Feeling overwhelmed? Or frustrated by slow progress? You’re not alone. When they first come to me, my CEO clients are often incredibly busy. It’s a struggle keeping their heads above water, particularly over the past year. But their busy-ness hasn’t translated into the profitable growth they’d like.
To me, their businesses resemble a tangled ball of wool you find at the bottom of a drawer. Over the months and years, we tease out the knots and unravel everything, then wrap it up again in an ordered pattern. Bit by bit.
This takes effort and commitment. And discipline. Discipline to continually test and refine the assumptions they’ve made in their business plan. It’s easy to pick figures out of the air and draw up an Excel spreadsheet showing you’re going to scale your company. It’s much harder to build a business model that makes this a reality.
Often, it boils down to cultural change. And this is what I help my clients to fix. If you can move to a deliberate culture founded on disciplined thought and action, you can achieve that profitable business you’ve always craved. But don’t expect it to be easy. Particularly at the moment when remote working is making it much harder to achieve cultural uniformity
1. Channel your energy
Here’s a great analogy. A disciplined business is like a river, flowing through a canyon. The walls of the canyon channel the energy of the water so that it cuts a clearly defined groove. Compare this to a river flowing across a plain. The water spreads far and wide. No perceivable motion. Without a clear direction, it slows down, gets boggy and stuck.
This is what tends to happen as businesses grow. They start off with a small team. The founder knows its core customer and has an instinctive understanding of the problem they’re solving. As they get bigger, they hire people who don’t have this knowledge and are less in tune with the market. The company takes on new customers who ask them to do different things. There’s no clear direction and the canyon walls fall away. The river widens and growth stagnates.
It’s just not fun any more. Every day feels like more of a slog. This is when you have to get more deliberate about culture. And bring in the discipline to focus.
2. Have a clear focus
In his inspirational book, ‘Good to Great’, Jim Collins is very clear. If you have a narrowly focused business on a profitable core customer, that’s the recipe for success. His hedgehog concept is at the heart of this. You can have all the discipline in the world, but if you aren’t clear on your purpose, BHAG, Profit per X and values, your effort will be useless. This clear vision is the foundation of a deliberate culture.
All decisions should be guided by these key drivers. So often, businesses say, we’re going to expand into another country or open another office. Why? You may think it’s a great idea because others have done the same. But if it doesn’t fit with your business model, don’t do it. You’ll be wasting valuable energy and resources. And making everything ten times harder.
3. Model discipline yourself and recruit disciplined A-Players
Discipline is a habit and one you need to embody. If you don’t model it, don’t expect to see it in anyone else. You can tell instinctively if someone has self-discipline. You see it in the way they operate—always punctual, well presented, organised. It shows up in different ways amongst my clients. They may be good at DIY or dedicated to fitness. Whatever motivates them, they hold on to the goals they set with complete and total determination.
If you’re an entrepreneur, discipline is a natural certainty. But as your organisation grows, you’re more dependent on the people you hire. Perhaps you expect a certain level of discipline? The only thing you can contribute to this process is setting the right example. Only disciplined leaders are capable of creating a culture of discipline within their company.
Getting the right people on your bus is vital. As Jim Collins outlines in his book, it’s only possible by adjusting your hiring policy to look for disciplined professionals who take full responsibility. People who are fully motivated to fulfil their tasks. Your entire management structure must radiate this discipline; it needs to become part of your organisational DNA.
4. Finish what you start
This is a classic. When I talk to front-line staff, they often complain that management start new initiatives but they never get finished. It’s even worse at the moment—everything seems to be taking longer during the pandemic.
Be careful. This is when cultures fragment and motivation is lost. There’s nothing more frustrating than feeling like you’re going nowhere fast. The solution? OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) every time. You need to be really clear about what these are. At an individual and company level. Only this morning, I was talking to an incredibly busy client. But he wasn’t focusing on the few things that will make the most difference. We looked at why he’d failed to get anywhere last year—it was obvious. He’d tried to do too much. I continually asked him what he WASN’T going to do in 2021. He kept on saying, “We need to do it all.” He’ll keep going nowhere until he faces up to this.
Remember, if WIP (Work In Progress) increases to over 70% of your allocated time, you won’t have enough slack in the system to make progress. Your time to delivery will double. You have to give your A-Player team the freedom and time to fulfil their responsibilities. If people are involved in multiple projects, they will achieve very little.
And this is even worse now we’re all on Zoom and communicating through email. No wonder working hours have increased but productivity has plateaued. It’s even more important to focus on doing a few things well.
5. Take the risky steps first
Finishing what you start is a good fundamental of a disciplined culture, but what if there was an even better way to start things? Well, Karl Blank from Conversion Rate Experts recently introduced a new technique to me. To say it was mind-blowing is an understatement. It’s had such an impact that I’ve used it in all my conversations with clients since.
It’s called ‘Triple R’ which stands for ‘Risk Reduction Rate’. In a nutshell, it proposes that for every project or initiative, you should do the riskiest, most unknown activity first. I guess it’s the definition of ‘failing fast’. So many projects fail at the final hurdle. Time, effort and resources are wasted as people will often default towards doing the things they know first.
Karl uses the example of the Wright Brothers to illustrate this. They knew they could build a plane, put an engine on it and get it into the air. The hard bit was controlling it once it was up there. So, they began by focusing on this. Only when they’d solved balance and control did they start working on the aspects they were more sure about like propulsion and power.
This simple technique has the power to be transformational. It’s a discipline that can be applied to everything. Every plan or objective, start by saying, “What is it we don’t know? What do we need to learn? Where are the risks?” Tackle these first. In a way, you’re optimising your business for learning. Often, the riskiest areas of product or service development relate to customer insight—it’s easy to lose this as you grow. So focus on gaining this information first.
6. Encourage radical candour
It’s what I’m doing for my client—testing the assumptions behind their business plan. We do this as often as possible. Every 90 days, we iterate. I help them refine and develop their business model. Where they are 18 months down the line is often not where they thought they’d be at the beginning. We may have changed the business plan but we’re constantly getting more clarity on their business model.
Teaming is harder virtually, no doubt about it. And people find it more difficult to be honest with each other when they’re not in the same room. One of the key elements of a disciplined culture is the ability to confront the brutal facts (what Jim Collins calls, ‘The Stockdale Paradox’). You’re not going to do this without radical candour.
It’s something I return to again and again with leadership teams. Because it takes deliberate practice to become engrained. It just doesn’t come naturally. I’ve written blogs on ways to build it in the past. Radical candour comes down from the Executive Team and permeates all aspects of culture.
It’s something I encourage in my team here at Foundry Farm. Recently, I said to them, “Guys, you’re being too polite. You need to tell me when things aren’t working or I’m being annoying!” They need to overcome their reticence about saying it how it is. Far better to get things out in the open and deal with them rather than letting things fester. Only then can you make progress.
7. Beware bureaucracy
Nothing will turn off your A-Players more than unnecessary bureaucracy. Often, this creeps into an organisation to compensate for incompetence and a lack of discipline amongst certain employees. Rules are invented to manage the small number of wrong people on the bus which, in turn, drives away the right people. So you end up with a higher percentage of B or C-Players which increases the need for even more bureaucracy and rules. A real doom loop!
Avoid this by making sure you have the right people to start with. And get rid of the low performers. True A-Players are self-disciplined and don’t need to be managed. Don’t expect them to spend hours and hours in useless meetings. They thrive in organisations that allow them the freedom and accountability to make their own decisions and manage their own time.