Unpacking Barriers to Growth: The One-Size-Fits-All Trap

russian dolls

The books have already been printed, the HBR article is in queue and the launch programs have been carefully orchestrated.  Soon you’ll hear the authors on the most popular podcasts and see blurbs in both Inc. and Forbes Magazine. Then we’ll all be off and running.

This river of new business tools and techniques takes advantage of our deep desire to learn and apply new approaches, and also that need to not feel “left behind” when the inevitable case studies appear.  It has a catchy title and soon becomes part of the boardroom chatter: “did you hear that (industrial giant X) used (fill in catchy new slogan here) and they turned around their division?”  If you have (and who of us haven’t), you’ve been part of a system that is designed to pull you along in its wake, gleefully selling workshops, books and coaching.  The hard part? Tracking the results for your firm.

This article is a follow up to this piece, in which I introduced the five ways firms put off or unintentionally delay real results.  We talked about how these are rooted in our unconscious biases towards work that is lower in risk, less complex and without conflict.   By becoming unwitting victims to these patterns of thinking, real benefits end up getting deferred from what appears to be perfectly logical decisions.

The goal of this article is to help you see and skillfully avoid the pressure to “join in” and avoid investing in the latest “bright shiny ball” that comes through the business press – at least until you’ve had a chance to objectively see if it aligns with your strategy.

Behind the Curtain

To be fair, these approaches are not created to deceive you. In the very specific instances that the architect of the approach has applied them, they have worked well.  Lean is one example, and it has worked very well in many, many firms.  It has also been overapplied. For example, when the strategy calls for a new to the firm product better suited to a design-oriented approach.

The pivotal piece of insight here is that once an approach has been found to work well in a current genre, there is an industry ready to extrapolate these specific results – results that were achieved under very specific circumstances –  and apply them broadly across entire industry categories.  It’s then that books are published, certifications are developed and the tools are built at scale.

This is unfortunate for both participants.  The firms investing in these approaches may or may not get the promised results if they don’t have the right context to apply them. The designers of these techniques may not get the full value of the work they have produced, because mixed results quickly move a process, technique or book to the “back shelf.”  When it’s done well, however,it moves both the architect of the solution and your firm into the win/win category.

How to Reverse This and Get Results for Your Situation

The key to reversing this is to borrow a page from the discipline of systems engineering.  To use an analogy, think about a set of russian dolls.  This set of wooden dolls of decreasing size is a favorite among young children.  Our firms are very much like this, except that value is developed by placing groups of the same sized dolls side by side and linking them with process.  By taking our businesses apart and helping these “brother and sister” dolls work together more effectively, we improve the overall performance of the business.

Every process (or doll if you will) runs in a specific context with particular inputs and outputs.  It’s in examining these subsystems and understanding what really needs to be accomplished that we can decide if the tool is going to be useful and valuable, or a pleasant distraction.

For example, when computer-aided design first swept through the industry (setting aside old-fashioned blue prints) the value release was in the more efficient transfer of the intent of the designer into digital databases that allowed all the downstream processes to use the same, precise information over and over.  

The same database that the part tooling was built from was the one the manufacturing tools were constructed from, and so on.  Eventually the design tools became so sophisticated that digital assemblies would allow you to skip physical prototypes entirely.  This yielded huge system effects, allowing first-time success in what used to be trial and error processes.

Right tool + Right Context = Right Results

Next Steps

At this point you are probably thinking that how you decompose your system is a really important step in getting good results – and you are correct.  This is the point where teams struggle the most, primarily because it’s so hard to see your firm objectively from the inside out.  

Just as we quickly adapt to new surroundings (remember when you moved into your home and that carpet needed replacing – and now you don’t even see it?), your team has adopted the map through which you see the world.  This includes business model, distribution and financial benchmarks and a host of other areas.  Since unpacking growth areas always results in moving from the current to a new map, this is where having someone help from outside your firm can achieve big results.

So breaking the key points down:

  1. The world is set up with a bias to help you down the path of implementation before you do a good analysis.  It’s very easy to get stuck in anchoring bias (falling prey to seeing everything through the first piece of data you are presented with).
  2. It’s hard work to see your firm objectively, with all its complexity and moving parts.  Developing a robust two-sided view is a high leverage point to apply some external resources.
  3. Systems thinking applied to the part of the firm that will give you the most significant results for you stakeholders.
  4. Develop a clear business case for the investment, i.e. if we do this, we should see x, y and z in our metrics and customer metrics.

By following these steps, You will save yourself important time, money and resource by doing the diagnostic work before making an investment in process tools.

If you have a sense that this might be of value to your firm, I’ve had the privilege of working with dozens of clients who have enjoyed the process and benefits of an objective diagnostic – with significant takeaways in sessions as short as one day.

I’d be happy to talk with you about how you can find the right system map so that you can get on the path to real growth.  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.

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