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How to get your business back on track

It’s hard to remember a more disruptive period than the last six weeks.  The global pandemic has caused mayhem that was unimaginable only a few months ago.  We’ve gone from predictable to wholly unpredictable.  Certain to deeply uncertain. Order to disorder. It feels like we’ve entered a new era.

Suddenly, most of my clients are questioning their strategy and re-thinking their priorities for this side of Christmas.  Maybe you’re reading this with a similar frame of mind?  And wondering how on earth you’re going to galvanise your company into full survival mode?  Perhaps you’ve finished your cost minimisation work – your CFO’s been busy working through this during lockdown.  Now you need a plan to get out of this crisis and forge a new path for your business.

This is about making sure you’re focused on where the opportunity is for you.  Finding it and then executing it.  Even if you’ve seen no reduction in activity, you’ll still need to focus on getting momentum going.  In the not too distant future, your staff will return and need to get back their rhythm of working as a team.  They’ll also need to be lined up with the right priorities and metrics. 

So what do you need to do to get your business back on track?

Get clear on immediate priorities and metrics

You need laser-focus on your priorities this side of Christmas.  What are your three to five key objectives for this period?  There are two thirteen-week sprints until the end of 2020 – what do you need to achieve by the end of each?  What is the one critical number or metric that needs to shift to take the company towards these objectives?

Get really clear on milestones for the immediate horizon of the next 90 days and work out accountabilities to hit these milestones.   Review your financial performance with your executive team. Then turn your financial metrics into widgets.  You don’t want to be reliant on your finance team telling you the score at month-end.  Instead, you need real-time metrics that are proxies for revenue and profit.  Then you can share these with your teams and update them daily and weekly. 

Introduce ‘sprint-lanes’

Like training for a marathon, you need a six-month training plan.  Sprint lanes do this job perfectly. For each objective, you need a 13-week plan.  13 weeks clearly laid out in manageable chunks.  Suddenly, a week will become your currency of measure rather than a month. Instead of retrospectively looking back at the end of the quarter to see whether you’ve succeeded or failed, this constant measurement will allow you to keep on track.  It’s a really good habit for better execution.

Sprint lanes mean you can be more granular and detailed in your approach.  You can track leading indicators weekly to ensure sufficient activity is happening to keep you moving forwards.  Weekly lagging indicators will tell you if you’re likely to achieve your milestones.  In last week’s blog, I discussed how you identify these metrics – they’re great for keeping you one step ahead.

Put your sprint lanes up on a chart and track them in your weekly meetings. You’ll be able to see the co-dependencies clearly as well as where you’ve committed resources.  You’ll also see where you’re over-committed and who’s shouldering too much.   

Educate staff to say ‘no’

Never before has it been more necessary to focus on your vital priorities.  And this is going to mean that you and your staff might have to say ‘no’ more often. For the next 90 days, you need to ditch anything that’s part of a longer-term strategy.  This is all about survival.

People need to take this seriously.  They need to stop doing any unnecessary ‘busy work’.  Your boat has a hole below the water-line and everyone needs to be bailing. If they’re not, then they need to pick up a bucket and start. If your company is still afloat in January, you can start resuming the other stuff.

Ask every member of your team to find you four hours next week. What are they doing that doesn’t contribute to the short term goal? Get them to identify these activities and give them permission to stop doing them. That’s ten per cent of their time back. If the world doesn’t end, do it again the following week. Keep doing this in teams and across the company until you can’t find another spare minute. In my experience, some people will identify almost two days per week of activity that can be postponed.

This means big change. There will be some whose usual job is focused on medium to long term outcomes.  Either you make these people redundant or they re-focus on the priorities you’ve identified for the quarter.  Everyone needs to do their bit, even if it doesn’t play to their strengths or is something they dislike doing. Your collective effort needs to be focused on survival and, judging by my clients, your priorities are likely to be around sales and churn reduction.

Get clear on what ‘done’ really means

It’s important to get rid of any ambiguity over outcomes.  Everyone needs to agree with what ‘done’ looks like. Say one of your priorities is a review and you give this to Tom. What are your expectations?  What is the minimum Tom needs to do to complete his review?  How many words?  How many pages?   What’s the deadline?

This should be done for each of the steps on your sprint lane.  Get specific on outcomes and make sure that what you’re asking for is realistic.  Have you allowed enough time for Tom to do his review justice?  If not, what does he need to stop doing? Get into that level of detail.

Remember, you’ve identified this review as an important priority – Tom needs to focus on doing it well. That’s what the word ‘priority’ means – doing one thing and not the other. Everyone needs to be clear. How many times have you sat in meetings where people make a plan and then, a week later, discuss why it hasn’t happened? That’s because they didn’t stick to priorities and iron out any ambiguities until everyone understood.

A useful technique is to get increasingly specific. Keep asking how an outcome will be achieved. Ask this as many times as you need until you can agree what is going to happen tomorrow – and with what outcome. Once people agree on the first specific activity and outcome, they’re more likely to be clear on each other’s expectations.

Create a rhythm and a quarterly theme

To keep everyone on track, working towards your critical number, you need to make sure that teams are meeting in a daily, weekly and monthly rhythm.  Use an All Hands meeting to kick off the quarter, sharing your theme, critical number and the 3 to 5 priorities. Discuss milestones and tell everyone how you’re going to keep score. 

If you’re deliberate about it and control it, you can create a rhythm and a heart-beat that will drive execution.  A sense of managing the energy of your business in a positive and productive way.

This was something we did when I took over as MD of IT Lab in 2007, just before the financial crash. Turnover went from £8m to £5m overnight. Our customer base of small London businesses was terrified and instantly stopped their discretionary spend.  No-one was buying printers, PCs or servers, let alone having them installed.  My company was losing £65K per month and we had three months to save the business.

My theme for these three months was pretty clear – survival. Once we’d all agreed to this, we said to each other, ‘What are you working on for the next 8 hours? Does it link to our theme for the quarter?’  If it didn’t, we told ourselves not to do it.  This was instrumental in turning around our fortunes.

Time and again, I’ve seen how a 90-day rhythm can build alignment in a business.  Staff feel most engaged when they know what’s expected of them.  If it’s made clear to them, they’ll know that what they’ve done has made a difference and been meaningful. It’s far easier to see the link between what you do today and a quarterly theme as you can see and make sense of a nearer horizon.

Designate a war room and measure progress

War room image

Churchill knew a thing or two about successful leadership.  His Cabinet War Rooms below Westminster were key to the planning of Allied Forces after 1940. The Map Room was particularly significant, manned by officers from each of the armed forces who would produce a daily intelligence summary.  It’s a truly fascinating place to visit – well worth dropping by if you haven’t already. 

In the same way, you need to put your company on a war footing.  Create your own war room where your executive team is surrounded by visual references of what you’re trying to achieve – flip-charts, post-it notes etc.  This is so much better than a spreadsheet.  Display your quarterly theme and the number you’re trying to shift through your sprint lanes. Make sure there’s daily reporting on that number and, at the end of each week, review whether you’re on track.  This will act as your early warning system if things aren’t going to plan.

And lastly, remember to celebrate!

Most importantly, at the end of each 90-day cycle, make sure you celebrate success. This will give all your employees a sense of positive achievement and the feeling that what they’ve done has made a difference.  Recent weeks have been an anxious time for many, so take every opportunity to boost morale. 

Make sure you announce how you’re going to celebrate when you launch your quarterly theme.  Generate a scorecard or maybe a Blue Peter style totaliser and update staff daily on the critical number you’re trying to move.  You’re asking people to dig deep, bust a gut and work harder than they’ve ever worked before.    

You may find this forges a new culture in your organisation.  In my experience, surviving a crisis together can really strengthen relationships.   Make sure the staff who come through for you are properly thanked and rewarded.

Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about him here. For more articles and insights, click here.

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