innovating

Innovation, Optimization, and Business Continuity

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Originally posted on LinkedIn.com/in/chipn

What direction are you leading your team in?

Recently I read that the U.S. is experiencing a significant jump in unemployment claims. Much of that is understandable given the recent decline in many businesses, concerns about how long this crisis may last, and the need to protect ongoing viability by business owners and executives. But, in the near future business activity will resume and it will very important that businesses have maintained a pipeline of business and retained the qualified staff to deliver its products and services.

Now could be the ideal time to challenge your team to focus on improving your business. Look at business processes and identify:

  1. What works well today?  Are you able to identify what makes it work so well? Simplicity, automation, and lack of friction are typical attributes of effective and efficient systems and processes that have a positive impact on any business.
  2. What could be improved and why? Specific examples and real data will help quantify the impact and support the prioritization of follow-on activities.
  3. What is missing today?
  • Good ideas have likely been raised in the past so why not revisit them?
  • What are competitors or businesses in other segments doing that could be helpful?
  • Brainstorm and consider something completely new that could help your business.
  • Start a list, describe the need and benefits, provide specific examples, and then estimate the potential impact and time to value for each idea.
  • Take the ideas having the greatest promise and estimate the cost, people/skills needed, other dependencies for each to see how they stack up.

Something else to consider is the creation or updating of Business Continuity Plans. Now is a perfect time – while everything is fresh in the minds of your team. Not only will this help for the future, but there could also be several useful ideas for the coming weeks.

For example, do you have documentation that is sufficient for someone who is not an expert in your business to be able to take over with a relatively small ramp-up time? How will you maintain quality and control of those processes? Are your plans stored in a repository that is accessible yet secure outside of your organization? Do you have the processes and tools in place to collect documentation and feedback on things that did not work as documented or could be improved? Are your Risk Management plans and mitigation procedures up-to-date and adequate?

Investing in your business during this time of slowdown could have many benefits, including maintaining good employee morale, enhancing employee and customer loyalty, retaining employees and the expertise and skills they have, and increasing sustainability and long-term growth potential.

Failing Productively

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As an entrepreneur you will typically get advice like, “Fail fast and fail often.” I always found this somewhat amusing, similar to the saying, “It takes money to make money” (a lot of bad investments are made using that philosophy). Living this yourself is an amazing experience – especially when things turn out well. But as I have written about before, you learn as much from the good experiences as you do from the bad ones.

Innovating is tough. You need people who are always thinking of different and better ways of doing things, or who question why something has to be done or made a certain way. It takes confidence to ask questions that many would view as stupid (“Why would you do that, it’s always been done this way.”) But, when you have the right mix of people and culture, amazing things can and do happen, and it feels great.

Innovating also takes a willingness to lose time and money, with the hope of winning something big enough later to make it all worthwhile. This is where a lot of companies fall short because they lack the patience, budget, or appetite to fail. I personally believe that this is the reason why innovation often flows from small companies and small teams. For them, the prospect of doing something really cool or making a big impact is motivation enough to give something a try.

It takes a lot of discipline to follow a plan when a project appears to be failing, but it takes even more discipline to kill a project that has demonstrated real potential but isn’t meeting expectations. That was one of my first, and probably most important lessons learned in this area. Let me explain…

In 2000 we looked at franchising our “Consulting System” – processes, procedures, tools, metrics, etc. that had been developed and proven in my business. We believed that this approach could help average consultants deliver above average work products. The idea seemed to have real potential.

It took a lot of work finding an attorney who would even consider this idea. Most believed it would be impossible to proceduralize a somewhat ambiguous task like solving a business or technical problem. We finally found an attorney who, after a 2-hour no-cost interview, agreed to work with us. When I later asked him about his approach, he replied “I did not want to waste my [his] time or our money on a fool’s errand.”

We estimated it would take 12 months and cost approximately $100,000 to fully develop our consulting system. We met with potential prospects to validate the idea (it would have been illegal to pre-sell the system) and then got to work. Twelve months turned into 18, and the original $100K budget increased nearly 50%. All indications were positive and we felt very good about the success and business potential for this effort.

Then, the terror attacks occurred on Sept. 11th and businesses everywhere saw a decline. In early 2002 we reevaluated the project and felt that it could be completed within the next 6-8 months and would cost another $50K+.

After a long and emotional debate we decided to kill the project – not because we felt it would not work, but rather because there was less of a target market and now the payback period (time to value) would double or triple. This was one of the most difficult business decisions that I ever made.

A big lesson learned from this experience was that our approach needed to be more analytical.

  • From that point forward we created a budget for “time off” (we bought our own time, as opposed to waiting for bench time) and for other project related items.
  • We developed a simple system for collecting and tracking ideas and feedback. When an idea felt right we would take the next steps and create a plan with a defined budget, milestones, and timeline. If the project failed to meet any of the defined objectives it would be killed – No questions asked.
  • We documented what we did, why we decided to do it, our goals, and expected outcomes. Regardless of success or failure we would have postmortem reviews to learn and document as much as possible from every effort.

We still had failures, but with each one we took less time and spent less money. More importantly, we learned how to do this better, and that helped us realize several successes. It provided both the structure and the freedom to create some amazing things. And, since failing was an acceptable outcome it was never feared.

This approach was much more than just, “failing fast and failing often,” it was intelligent failure, and it served us well for nearly a decade.