Category: Management practice

What is your attitude to an opportunity?

Entrepreneurs are supposedly able to spot opportunities and then to exploit them. But sometimes opportunities are presented to you on a plate, whether you are entrepreneurial or not.

For example, a customer comes to you and says “I want your Product X, but I would like it bigger/smaller, in a different colour, packaged in a different way……. oh, and I want to pay the same price as if I bought the plain vanilla Product X.” You have the opportunity to: earn money; get a new customer who may tell others about you; do something new and interesting, and so get some more job satisfaction; get paid to develop a ‘new’ product that increases your range of products on offer and that might be sold to others.

For some people however, such an opportunity causes stress. The stress of entering into new waters, of the unknown, of moving out of your comfort zone. The stress of having to learn so as to make the changes. The stress from sensing there are risks, perhaps a downside like wasted time and loss of income if the customer eventually turns round and says no, or if the new product doesn’t work, or if the costs of the new product are too high. The stress of having to reorganise ‘normal’ life to accommodate the extra work.

In large companies, there may well be a team of people or a system that helps organise the process of dealing with new opportunities. There will be risk analysis and cost analysis tools, there will other people to discuss your questions and doubts with, there will be more flexibility in budget allocation, and in some highly innovative companies risk-taking is actively encouraged. But in a small business it usually comes down to the experience and gut feeling of the owner or key decision maker. So here is a simple checklist for you to help with decisions about new opportunities that land on your plate:

  1. Does it fit more or less with my overall business model and goals?
  2. Can it be profitable, if not in the short term then certainly at some point in the medium future?
  3. If we go with the opportunity, does it open up further profitable opportunities? Or might it actually close off opportunities?
  4. Do we have the capability to deliver a development project, the people, the knowledge, the experience from solving the sort of problems any new project brings, the time, the spare capacity, the upfront money and the cash flow?
  5. What do we have to give up to do this project?
  6. What can go wrong? What are the consequences if it goes wrong?
  7. Can we control the project? Or will the project end up driving us?

 

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Learning to build co-operation between businesses

In bquest we are working with a client to help them develop a long-term ‘strategic relationship’ with a new customer (call it what you will – alliance, partnership, co-operation, collaboration, joint venture, understanding). The client wants the relationship to go beyond a simple seller/buyer relationship (a short-term transactional relationship) to one where both sides expect to work and learn together long-term, sharing some of the risks, for mutual benefit. The relationship might turn out to be a loose one or it might evolve into something more formal and contractual.

The approach we have taken is firstly to get our client into the same room with the intended partner. Face-to-face contact is essential. There have been exchanges of emails and telephone calls beforehand, so the first face-to-face meeting had an agenda of working together on a particular task, in this case the development of a new product. Focusing firstly on a joint task makes it easier for both sides to interact as they are both in their comfort zones.

During the meeting, actually a series of meetings held over two days, we started mixing work on the task with social activities, like having chats over coffee about family and having dinner together, and also with ‘prompt questions’ (from bquest) to elicit:

  1. Shared goals and values. Do both sides share a core set of goals and values? Are there any differences which are deal breakers?
  2. Each party’s vision of their own future, and what their vision of a relationship might look like. Are they more or less in alignment?
  3. Can they get along together. Working on a task gives both sides a common history, itself a powerful aid to a long-term relationship, but can both sides laugh together? A shared humour is so powerful.
  4. Their degree of trust in each other and, importantly, can they grow that trust? Are they prepared to open up, to be transparent?
  5. Practical actions, the concrete next steps to take to progress the task. Relationships work better when there is a common task to achieve and when both sides can see real progress being made.

The above forms a simple framework to measure the potential for a sound long-term relationship. If you can put a tick next to each one, you have the basis for progressing and deepening the relationship.

A sixth need, once both partners agree to progress the relationship, will be to develop:

  1. Some more or less detailed ground rules for managing the relationship and the differences (conflicts) that may emerge as circumstances and actors change. ‘Rules’ may be out on the table or they may be undeclared and only assumed; if assumed, they may need to be checked, and rechecked periodically, to avoid later misunderstandings.

The above model isn’t rocket science. Isn’t this the basis for most strong business (and personal) relationships? But do you use such a model in a conscious way? Do you use prompt questions carefully and purposefully to investigate and confirm that both sides are in agreement about the relationship?

If you are not an expert in asking the right prompt questions, maybe bquest can help you.

 

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Learning to make the most of trade fairs

I recently spent a day exhibiting bquest at a trade fair, the North-east Expo at Newcastle, UK. The knees were shot after a day of standing, I had a headache from the lack of fresh air in the exhibition hall, and my jaw hurt from smiling at everyone. So, normal.

What does this have to do with a blog about employee development and business growth?

From this experience of exhibiting bquest, I have a few observations firstly about exhibiting your business effectively, and, if you are a visitor to an exhibition, about how to make the most of your time when walking round. As a busy manager, you don’t often get time out from the daily pressures of work, so make the most of them.

For exhibitors at trade fairs – connect with visitors!

1) Watch the eyes of visitors as they walk around. Some people can walk around without apparently seeing anything. Others walk around looking at their mobile phone. Some don’t look up, keeping their eyes down and
looking at what’s on the table displays. Others seem to look at you but actually look through you. Only a few actively make eye contact and look carefully at what you have to offer!

From this I conclude that you have to have something about you that will catch visitors’ eyes. A knockout banner stand? An interactive table display? A snazzy suit? Or maybe you can stand out in front of the table and approach people as they walk past? Whatever, you have to get eye contact with them to connect with them!

Of course, you can’t spend a lot of time with everyone. Ideally, you only want to engage with potential customers, so you should do some mental filtering and profile the ideal customers you might want. As this is very difficult to do accurately, I first try and connect with anyone and everyone who passes by, with a few words, and only when I have a few clues about who they are, what they do, what their interest is do I then
decide whether to try and engage more deeply with them and progress the conversation.

2) My work involves ‘developing people’. Almost all visitors will have preconceived ideas what this means. They are not experts in people development. So I try and have a five second description to help visitors understand me. In answer to the often asked question “What do you do?” I say “I am a specialist in developing people to develop their business. I am not a trainer or academic. I focus on coaching owners and managers to solve problems, to implement important change projects, to grow the business and to make more profit. For some companies, I also provide a complete system of continuing development at work for key employees.”

And I have a handout that repeats this ready to give out.

If they show signs of interest at this point, I then continue by asking them what their interests are. If they show no signs, I don’t say any more and I let them decide whether they want to continue talking with me. In a trade fair, you have to be tough on time but friendly with people.

3) After any conversation that I think should be followed up after the exhibition, I make a few notes, usually on the business card they give me. If I don’t, I can never distinguish one person from another at a later date. My notes are ‘triggers’ which, when I read them the next day, trigger memories of the person and why they are interesting to me.

These observations are by no means a comprehensive guide; maybe though they trigger some thoughts about what might work for you.

For visitors to trade fairs – be selective and purposeful!

1) Honestly, this is so mind-numbingly simple…….. Prepare before you go! What are your concerns, goals, interests, etc? Who do you want to see? Plan your route around the fair to optimize your time. I don’t know about you but after a couple of hours of walking round anything (fairs, museums, galleries, shops) I have had enough, I get banner-stand blind.

So use your time budget wisely.

2) When walking round, stop and look ahead as far as you can see and scan each exhibitor. You should be standing in a neutral place, not connected to any exhibitor. Pick the ones you want to take a closer look at, and walk past the others, avoiding eye contact, to get to them. This way, you can usually avoid being sold to by people whose products or services you don’t want. (If you pass an exhibitor who, out of the corner of your eye, looks like they maight be interesting, you can always come back.) Of course, if you pass an exhibitor who has taken my advice to exhibitors above, you might still get collared; then you have to have a simple script to politely decline, for example “I’m sorry, but I am tight for time and I have few key people I must meet. If I have any spare time I will come back.” And walk on.

These observations seem to me banal and obvious. They are common sense, But, sadly, from the exhibition today it is clear they are not common practice.!

 

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Common business growth and employee development needs

When we begin the bquest system with clients we initially spend time on understanding the company’s needs and priorities.

We use a strucutured approach based on understanding the company’s business model, what the market will pay for, and what the owners and top management really want for themselves. We can then look at the company’s capabilities and resources, and then identify gaps.

We have met a lot of companies recently, all young, small service companies. I thought it might be interesting to summarise the typical priority development needs we identified in the initial ‘diagnosis’:

  • Develop a more sophisticated approach to pricing for profit.
  • Be more creative in looking for opportunities to grow; become more entrepreneurial.
  • Get the basics of management right, get our critical systems working effectively and efficiently.
  • Develop and use our network to get more word-of-mouth referrals.
  • Get more from our existing customers, by adding further value to them.
  • Differentiate our products/services more clearly, by packaging them.
  • Develop a ‘sowing seeds’ (soft) strategy to capture customers from competitors, by creating dissatisfaction with their current service providers and by promoting ourselves as a brand to be trusted that brings extra value.

What would your list of development needs look like?

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Employee development as a motivational tool

Hah! Now we know for a fact, most managers are ineffective! Surprise, surprise. A study by Heike Bruch and the late, great Sumantra Ghoshal find that 10% of managers take purposeful action, 40% are energetic but unfocused, 30% have low energy, are little focused and tend to procrastinate, and 10% are focused but not very energetic.

Whose fault is this? Well, when I developed the model of competencies required by top managament in a large industrial company, number one on the list was “Create the conditions in which employees can maximise their commitment and value to the organisation”. So you will know what my view is.
During the recent holiday period, I visited a client abroad where we have 14 key employees doing the bquest program. I met them in person at the start 4 months ago but I have been working regularly with them on their development through Skype since then. So the visit was to get them together, with their top managers, and check the energy, focus and commitment to results from everyone were still high. (In many development programs, you sometimes get a dip after the initial burst of enthusiasm.)

After the meeting, which was high energy and fun and showed a lot of cross-function development actions were going on, one of the top managers said to me “I was shocked, in a positive way, how person X has changed. Before, he just did his basic job. He did it well enough, but now he is finding time to make important improvements to his team and to the business.”

By using bquest, the top management in the client company were ‘creating the conditions’ for their key employees. In effect, they were saying to them things like “We think you are important to the company. Your ideas are important to us. You have permission to look at new ways of doing things. Put your mark on the business. Show us what you can do. If you want to do something different, we and bquest will support and help you.”

Employee development, if done well like bquest, is highly motivational; it inspires, it energises and, by focusing, it achieves results.

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How do you develop employees to self-manage?

That was a question raised in a personal development plan of a bquest client whose was frustrated by his company’s lack of business growth.

There is a lot of good practice guidance out there on developing ‘self-directed teams’, ‘time management’ and ‘self-management’, ‘personal effectiveness and productivity”, and so on, but most of it refers to skilled people, professionals and management. The client in question is responsible for line operators in a low tech production environment. The operators are not as prodctive as they should be.

The client calls the operators ‘simple people’, by which he means they have little in the way of qualifications, they work with their hands and not with their brains, they are not very literate or numerate, and they have few aspirations beyond earning enough to live on.

According to the client, these operators do not ‘self-manage’. He gave examples of this as he saw it. In his words, if they saw a broken bottle on the floor, they would leave it. If they were faced with a problem, they did not check with the shift supervisor but did what they thought was right, which often was wrong. They did stupid things like washing an electrical panel with a wet cloth. If they didn’t have the right tool at hand, they would use something else, and damage it.

After being helped to assess whether these and other examples were occasional and exceptional or whether they did actually represent a fundamental problem that was stopping business growth, the client was helped to cluster the examples. From this, it emerged there were four key problems to the lack of ‘self-management’ on the production line:

  1. Operators did not understand the consequences of not following procedures correctly.
  2. They did not always pay attention to detail.
  3. They did not sufficiently care about what they were doing.
  4. He, the client, had low expectations of ‘simple workers’ and this message was being communicated to them, and they naturally lived up (down?) to expectations.

Understanding the cause(s) of the problem was the first step in learning for the client. And learning how to analyse problems using root cause analysis tools like fishbone and 5 Whys.

Of course, there is no one solution. Instead, the client developed a number of actions:

1) Identify the behaviours you want (and the behaviours you don’t want) – pay attention to detail, ask questions when in doubt, measure 5 times and cut once, follow the procedures to the letter, and so on.

2) Use behavioural interviewing methods when recruiting to identify people who, have demonstrated these behaviours in the past. You should try and get the ‘right’ people to begin with, even when recruiting unskilled operators.

2) Define behaviours and standards of the tasks and procedures. These should include the decision criteria when to call in the supervisor for help, what to do when time or other demands are conflicting with the need to do things right, and simple problem solving skills).

3) Train and assess new operators for absolute correctness in doing the procedures, not sufficiency. Get them to do the job right! Do not put new operators next to experienced operators without first giving them training in correct procedures; or they may learn all the short-cuts the experienced operator has developed over time (which may actually work) but without having gained the experience that enables them to take the short-cuts safely. Monitor performance closely to begin with. Have periodic refresher and reinforcement training. Regularly praise correct behaviours. Never tolerate incorrect behaviours. (Depending on the situation, you may accept short cuts that are known to work safely; maybe these should become standard procedures?)

4) Get operators to meet and talk with people down the line, their internal customers in marketing and sales, warehousing and outbound distribution. Show them the consequences of getting it wrong. Give them the financial facts.

5) Give operators ‘ownership’ of their workstation. How this is done will depend on the work situation, but workers can personalise their space, have the names written up or photos put up, have something that is unique to them. If they pick up a broken glass at home, then making work more home like will mean they will transfer their good behaviours.

We will see if this approach works for the client; we can always adapt the strategy as we go along. This is bquest learning in action!

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