In 1712 the British government started taxing newspapers by the number of pages they printed. The predictable response was that newspapers started printing on what became known as ‘Broadsheet’ paper to minimise their tax. A rational commercial response, but by the time the tax was abolished in 1855, people had forgotten why they needed these huge, unwieldy pages, and somehow they became a sign of a ‘serious’ newspaper.
Had the Sydney Morning Herald asked any commuter who still bought their broadsheet paper before March 2013, would they prefer a smaller format, they would have answered with one word: Please. Common sense caught up with them and the change was finally made, it only took 170 years.
This is just one example of thousands of a key strategic question that should always be asked, ‘Why do it that way”. When I get an answer to the question that sounds anything like, ‘because that is the way it has always been,’ I shudder, and when that say ‘customers prefer it that way’ I ask to see the research, which in most cases has been chewed by the dog.
There are 8 more common questions I work into conversations early on that give me a rough idea of the problems they face, and the ‘shape’ of an assignment, should it eventuate.
- What would a VC investor do? Those who put up capital with a view to an exit at a profit at an early date look for the 20% of every business that produces the 80% of profits, and having found it, tend to remove as much of the 80% of activity as they can in order to generate their return. It can be a bloody exercise when done by an outsider, but turning a managements mind to the question almost always opens up their minds to a far more critical analysis of their current business that had otherwise been done.
- Are the organisation structure and capabilities capable of delivering the strategic outcomes planned?. There is a trick in the question, as many businesses do not have a clear idea of their strategy, so are unable to articulate how the organisation can deliver on it. The correct sequence is to have a robust strategy based on the “why” or values of the business, however you choose to express it, followed by an analysis of the structure and capabilities required to deliver. Which is the cart and which is the horse should be very clear.
- Which pieces do not fit? To some degree, this is a similar question to the one about what a VC would do, just a bit less intimidating, and more sensitive to the cultural and operational shape of the business, and its capabilities. There are always bits that do not fit, that do not carry their own weight. Each part of a business should add to the whole in a manner that is greater than just the sum of the parts. If a part does not add to the greater sum, either get rid of it, or improve its performance very quickly so that it does.
- What does the long term look like? I ask this question at all levels, hoping to find consistent answers, which is a great sign, but unfortunately as rare as hens teeth. Assessing every major decision against the framework of the desired long term objective ensures at least some degree of alignment and consistency in decision making.
- Why do customers do business with you? It always surprises how often the answer to that question is either “price” or “they always come back”. Neither is a sufficient answer. If you are the cheapest around, that is a good way to go broke eventually, and if you cannot articulate why someone does business with you, in other words, repeat back to you your value proposition, you are equally in trouble.
- How much business comes from repeat customers, and what is your share of their wallet? Servicing an existing customer in any market is cheaper than finding a new one, so cherish the ones you have. Similarly, if you have a 10% share of wallet, the most effective way to increase sales is to increase your share of their wallet. When there is no credible answer, to either question, it is a danger neon sign.
- Who are your major and potential competitors? Knowing your current major competitors and their capabilities is essential to survival in competitive markets, and in many, being able to see over the horizon sufficiently to see who the potential competitors may be is a great sign of strategic awareness.
- What is the exit strategy? In most cases, public companies do not have one, and it is really not necessary for them, what they really need is a comprehensive succession plan, with the associated capability development activities. For everyone else, the lack of an exit strategy signals a lack of focus on outcomes. Even when the owners, who are generally also the managers in most of my clients, intend to work ‘forever,’ there needs to be an exit strategy as part of the strategic planning exercise, and often the succession planning is how to bring along young ‘Georgie’ the son/daughter of the owner, who might not make it in a meritocracy.
When you would like to have a conversation that goes a bit deeper, give me a call.
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