge in achieving your position? Why should you expect to win if you do not have a structure designed to increase your odds of achieving superiority at your point of differentiation/winning? Just working harder in the business is usually not enough. Think about hard discount retailers like Aldi. They create a preference based on a low price position. These low prices are not achieved by merely working harder IN the grocery business. No, they are achieved by working ON a structure which makes low prices easier to obtain:

a.      Very Limited Assortments
b.     Virtually all Private Label Store Brands
c.      No Service
d.     Selling from pallets of open boxes rather than placing individual items on the shelf.

This structure gives an edge in achieving the low price position which businesses under a more conventional structure cannot touch.

3.     Have you supplied the business with adequate levels of capacity and competency? Working hard IN the business will not lead to success if your structure is missing the capacity and competency needed to win. Without an adequate supply chain (access to enough raw materials, manufacturing capacity, distribution capacity, etc.), your work IN the business will not be able to deliver on the promises. Similarly, without the needed knowledge, skills, and tools, harder work will be wasted work. The lack of capacity and competency is like the lack of insulation in that house. It prevents the work inside the house from being productive. In the modern economy of tech firms like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple, and other social media firms, there is an understanding that if you cannot get an adequate capacity of engineering competency, you cannot deliver the winning position. Therefore, the winners design structures which create an edge in attracting and keeping this component.   

Role of Leaders
Answering these three questions is the role of leadership. They are the ones who need to step away from the day to day to think about the structure. Thinking back to the story, they need to ask: Where are the holes in the house? Where do I need more insulation? Do I need to build an addition to the house? Do I need to totally remodel the house?

If the leaders do not proactively make the time to step away from being IN the business to work ON the business, it will not get done. The crisis of the day will naturally choke it out. Like the story, you will spend so much time and effort dealing with the cold that there is little left for focusing on winning in the marketplace.

The lower levels are too closely tied to the day-to-day or their little area of specialty. They cannot see the whole structure. Only the leaders can wrap their arms around the bigger picture. And when you do, the improvements can be amazing.

And the fancy word we give to all this attention to structure is STRATEGY.

Hard work is nice, but it can be a lot of wasted effort if the business structure is wrong. When all of your time is focused on finding ways to do more work IN the business rather than first working ON the business to make sure it is set up to win, you are merely creating action, not results. A good business structure has a winning position, a business model which supports the position, and enough capacity and competency to deliver on the promise of the position. If you do not work ON the business to build this kind of structure, your work IN the business is going to go nowhere.

The key here is delegation. Leaders need to delegate more of the day-to-day so that they can spend increased time on the bigger picture.

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