This is the time of year when many groups have locked in their plans for next year and are getting ready for the welcome holiday break. Many of those plans are based on great ideas that have been harvested through the year from client and partner trips, conferences, books and speakers.
Instead of contributing to an organization’s growth, however, many of these great intentions will never be realized – and will instead get swept aside in the momentum of the firm’s day-to-day activities.
The truth is this: even though the initial work has been done with the best of intention, the resources that might have been produced, and the new platforms envisioned, will not come to pass.
The challenging fact is that when we put off or make excuses for why we’re not moving forward with a new idea, what we think we’re doing is simply exercising our critical thinking skills. What we’re really doing, however, is empowering these less than desirable outcomes with our unconscious biases towards work that is lower in risk, less complex and without conflict. It’s human nature: we have tendencies that keep us leaning toward our comfort zones – not into the temporary uncomfortable zones of growth.
In my work, I get to sit on the same side of the table with leaders from companies of all sizes and have seen the various ways that well-meaning leaders unintentionally build barriers to growth.
Before we jump in to a few of the most common ways I see these barriers built, I want to remind you that everyone walks into these barriers from time to time. Who among us hasn’t gone to bed without brushing their teeth
?That being said, let’s unpack the top 5 rationalizations that on the surface seem perfectly justified, but in fact are keeping you from your goals.
#1: All of Our Peers are Doing It
You’ll see these fads move through industries like waves. They have names that imply broad application and novelty (TQM, Six Sigma, MBOl Lean, AGILE). Each of them begins with a specific application and real results, and suddenly it becomes the universal answer before the question is even asked. The siren song of these is this: even if the work hasn’t been done to establish clear metrics, there is enough high-level logic to get you to make an investment.
How you know you have it: When you ask what it will do for your firm and are answered with, “well, we do this, this, and this…” and get a spiral of the how with no why. You’ll also have this faint concern that you’re equipping people with something that’s just not quite going to move you forward.
The antidote: You need to do the diagnosis before buying the prescription. This is exactly where some resources spent at the system level can keep you from doing a very expensive roll out of software tools, process methods and training that does not move you closer to the real needs for your clients, employees and shareholders. By doing the work that finds those high leverage points, you’ll conserve resources and immediately see paybacks.
#2: Waiting for Clarity
This one is rampant in larger firms, but shows up in other places, as well. A group of people, perhaps with outside support, lay out a great case for investment and action. They’ve done the diagnosis, tied out the results and made sure the solution works. The project is presented to the decision maker and you hear something like, “great work, let’s wait for (this event, this customer to close, this season to be complete) before we commit.”
How you know you have it: You look around the conference room table and everyone subtly sighs – they know they’ve heard this one before and that the project isn’t coming back. Not only are they losing out on a great project, but this deferral sends a larger message to the group, as well. It may well be that you are making a perfectly rational situational call. But instead, you’re losing out on the team’s initiative to build future great projects.
The antidote: This is when you, the decision maker, need to get completely honest with yourself and your team. Underneath this deferral there is either something concrete or intuitive that needs to be worked. Elapsing time does not improve clarity.
In fact, pushing things down the line locks in the inevitable loss of time, resources and budget.
You can turn this by being specific, digging deep with the group and shining daylight on what makes you uncomfortable. Then, task the group to get to work on those specifics.
#3: We’ll Do It Ourselves
I hear this from many leaders in mid-sized firms who have grown organically and have been able to bootstrap their way to their current position. I find this in groups that have a very strong work ethic, and have been able to breakthrough the competition based on their ability to see things in a new way, and then out hustle their peers to win. The dark side of this is that at some point when the firm needs to scale, they find that doing everything themselves leads to burnout and frustration.
How you know you have it: The most visible symptom is usually when you miss a key external commitment, which quickly shows in your financials. The secondary symptom is a loss of key talent, in which the person leaves for a role where “they can make a difference.”
When you visit a firm that has this, every office you visit shows signs of backlog and clutter – literally no one has had time to do any personal organization. Additionally, there is a culture of massive backlog of to-do lists, where a good diagnostic meeting leads to items 16, 17 & 18 on a leaders to-do list, locking in delayed results at best. The main organizing principle then becomes urgency, and in most cases, it’s the clients pushing the sales teams who are driving the true work stream – leaving the firm to be very reactive.
The antidote: To get back on track, the firm needs new structure, vocabulary and process. In most cases, leadership will need the support of a skilled operations consultant who can help them make shrewd choices that get their key leaders out of reactive mode and into the driver’s seat. Learning these on your own is possible, but is a very, very heavy lift for team members already deep under a full operations agenda. By working with a resource outside the organization, you can create some “green space” and greatly accelerate the establishment of the strategic and tactical gameplan to get back in the driver’s seat of your firm.
#4: We Don’t Have the Budget
You’d be surprised how often I hear this, even from firms that have substantial resources. In the day-to-day activity of business, it can feel like we are totally sold out. Our budget numbers show up, we analyze the variances and it feels like it’s all spent.
How you know you have it: It’s actually a good step to hear this in a discussion, because it usually means that at least the cost side of the work that needs to be completed is under consideration. What isn’t present yet is perspective. After all, the kind of work we are discussing in this post typically creates paybacks of 7-10x the budget investment.
The antidote: The actual truth is you have budget, its just locked into lower priority and leverage projects. I have yet to talk to an executive leader that didn’t tell me that we “don’t let budgets limit our ability to implement strategy.” This is the time to take the next courageous step and tie out the project to get a true return on investment by making the case for investment outside of the normal budgeting process. Making a commitment to get fresh and rock solid insight can set the stage for a very strong outcome.
#5 We are Just Too Busy
This one is close cousin to, “we need to wait for an event to happen before we start.” The issue here is that by saying we are too busy, it means we are unsure just when we are going to be able to begin a new and higher payback project. The inability to be specific is heard by the implementation teams as an indefinite delay, and leads to conclusion that we either don’t have sufficient resources for breakout work, or we are unsure of the payback of the current work – both of which leads them to keep great ideas in their pockets.
How you know you have it: The symptoms of this issue will surface in your dialogues with key clients and supply chain partners. The loss of strategic growth investments (always the first area to go in a “too busy” firm) will be apparent to them first. Your customers will look you in the eye and see if you are holding on to the past or leading to the future. Holding the door closed to taking on new growth work is risky indeed. It’s easy to miss that this line of thinking is based on the false assumption that the market will hold still and wait for you.
The antidote: There are two key items here: the first is the need to have a comprehensive review at least annually of all the work streams underway in the firm to assure that every significant effort is carrying its weight. The second item is to look at the issue of being more comfortable with investments and paybacks in the current business models and associated product lines.
I encourage clients to use some resource to step back and assess where they stand from a lifecycle view. It is very easy to overinvest in a solution that is getting long in tooth and open the door for a competitor. The market is not kind to incumbents who hang on too tightly. In fact, rarely is a leadership position regained once a firm is disrupted.
Is one of these five patterns standing between you and robust growth? If you’ve recognized one of these in your group or firm, it’s time to take that next step and see what value might be locked up in your firm. If you’d like an outside view, I’d be honored to have a chat about what that diagnostic process looks like, and how others have been able to open new paths to growth with relatively modest investments.
To get started on that journey, please give me a call at 847-651-1014 or use this link to set up a 20-minute (no strings attached) consult.