Category Archives: Systematic Improvement

Focus Early on the Value Proposition to Help Manage New Market and New Product Risks

By Karen Utgoff

Savvy small business owners and startup teams take time to develop, test, and validate assumed value proposition(s) before making a significant investment in a new market or new product. This is a cost effective way to learn whether — and how — to best pursue opportunities. Be smart. Include this step early in your new product development and/or market launch planning efforts.

Is this really necessary? The further a new market or new product is from your current business, the more value-proposition-based, hypothesis-driven approaches are likely to increase your probability of success, help avoid missteps, and minimize the cost of failure. It’s better to recognize a gap between what you think and what your market needs while you have the flexibility to improve product-market fit; if there is an incurable mismatch, it’s better to “fail fast and cheap,” especially if there would have been a big investment. Concerned that this just adds to your costs? Consider the wasted resources and employee demotivation associated with failure of a new product, especially when better alignment between product and customer needs might have led to success.

Before sinking dollars and employee time into a new market or product/service offering, develop a hypothetical value proposition. Use this as your starting assumption as you test, revise, and pivot to achieve the best possible fit between product/services, new target customers/markets and your business goals. Many believe this type of effort is just for startups but it’s very useful for any company ambitious to grow beyond familiar territory. This is different from the process Laurie Breitner describes to take advantage of the existing customer relationships and knowledge a team accumulates over time to clarify and confirm value propositions for established products in well understood markets.

Test your hypothetical value proposition to corroborate, refute, revise, and reinvent before making a big commitment. While methods for doing this aren’t foolproof, you will be amazed at what you can learn. The fundamental idea is to get feedback from customers and influencers early in the process. While this may reveal painful truths, it’s much better than discovering them after building the wrong inventory, focusing on disinterested customers, or setting prices too high or too low.

Three low-cost methods are within reach of most small businesses and new ventures. Each has its strengths. They are not mutually exclusive and are most effective when customized to apply to the particulars of each situation. In all cases, focus on learning not selling.

  • Observe potential users going about their daily routines. See how potential customers currently solve a problem and why they might value your alternative solution. These opportunities take some finesse to structure but cost little and — with the right frame of mind — can deepen your understanding of customers, improve your product, and clarify the value proposition. If you are contemplating entering a new market with an existing (or new) product, this method may work best as a next step with your interviewees (see below). If you are developing a new product for existing customers, it can build on established relationships.
  • Interview potential customers, influencers, distributors, and partners to gauge their attitudes and get their input. Your hypothetical value proposition embodies assumptions about what problems are important to potential customers and what they value in a new solution. One-on-one interviewing lets you test those assumptions and make changes to the value proposition, change the product design, and/or redefine the target market. Plan on devoting significant effort to interviews and to processing what you hear from each interviewee. These videos provide a good general guidance on planning, conducting and learning from interviews as a starting point; different situations, products, industries and customer segments require variations on this approach.
  • Test a pre-commercial (prototype) product by putting it in the hands of potential customers. Recruit a small group of thought leaders, early adopters, and (if you have them) interested customers to individually give you feedback on a prototype. There is nothing like getting an early version into customers’ hands to learn if the form factor, instructions, and performance meet their needs and it’s much better to improve the product before investing in inventory, advertising, and other expensive aspects of a product launch. Interviewing and observing this group maximizes learning — there is no survey that can follow up on interesting remarks or probe for more detail the way a skilled, well-prepared, objective, and curious interviewer can.

Who says you never get a second chance to make a first impression? All three of the above methods enable you to test your ideas, assumptions and decisions. To make the most of them and to preserve your chance for future “first” impressions, follow two rules:

  • Don’t argue with or disparage the expertise of interviewees or others with whom you engage. Be sure not to insist your assumptions are correct or preach that your product is “better.” Instead, acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers and appreciate the opportunity to learn from them. If you need to drill down for more detail, resist the urge to dissect the details in favor of asking open ended questions such as: “Why?” “How?” or “Can you tell me more?”
  • Be considerate. If interviewees are interested in spending more time with you than planned, be encouraged; but do not stay past your allotted time unless invited to do so. Be sure to thank everyone for their time and help. Ask if you may come back to clarify, ask more questions, or share future progress. An enthusiastic “yes” is a good indicator that you are on the right track.

When to begin? It is essential to begin early in the product or market definition/development process while you still have the flexibility, time, and resources to pivot. When well done, using hypothesis-based methods to craft, test, and refine an initially assumed value proposition can help to assure that product development and market development efforts are well-aligned and attuned to customers in initiatives that move forward. This increases the likelihood of success while reducing the risk that further investment will be off target.

 

 

© Copyright 2017 Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.

Keep Your Business on Track and Growing: Measure What Matters

By Laurie Breitner and Karen Utgoff

There is more to keeping your business going in the right direction than looking at standard reports from QuickBooks or other accounting tools on a regular basis. While these reports can give you numbers, determining and appropriately tracking what matters — which numbers are important, how they are derived and what else you need to watch — is an essential responsibility of the owner(s) and management team.

In assessing current operations, it’s often useful to compare today’s results with past performance — prior period (year, quarter, month, or week) or effort (job run, project, or program) depending on your industry and particulars of your business. While this isn’t always possible for newer ventures, be assured that if you are diligent, ultimately these measurements will help reveal your company’s strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats, as well as performance.

For example, after one year in business you can only guess how seasonal factors will affect your cash flow. However, if you keep track, with five years experience you will be confident in anticipating how seasonal ups and downs might impact your business. When you hire a second employee in a particular role, you have some idea of how long it will take them to come up to speed; by the time you make your fifth such hire, you have a much better idea of how long it should take, as well as what it takes, to be productive.

For new initiatives, measuring is tied closely to looking forward (planning) for likely and intended outcomes. What will initial success look like? What events (milestones) are critical to track progress? How much will it likely cost? Are there gaps in your capabilities or resources that need to be filled before you can realize the potential of the new initiative? How much revenue and/or profit is the project expected to add and when?

What initial operational measures should be monitored? Here’s where it’s helpful to look at assumptions you made in making predictions. Did you assume that if you opened a second location in a nearby town that your strong positive reputation would automatically give a boost to the new site? Did your plan hinge on getting speedy municipal approval for a larger parking lot at the next planning board meeting? What key assumptions do you need to track?

Add to the standard routine of just reviewing (daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual) results with the following specific approaches that are critically important to measuring what matters:

Assess profitability and the fully allocated cost of goods sold from an operational perspective: For background review pages 8 and 9 of Laurie’s Thriving: Get and keep your business on track. Also, check out Karen’s Succeeding in Small Business post on Four tips for putting your business plan to work for your small business.

Project results for new initiatives with limited or no experience: For background, read Four steps to help small business owners evaluate the financial wisdom of new business-building initiatives and Small business management and entrepreneurship: Two key ingredients for sustaining success.

For additional information read Josh Patrick’s article on Every Business Has a Special Number, or Metric. Do You Know Yours? in the NY Times’ “You’re the Boss” blog and A Winning Culture Keeps Score by John Case and Bill Fotsch in the HBR Blog Network.

Here’s how to get started: On a single page, document the (up to) five most important measures, metrics, milestones, and/or numbers that you follow (or plan to track) to gauge whether you are on the right road, moving into the fast lane, or facing an unwanted detour. Review these metrics with your management team, board of advisers, mentors, and/or appropriate professional services providers. Evaluate them regularly to make sure they remain relevant guides for growing your business. Plan to fine tune them over time as your needs and business landscape change and you learn more.

© 2015 Laurie Breitner and Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.

Regarding Your Company’s Value Proposition: Is Everyone on the Same Page?

By Laurie Breitner

Recently my colleague, Karen Utgoff, wrote a post to help business owners, entrepreneurs, executives, marketers, and product managers better understand the important role value propositions can play in ensuring business success. Whether your business has been around for a year or for decades, evaluating the relevance of and adherence to your value proposition is well worth the effort. What you learn can serve as the basis for unifying and aligning marketing and operational priorities to ensure you stay on track for long-term success even as you respond to immediate demands.

Silhouettes of Business People Meeting with Business SymbolsOnce businesses get off the ground, business plans often get set aside in favor of greasing whatever wheel is squeaking on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps past assumptions about who your customers are and what products/services they need were off or markets have changed, and you find yourselves busily serving other customers with different needs. Or, maybe your value proposition is crystal clear in your mind, but not carried out as you might hope by employees or well supported by your company’s capabilities. Especially when customers keep walking in the door, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Read on for some ideas about how to get started on your VP Assessment.

Get a team together. Involve everyone whom you rely upon to implement your value proposition. Don’t overlook your support areas like HR, customer service, and systems or key external professionals including your suppliers, creative agencies, channel partners, banker, or tax accountant. To keep costs down, you might have a small working group, but get input from all corners and run results by all key stakeholders.

Review your assumptions. Start with the basics; clearly define your customer. Consider demographics (age, gender, and economic status), psychographics (likes, dislikes and values), and geography. Start by listing as many attributes as possible and from that list pick the top few that most accurately describe your customer base. Your company may serve more than one market, but start with one and then repeat this process with others.

Make a list of customers’ needs that your company addresses. Note whether it is an operational, economic or emotional concern. Pay close attention to needs your business meets that the competition doesn’t. These important differentiators can inform your internal and external communication and help you maintain margins.

Here’s an example:

A worker-owned co-operative, Pioneer Valley PhotoVoltaics (PV Squared), sells and services reliable, custom-designed, renewable energy systems for homeowners, businesses and institutions located within about 100 miles of Greenfield, MA. Through experience, they have learned that their customers are seeking solutions for operational, economic and emotional needs. Customers’ economic needs include predictable energy costs, excellent return on investment, and support for the local community in terms of good jobs for local residents. Operational needs include long-term system reliability, efficient system operation, better public health (cleaner air and water), and stronger grid infrastructure. Emotional needs include helping to address serious social and economic problems — reducing atmospheric carbon, energy independence and conflict reduction. Many customers also appreciate that PV Squared is a locally based, worker-owned cooperative.

Because incentives such as tax credits and rebates differ from year to year, interest rates vary, and energy costs fluctuate, relying exclusively on an economic appeal could be risky. Similarly, expecting customers to make an investment solely to improve public health and community job growth is unrealistic. While many appreciate system reliability and promoting increased distributed power generation, most customers seek additional benefits before making a purchase. While there are competitors who meet some of the needs, few — if any — meet all as well as PV Squared does. With this three-pronged approach, PV Squared has the flexibility to respond to changing conditions while staying on their chosen path to sustained, long-term success.

Assess your ability to follow through. Don’t fall into the trap of promising more than you can deliver or assuming everyone in your organization knows your company’s priorities. Here are some questions for self-examination:

  • Can each of your employees articulate your value proposition? Are their actions consistent with it?
  • Would your customers, employees, vendors and suppliers agree?
  • Is fulfillment of the promise represented by your value proposition achievable? Providing the highest quality, most personalized service and lowest price while cultivating a profitable business is a practical impossibility.
  • Do you have the key resources, capabilities, and partnerships you need to fulfill the value proposition? If not, what would it take to build that capability and what evidence would demonstrate that you were successful?
  • How have you tested to ensure that you really are meeting customers’ key needs?
  • Do your customer have other needs that you are not solving?
  • How does your value proposition compare to that of your competitors?

Use the results of your VP Assessment to build a list of improvement opportunities. In a future post, I’ll discuss ways to evaluate the list of possible initiatives and select ones that have the most potential for your business so that you can develop both operational and marketing goals.

© Copyright 2015 Laurie Breitner. All rights reserved.

Six Misunderstandings about the Lean Startup

By Karen Utgoff

Use of Lean Startup techniques is becoming ubiquitous in entrepreneurship circles these days and rightly so. Along with the closely related Lean Launchpad methodology, this highly effective approach puts one essential success factor — fit between customers, markets, products and company — front and center for founders who might previously have defaulted to “If we build it they will come.”

In late 2012 I was privileged to serve as a mentor for a National Science Foundation Innovation Corps team and to be immersed in the Lean Launchpad method first-hand as part of that program. For more information on the team experience and methodology, visit Steve Blank’s blog; the link is in the list of resources at the bottom of this post. Recently, in preparation for a workshop I’m giving, I reread Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup and noted his observation that:

“Throughout our celebration of the success of the Lean Startup movement, a note of caution is essential. We cannot afford to have our success breed a new pseudoscience around pivots, MVPs, and the like.” (Eric Ries. The Lean Startup, p. 279)

This rang true to me and prompted me to write here about several significant misunderstandings that I’ve observed.

Misunderstanding One: Lean Launchpad methodology avoids failure. Actually the Lean Launchpad method and the Lean Startup movement focus on failing faster, at lower cost, and under controlled conditions that enable the team to learn rapidly and pivot effectively.

Misunderstanding Two: The tools and techniques are only for brand new startup ventures. Confusion on this point seems to be around the definition of a startup. I’ve written before about the need for entrepreneurial activity in established businesses and I was glad to rediscover Ries addressing the issue:

“Entrepreneurs who operate inside an established organization sometimes are called “intrapreneurs” because of the special circumstances that attend building a startup within a larger company. As I have applied Lean Startup ideas in an ever-widening variety of companies and industries, I have come to believe that intrapreneurs have much more in common with the rest of the community of entrepreneurs than most people believe.” (Eric Ries. The Lean Startup, pp. 26-27)

That said it’s important to recognize that a new external venture is different from an internal venture within a successfully operating business. Here is an interesting post by Henry Chesborough and my take on the subject as well.

Misunderstanding Three: We’re already customer focused and therefore in sync with the philosophy even if we don’t talk about minimal viable products (MVPs) and pivots. Perhaps, but it isn’t necessarily so; the key is the organization’s capacity to systematically learn. Are activities designed so that customer and market response will lead to insights? Is the team aware of leap-of-faith assumptions? Are your entrepreneurial teams truly cross-functional? Is your culture tolerant of setbacks and supportive of learning?

Misunderstanding Four: It’s about product development. This sells the methodology short. Sure, product development is one aspect but equally important is identifying receptive customer segments (customer discovery/development) and business model development. All three may be subject to change as the team learns.

Misunderstanding Five: It’s about iteration. Iteration is necessary but not sufficient. If you don’t organize and measure in a way that allows you to learn, iteration is just spinning your wheels.

Misunderstanding Six: The Lean Startup approach frees us from needing to worry about mission, vision, competition, intellectual property and so forth. Not so! Your initial hypothesis and pivots will be informed by and inform the evolution of each of these.

I hope this blog serves to clarify the Lean Startup and that it encourages you to try, and then embrace, it. It has a lot to offer ambitious entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs.

Books

  • Steve Blank and Bob Dorf, The Startup Owner’s Manual
  • Alexander Osterwalder et al, Business Model Generation (72 page preview available)
  • Eric Ries, The Lean Startup

Web Resources

© Copyright Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.

Look Before You Leap

By Laurie Breitner

Public domain. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock

U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock. Public domain.

Too many entrepreneurs believe raising funds to finance their idea is a first step when starting a new business or expanding an existing one. Some create business plans — often only to satisfy lending guidelines — and head off to shop their ideas at banks or other funding sources. I have known people who depleted their retirement savings, put their homes at risk, and/or tapped friends and relatives with promises of great returns only to discover that they had not done their homework.

While starting or growing a business always involves some risk, none of us wants to take on more than is necessary. Before taking a financial leap, be certain that you can answer these questions thoroughly and with confidence — that is, you have some empirical evidence and/or analysis to back up your passion:

Does your plan have legs? Have you tested your idea to determine that you know and can reach your target market and that your planned offering meets their needs? Please don’t assume that if you “build a better mousetrap” that people will flock to your door to buy one. Instead, talk to potential customers; gauge their interest and learn more about their needs and some obstacles you will likely have to overcome. Also, consider the competition — there is always competition — for your target market’s dollars. How would your business woo customers?

What resources do you have/will you need to be successful? It is essential to have as full an understanding as possible of what resources (expertise, suppliers, location, marketing collateral, forms/contracts, etc.) you have and will need to be successful. If you plan a foray into a new business or market, find someone to help you better detail what’s needed. Consider visiting a library to access industry surveys and statistics (UMass Business Library), getting how-to information from industry associations, talking to business owners in a similar business that serve different geographical markets, and checking out industry discussions on LinkedIn and other web sources.

How long will it be before your plan starts generating revenue? Is your product/service well understood, or will you need to mount an educational effort to explain its uses and benefits? Consider your sales cycle (the elapsed time from initial contact to receiving payment). Do customers make buying decisions immediately, or is there a delay to get approvals, consider alternatives, etc. Typically, how quickly does your target market pay? If you plan to open a retail store, you could realistically expect payment at purchase. If, however, you plan to sell to government agencies, expect significant delays.

Can you start smaller? Many entrepreneurs are so bullish on their products/services and excited by their potential that they seek to fulfill the needs of multiple markets with a range of offerings. What is your low-hanging fruit? Is there a niche market that you could enter to build a satisfied/loyal customer base? Consider starting small to learn what works — and doesn’t — before making a larger investment.

How much will it really take to get your plan off the ground? It’s generally safer to be conservative; no one goes out of business by having too much cash. Before you head off to borrow money, consider whether you could fund your initial foray with cash from on-going operations? For a new venture, is it possible to keep your current job (and income) while building your new business on the side? Many couples/partners who want to open a joint business do so by having one work in the new business and the other stay in their current job to keep the financial boat afloat until the new venture starts to make enough money to support both. Typically it takes about 3 years for a new business to be able to support its owner.

How will you measure success? Some entrepreneurs wait until they start generating P&Ls (profit and loss statements) before looking at results. Instead, put together a project plan (with measurable milestones) as early as possible. This is difficult to do, especially without a history of operating results, but the process will help you think through the business challenges ahead. The information you need for your guesstimates will help you with early steps for the business itself — e.g., identify/vet suppliers, develop a sales plan and marketing materials, etc. — and become one yardstick to measure your progress. Adjust revenue projections and planned expenses as you learn. By having a documented plan to help you monitor progress, you will be more nimble and able to uncover small speed bumps before they become major obstacles.

If you learn that you will need outside funding, most banks and other funding sources will appreciate your diligence. And, you will have more confidence during the inevitable tough times when you are doing all the essential pre-work before your earn that satisfying first dollar from your new venture.

© Copyright Laurie Breitner. All rights reserved.

Five Steps to Inspire Business Change and Growth

By Laurie Breitner

Perhaps you’ve had this thought: If only we could work more effectively as a team, respond well to last minute orders or implement a new computer system. Most employers know what they’d like to change about their businesses, but many aren’t sure what steps to take to make it happen. Whether you want to shape a more effective organization or significantly expand your business, here are tips on what you can do to refocus your organization and change its cultural habits.

Establish a climate for change. People often resist change; change is facilitated when the status quo becomes uncomfortable. What can you do to encourage transformation? This may seem odd, but you need to let your organization — including yourself — feel pain. Openly discuss dissatisfaction with those things you’d like to be different.

Inspire your organization to take action. Create a compelling vision of how things could be better. Meet with everyone whose help you’ll need to be successful — your employees, suppliers, vendors, advisers and even selected customers — to talk about your plans. Encourage frank discussion of their perception of your organization’s relative strengths and weaknesses. You may learn about hidden problems and avoid potential pitfalls that could derail your plans. Don’t overlook your banker, business and legal advisers and accountant; getting them onboard early may smooth the way when inevitable stumbling blocks arise and you need their help.

Build a strong alliance of people committed to your goals.The role of this alliance of internal and external resources is to help reinforce your vision of the future, eliminate obstacles, generate short-term successes and change habits in your company culture. Find individuals whose opinions are respected, who agree on your vision and are committed to the process for “the duration.” With their assistance, develop realistic, measurable plans. Encourage quick successes; early achievements help to get doubters behind your program. After all, everyone likes to play on a winning team. Identify important milestones and the dates by which you expect to achieve them. Evaluate progress at regular intervals and make mid-course corrections.

Align your organization for success. Ironically, complex changes can be easier to accomplish than small, incremental shifts. In making systemic change, organizations are forced to confront the larger issues of culture and management style that exist in every organization — systems that make incremental change difficult to accomplish. Here are examples of things to consider:

  • Compensation policies
  • Leadership styles
  • Job descriptions
  • Technology and infrastructure
  • Policies and procedures

Look at all the different ways that current cultural habits are reinforced and revamp those systems that encourage people to resist change.

People don’t oppose their own ideas. People who are involved in deciding what and how things will change are more likely to support the effort; in fact, they themselves can be won over simply through their participation! People who don’t get a voice in what happens tend to resist change. To avoid this problem, involve as many people as possible in building consensus about the need for change and in deciding how to make it. This is an important step in building employee engagement.

Communicate. You cannot do too much to get your message across. Here are hints for successful communication:

  • Keep it simple; make sure that messages are clear and easy to understand.
  • Use metaphors, analogies and stories.
  • Send your message in different ways, e.g., e-mail, newsletters, memo, paycheck stuffers, etc.

Be sincere in your commitment. Walk your talk. Lead by example. Act as you want others to act. Make sure that everyone in your organization is “in the loop.” People who aren’t included may actively resist. Laying out your vision for how the business could improve gives everyone a framework to make good long-term decisions and set priorities…and maximizes your chance for success.

© Copyright 2014 Laurie Breitner. All rights reserved.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat: Are You Missing Warning Signs of Rough Water Ahead?

By Laurie Breitner

Winslow Homer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rowing Home, Winslow Homer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Do you know what your employees are doing? While you may think you do — perhaps not. Whether yours is a relatively new entity, or one that’s been cruising smoothly for some time, it’s easy for issues to develop and go unexamined in the daily crush of getting the job done. This slow drift off course can interrupt the smooth flow that results when all your employees pull together.

These real world stories illustrate what can happen.

  • The owner of company that sells through external, commission-based sales staff was very surprised to learn that the 3:00 PM cutoff for same-day orders was being routinely ignored. Fulfillment staff — operating on the assumption that the owner knew and approved — struggled to satisfy orders that arrived later and later. Sales staff had quickly learned that fulfillment workers were staying late to process orders and took full advantage of an ever broadening window to call in their sales. Employee morale had begun to plummet and “sick” days to increase.
  • A tech company owner could see his staff was buried but didn’t have time to examine why. Overtime hours (and resultant costs) grew and employees seemed frazzled. The owner was wearing so many different hats  — executive, senior technician, salesman, and accountant — he didn’t have time to look into what was happening. Profits margins were eroding and he worried that his skilled workers could burn out or leave.

Many business owners recognize when things aren’t right. But because root causes can be hard to find and talking to employees without a solution can be uncomfortable, some find it tempting to simply hope the situation will improve without taking action. Left unattended what starts as a small problem can rapidly become a crisis; in my experience, it’s best to act swiftly. The longer a problem persists, the harder it is to fix.

The first step is to identify issues as early as possible. What might alert you to potential problems?

  • Declining morale is often the earliest and most obvious sign that everyone is not in sync. Symptoms include increased squabbling, turnover, absenteeism and tardiness, complaints about co-workers, cynicism and/or employees acting as if they are “checked out.” One business owner asked me, why couldn’t it be the way it used to be, everyone pulling together? Do you ever wonder that?
  • An unexpected increase in cost of goods sold (CoGS) and/or decrease in overall profitability are signs that inefficiencies may be creeping in. As a business grows and becomes more complex, spending time to design new workflows or clarify roles and responsibilities often takes a back seat to just getting through each day’s work. Whether your organization has grown, taken on new customers, changed computer systems or begun offering new services, involve affected employees in determining necessary adjustments. Otherwise, you may find gaps and/or overlaps, that is, more than one person feels responsible for a new task or no one does it; either can lead to trouble.
  • Unanticipated defections (or reductions in volume of purchases) of existing customers or an overall drop off in sales may result from dissatisfaction with your company. Front line employees are your organization’s ambassadors. If they are discontent, your customers will sense it and may shy away. Similarly, if a new computer system or vendor causes disruptions in the smooth flow of work, the quality of your products or services may suffer sending customers to the competition And, sadly, long-time customers may be uncomfortable raising their concerns with you, the owner, and just disappear.

While these are common signs, each organization is unique; no list of triggers can be exhaustive.

Here’s where your business plan comes in handy. If you have projected what will occur in terms of sales, staffing, and profitability — and documented your assumptions, of course — you can look periodically (at least monthly) for any deviations from what you thought would happen. Work with employees to get to the bottom of unexpected results — whether they are better or worse. Most employees sincerely want to do a good job and will appreciate being involved.

Are you looking for other ideas to help create and maintain a harmonious and efficient organization?

In my next few posts I’ll explore how to get and keep your organization on track, including ways to address inefficiencies and issues related to employee discontent.

© Copyright 2013 Laurie Breitner. All rights reserved.

Want to Be a More Effective Decision Maker? Beware of Blind Spots and Biases that Can Interfere

By Karen Utgoff

In business and driving, beware of what you can't see. Photo: K. Utgoff

In business and driving, beware of what you can’t see. Photo: K. Utgoff

Business decisions are made every day and mistakes are inevitable — none of us can read minds, know the future, or wait for perfect information. However, it’s sad and unnecessarily costly when a mistake is preventable.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could reduce avoidable errors at little or no cost? My experience tells me that many business owners, executives and managers could do just that if only they were more aware of personal tendencies that influence their decisions as well as vulnerabilities we all have that stem from the way we (that is, our brains) perceive and analyze situations and information. Cultivating this self-awareness is one of the lowest cost — but most challenging — ways I know to become a more effective decision-maker.

Perception and perspective are tricky things. Optical illusions exploit the way our brains work, causing us to misperceive objects and images. We often consider these to be tricks that aren’t very important to daily life, yet there is at least one major exception: the passenger side mirrors on our automobiles, which come with an engraved warning reminding us that “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” In addition, to use this mirror effectively a driver must be aware of the blind spot. Both the blind spot and misperceiving distance are problems because (when we are in the driver’s seat) our brains are quick to misinterpret the image in the mirror as physical reality.

In similar ways, business decisions are vulnerable to misperceptions or skewed perspectives. Vulnerabilities generally fall into two categories: those everyone shares as part of the human condition and those that are particular to an individual. As with the side mirror, being aware is a critical first step to minimizing their impact.

No one is perfect; individual inclinations and gaps sway all of us. The ability to be self-critical is key. Here are some questions intended to provoke useful self-examination:

  • Do you tend to be overly optimistic or pessimistic based on recent experience?
  • Do you defer to experts or discount their opinions completely?
  • Do you balance intuition and evidence or automatically favor one over the other?
  • Do you probe for information and knowledge or make do with whatever is available?
  • Do you actively seek alternative views or protect yourself from being challenged?
  • Do you tend to make decisions too early or delay until the situation is critical?
  • Do you fear scrutiny or embrace it?
  • Do you change your mind too easily in the face of new information or resist too much?

Individual inclinations and tendencies can and do negatively impact decision-making.  None of us can escape entirely but self-awareness can help balance and counterbalance our weaknesses while making the most of our strengths.

It is also important to factor in biases and blind spots that researchers have identified as hardwired into each of us. Though hard to counteract, there are steps that can help to manage these human factors. Robert Wolf provides an excellent starting point in his post on “How to Minimize Your Biases When Making Decisions” for the HBR Blog Network. In my consulting practice I have seen these biases reinforced or mitigated by an individual’s personality and decision-making patterns; so be mindful of their interplay.

Another human factor to consider is willful blindness. This phenomenon is not confined to business decisions but can have a devastating effect on an organization in which it occurs. Especially insidious is that blind spots render issues that require attention or decisions invisible until they become crises, sometimes presenting an existential threat to the organization or inflicting terrible harm on others. To learn more, listen to Margaret Heffernan’s TED talk on the topic or read her article on “Willful blindness: When a leader turns a blind eye” in the Ivey Business Journal online.

While the focus of this post is on individual decision makers, it applies to teams as well. Startup ventures, intrapreneurial teams, and top management at organizations (large and small) are all susceptible. As with individuals, teams have their own vulnerabilities. Teams that are comfortable with internal conflict and seek information from divergent sources may be less susceptible to willful blindness but may have difficulty absorbing the final decision when it’s time to do so. Alternatively, the danger of willful blindness or confirmation bias may increase when team members are discouraged or punished for raising important concerns or contributing information.

SWOT spotHas this post convinced you that you can become a more effective decision maker? If so, use the information here to assess your own decision-making habit and patterns. Ask people you trust to level with you about your strengths and weaknesses. When you spot an opportunity to improve yourself or your team(s), remember that change is difficult and requires persistence. Progress takes time and set backs will occur. Keep at it; there is a lot to gain.

© Copyright 2013 Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.

From New Employee to Productive Colleague

By Laurie Breitner

09-01-13 image for LCB postAs I write this I’m watching a parade of  students being introduced to their new environment. Colleges and universities have a lot of practice doing this; each fall they handle an influx of new students, make them welcome and integrate them into an existing culture — that is, they lay the foundation for students’ success in college and beyond. Few businesses do that so routinely. Should your business take a page from their playbook and put in place practices to orient and engage new employees? This HBR post by John Baldoni speaks to the many possible payoffs for companies with more engaged employees.

While each workplace is unique, here are a few essentials to consider when putting together your employee orientation program.

1) Overview – Incoming employees who understand your organization and how their new role fits in it will be better able to contribute. In addition to one-on-ones with supervisors and human resource staff, provide information about your company’s “big picture” — ideally in an online repository that can be kept current. Include your mission, vision, and annual company-wide and department goals and, of course, how they are measured. Each employee should be given an up-to-date job description for their role (and, ideally, everyone else’s), an employee handbook, and be informed about your performance evaluation process including any probationary period. Other helpful information is your company organization chart, and background material that describe your company’s products and services, target market(s) and, if appropriate, major customers and influencers.

2) The basics – At minimum everyone should have access to your company directory with telephone numbers, email addresses and office locations. Is there a calendar of planned meetings, social events and holidays? Do most departments have set periodic meetings, and if so, who leads them, creates agendas and where are they held? Include information about how people typically dress and details of what you mean by, for example, “business casual.” Consider using candid photos of current employees (with names beneath) so people can start putting names with faces and see examples of how people dress. Long before Facebook (the company), schools routinely created a school face book of all students including names, what they like to be called (e.g., he prefers James, never Jim or Jimmy), their dorm and interests. Could something like that work at your business?

And, there are practical matters. Who buys/makes the coffee? Do employees take turns on KP (kitchen patrol) or is that duty assigned to a particular employee or cleaning service? Is the refrigerator emptied every Friday of all but marked items? What do new employees need to feel a valued part of your organization?

3) Resources – There’s a lot to find out. Do you have a company intranet or other data repositories? New employees will feel more welcomed and become productive more quickly if you save them the trouble of having to hunt for routine information such as reserving conference rooms, the location of the supply closet, and office kitchen. Outside-the-office information such as area restaurants (menus and how to get there) or places to exercise and shop are helpful.

4) Mentor – Even with all this, newbies may have questions or concerns they feel uncomfortable raising with a superior or co-worker. Or, they might need guidance on company culture. If you have more than a handful of employees, consider pairing each new employee with a seasoned worker, ideally not a boss. Clearly the mentor must have the right interpersonal skills, volunteer, and enjoy the responsibility. Surveys consistently report that a top reason people give for being happy at work is whether they have a friend, e.g., feel personally connected. I am amazed at how long some of these relationships persist. In the late nineties I paired a new employee (from India, as it happened) with a willing mentor. They are still friends almost 20 years later.

What specific challenges will employees face in your organization? To get in touch with what new employees need, think back to jobs you have had and your first day or first week; involve current employees in putting information together. Given the expense of recruiting and hiring, it makes sense to invest a little more to give your new hires a good foundation for their — and by extension, your company’s  — success.

© Copyright 2013 Laurie Breitner. All rights reserved.

To Tell or Not to Tell?

By Laurie Breitner

Your healthcare practice is doing well. After some tough beginning years you’ve added partners and pulled away from the pack by learning not only how to survive — but better yet — how to thrive in a changing regulatory climate.

You and your partners feel it’s time to expand geographically. You found a practice in a nearby town that seems to present an opportunity. Despite their large patient base, they aren’t doing as well as they might financially and the senior partners are ready to retire. A deal is struck and a take over date picked — three months hence. You plan to keep the current support staff and remaining clinicians at the current location, and expect to retain the bulk of the patients, reasoning the key to that is staff retention.

Only your partners and a couple senior staff are included in transition planning. No else one in your current operation and no one at all in the “new” practice is informed, which raises the question: when do we let everyone else know?

A couple of your partners argue for immediate and full disclosure. Get everyone together, share the good news — because it really is good news — and get them involved in the transition.  They feel some staff might leave, but overall, there would be better buy-in.

Others are concerned about staff in the acquired practice seeking employment elsewhere over the course of the next three months. Who would want to stay on knowing that they would have to cope with a transition? Better to tell them the day the transition is effective. There might be some initial discontent, but if they were told on Monday morning, they’d have to pull together to serve the patients scheduled to arrive.

There is no consensus. You’re the one who started this practice. All eyes are on you. What do you say?

First take a deep breath. Ask yourself, what are you trying to accomplish?

This is a long-term play and in the long run you want a larger, financially viable practice. You know that while patients are often loyal to their doctors, it’s the staff that keeps the business on track. Schedulers, billing staff, nurses, and technicians support you and your partners. Can you really afford to keep them in the dark? Is that a way to start a new relationship? How would you feel if the roles were reversed?

Is there another way? You have an opportunity to build a good long-term relationship with the new team, which should minimize possible turnover in your current operation and in the one you’re acquiring. A little selling is involved. So, get the group together and tell them the good news. Plan to have one-on-ones with (at a minimum) key staff — ideally everyone — to answer their questions, make new staff feel welcome, and current staff feel appreciated. Hear, and if possible use, their ideas for the transition. Listen to those who mourn the loss of what was; those feelings will pass more quickly if they are acknowledged. Let everyone know how much you respect and appreciate them. Encourage them to be part of the future you envision.

Remind yourself and others that this good thing for both practices. There will be more opportunity for staff advancement, better job security, and additional coverage. Patients will have more choices of locations and practitioners and perhaps even longer office hours — one office could cover early hours and the other late; there would be many possibilities with a bigger practice.

Keep everyone informed of progress or even lack thereof. Email or written updates posted where everyone will see the latest news will suffice between formal meetings. Show your appreciation for all the hard work and acknowledge the extra work that your current and new staff does to make the transition go smoothly. Consider some kind of celebration to start building those critical relationships between people.

Wouldn’t it feel better to start off this new chapter with honest communication as a foundation for future employee-employer relationships? Once past this hurdle, you can turn to the question of how best to inform future patients and others in your new community.

© Copyright 2013 Laurie Breitner. All rights reserved.