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April 2015

A Few Life Lessons

Apr 13, 2015 12:45 PM
Bruce Hunter

There’s an old story which chronicles the passage of a teen’s journey into adulthood.

Entering the teenage years, the teen notes that  Mom and Dad have fallen victim to alarming and accelerating stupidity.  This trend continues into the late teens and miraculously seems to reverse itself sometime in that late teen to early twenties timeframe.  If you’ve got kids that have passed through this stage you no doubt are quite familiar with the pattern.  Thankfully, according to my kids, it seems that I’ve been at least partially cured.

Earlier in the year, I was provided with a note from a friend and business associate Stan Tepner,  citing several life lessons learned from an octogenarian and former investment guru-  Byron Wien.  What follows are some of his life’s lessons in my words.  Teen or not, we can all learn something from those who have gone before.  Here are my top ten from his list in no particular order.

1.   Network intensely.  Luck plays a big role in life and there is no better way to increase it than by knowing as many people as possible.  Nurture that network by providing thought provoking articles etc. to both provide value and initiate discussion.

2.  Read everything.  There is a tendency to narrow our focus as we age.  The broader the subject matter the more connections you’ll have to potential solutions to challenges and the puzzles that life presents.  Further, you’ll be a much more interesting person.

3.  Travel extensively.  Try to get everywhere before you wear out.  Time and health have a habit of creeping up on you before you know it.

4.  Think of relieving pain in charitable endeavours vs. spreading joy.  Music, theatre and art museums have many affluent sponsors.  They don’t need you.  Social service, hospitals and educational institutions are among examples of those that do.

5.  Make it a point to give a pat on the back.  Recognition of effort will always be the greatest motivational tool you have at your command.

6.  Make it personal.  If someone extends a kindness to you, go the extra mile to make the thanks personal.  A handwritten note of thanks easily trumps an email received.

7.  Don’t try to be better.  Be different.  Lasting value isn’t created by playing the same game as someone else it’s in rewriting the rules or even better, changing the game.

8.  Mentor someone.  You’ll get as much learning out of that relationship as will they.

9.  Each year, try something you’ve never done before.   Unless you push your limits, you’ll stagnate and become boring pretty quickly.

10.  Never retire.  Your focus may change with age, but each day must have purpose.  There’s nothing worse than staring at an empty calendar with nothing to do.  

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March 2015


Business Books Worth the Read!

Mar 26, 2015 9:17 AM
Bruce Hunter

One of the things that I greatly appreciate is a recommendation for a good business book.  I thought that I’d pay back the kindness of those recommendations by highlighting a few that I’ve found of value – for a host of reasons.  The list is by no means exhaustive.   I’ve also outlined my primary reason for appreciating each to help guide you in your determination of what might be valuable or interesting for you.  Enjoy!

1. Made to Stick – Chip and Dan Heath.   (Also of note:  “Switch” and “Decisive” by the same authors.

This was Chip and Dan Heath’s first major book published a while back in 2007/8.  It surprised me with a wealth of terrific stories and thoughts on how to create and communicate ideas that resonate and last.  I was surprised at how much I learned despite the fact that I’d spent the major part of my career focused in the marketing arena!

2. The E Myth Revisited – Michael E. Gerber.

One of the classics on the challenges of the private business owner and entrepreneur as they grow their companies.  It was recommended to me initially after a talk I had given on the subject of organizational growth stages. Unwittingly, I’d spoken on a number of areas covered by Gerber and on review, wished I had read it much sooner!

3. The Wisdom of Crowds – James Surowiecki.

A little dated perhaps (2004) but still valuable.  He uses some terrific stories to show how the wisdom of many trumps the opinion of the so-called experts.  I have stolen shamelessly from his stories in the hope of helping to make my presentations a little more interesting.

4. Thinking, Fast and Slow -  Daniel Kahneman (2011)

 I wasn’t a big fan of his title, but the content was powerful.  Dr. Kahneman was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for his seminal work in psychology that challenged the rational person model of judgement and decision making.  Behavioral Economics.  It is loaded with descriptions of the experiments he used to demonstrate that decisions are most often made on emotion, something we forget often as we consider purchase decisions. 

5. Leading Change – John P. Kotter (2012).

There are a ton of books on change and change management that score big for me.  This is just one of them that resonated primarily because of his very important lessons on what makes for good and not-so-good change initiatives. 

6. Fierce Conversations -  Susan Scott (2002).

If any book with make you squirm, this will.  Scott forces us (and her clients) to look squarely in the mirror with no rose-coloured glasses.  She doesn’t allow anyone to duck.   I have used her “Decision Tree” concept for developing leaders and organizational accountability a number of times. 

7. Start with Why -  Simon Sinek (2009).

The power in this book is the simple model that Sinek uses to outline success for both organizational and personal development.  Why.  How.  What. It is easily understood and powerful in its simplicity.  It does risk being an oversimplification of a complex system but for me at least helped to frame the ideas of Vision, Strategy and Execution in a different way.

8.  The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg (2012).

This book spoke to me because I am a creature of habit.  In essence, it’s a book about how to effect change both personally and organizationally.  His stories and examples were helpful…even though I must admit that I still find it difficult to lose that 20 or 30 lbs and keep it off!

9.  No Man’s Land – Doug Tatum (2007)

Covers much the same ground as the E-myth, chronicling that very difficult time in a company and entrepreneur’s life when they are too small to be big and vice versa.  It was of particular interest to me because it focuses on the pivotal stage of a business’s life cycle as it morphs from adolescence into adulthood.  And as an additional sneaky recommend  “Finish Big” by Bo Burlingham just published in 2014 which focuses on the need to build an exit plan and a business that’s built to sell.

10.  The One Thing – Gary Keller with Jay Papasan

I picked this as much for the philosophy as for the book.  There are a number of books out there on a similar theme.  “Essentialism – the power of doing less” by Greg McKeown, “Purple Cow”  by Seth Godin, “Focus” by Daniel Goleman to name a few.  All reinforce that success lies in focus and through differentiation. 

So that’s the list.  I’ve left off a great many that you no doubt, count as your “must-reads”.   And to that end, I’d love to hear from you on your personal recommends.  Last but not least, I’d be remiss not to shamelessly plug my own two books, “Fog Lights – 2008” and “Success Cage – 2013”.  The first is a compilation of lessons learned through a long corporate career, the second focuses on the challenges of growing and sustaining a privately held business.  They are available from Amazon or me.

Good luck and good reading!

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Quotable Quotes

Mar 17, 2015 7:49 AM
Bruce Hunter

 

            Quotable Quotes

 

I'm a bit of a pack rat when it comes to ideas I chance upon and don't want to forget.  Today as I was going through some of my older files on my computer, I chanced upon one in which I'd summarized some of my favorite quotes from business literature.  Rather than file them away for another day of inspiration, I thought I'd share them.  So here they are!  May you be inspired as well! 

Toleration of mediocrity does more to hold back a company than any other factor.

The second you get an inkling somebody is not working out, you’re already late.

Everything you say as a leader is like whispering into a megaphone.

Management’s biggest problem is all the unemployed people on the payroll. 

At the end of the day, bet on people, not strategies. 

No one will ever pay you what your product is worth.  They’ll pay you what they think it’s worth. 

All organizations are in transition whether they know it or not. 

No plan emerges unscathed from the impact with reality.

No matter how long the runway, a pig still can’t fly. 

If you put a small price on yourself, you can be sure that the world won’t raise it. 

Egotism is the only disease that makes everyone sick except the carrier. 

University prepares one for a world that doesn’t exist. 

There is nothing more dangerous to an organization than a leader that is underemployed. 

Nobody wants your product or service. They want what it will do for them. 

Reform always comes from below. Nobody with four aces asks for a re-deal. 

People do not resist their own ideas.

You don’t want to be considered just the best.  You want to be known as the only one who does it.


Please feel free to share these and follow up with me to share some thoughts you find particularly valuable.

 

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February 2015


The Decision Tree. A simple Model for Delegation and Accountability

Feb 11, 2015 8:22 AM
Bruce Hunter

Arguably, the most difficult thing to accomplish in our work and family lives is to trust others with decisions and implementation of action.   I wrote a while back on a simple delegation and development model called “The Decision Tree” and a recent occurrence has prompted me to offer it up again for your consideration. 

A true story…

Dan sat transfixed, staring at the paper in front of him.  At first he was incredulous.  That quickly gave way to fear.  Then anger.  He finished with a sigh, resignation and a search for next steps.  The paper upon which his attention had been riveted was the revised sales forecast for the year end.  It was dripping in red ink!  What had happened?  Only a week earlier, the forecast was sunny and bursting with optimism.  What had changed in a week?

Dan harboured more than a little anger.  “How could people not see what I see?  There was absolutely no way that the forecast of a week ago was going to be delivered.  It would have taken a 50% increase in orders over last year and there was no way that was going to happen.”   In truth he was angry about a number of things.  First, he was disappointed that the employees he’d trusted to run this part of the show hadn’t seen it coming.  They should have.  Associated with that was a foreboding that he had put too much trust in them in the first place.  Was this the tip of the iceberg?  What other issues were there out there ready to pop up?  Why had he let go of the reins? 

 Second, was self-recrimination. “I should have seen it.  I should have paid closer attention!  Damn!  What could I have done differently?”

His first reaction was predictable. “I’ll have to get back into the business.  I’ve misplaced my trust in my team and I’m going to need to step in to solve this!”

Exactly the wrong thing to do…and unless you’re a saint, we’ve all done it.  At work and at home.  A brilliant way to make sure that the monkey remains placed firmly on your back.  It demotivates others.  It adds to your frustration and work.  It’s expedient but ultimately destructive.  It takes time and patience to make sure this type of situation is used as a learning and teaching moment.  But that’s exactly what the situation calls for. 

I happened across an interesting model for thinking about how to delegate and develop in a book by Susan Scott entitled “Fierce Conversations”.  It’s an excellent book, first released in 2002. One of which is her discussions relates to a former boss who taught about the “Decision Tree”.

The Decision Tree – a roadmap for delegation.

 “Think of our company as a green and growing tree.  In order to ensure its ongoing health, countless decisions are made daily, weekly, monthly.  Right now, you have a good history of making decisions in several areas.  So let’s think of these areas as leaf-level decisions.  Make them, act on them and don’t tell me what you did.  Let’s make it our goal to move more decisions out to the leaf level.  That’s how you and I will know you’re developing as a leader.”

The four categories of decisions:

1.  Leaf Decisions:

Make the decision.  Act on it.  Do not report the action you took.

2.  Branch Decisions:

Make the decision.  Act on it.  Report the action you took.

3.  Trunk Decisions:

Make the decision.  Discuss your decision with me before you take action.

4.  Root Decisions:

Make the decision jointly, with input from many people.  These are the decisions that, if poorly made and implemented, could cause harm to the organization.

The analogy of root, trunk, branch and leaf decisions indicates the degree of potential harm or good to the organization as action is taken at each level.  A trunk decision isn’t necessarily more important than a leaf decision but if you unwittingly yank a leaf off a tree, the tree won’t die.

The goals of the Decision Tree are threefold:

1.  To identify clearly exactly where an individual has the authority to make decisions and take action.

2.  To provide individuals with a clear path of development and performance.  More leaf decisions, more accountability.

3.  To build leadership.

Try to practice it at home with a teenager.  You’ll be surprised at how easy and effective a communication and behavioural tool it is.  Delegation and accountability!  What a wonderful thing.

 

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January 2015


Will you design your exit or just let it happen?

Jan 16, 2015 1:46 PM
Bruce Hunter

These days most of my time is spent with business owners.  If you think it’s tough to speak about “life after” with corporate types, try speaking with an entrepreneur.  The topic is studiously avoided for a host of reasons – most very real and personal.  Some of the things I’ve heard…

  • My business defines me.If I lose it, I’ll be lost.
  • I have no idea what I’d do if I weren’t working in the business.I haven’t developed any other interests.
  • I don’t have the time to think about that now.
  • My business and my employees can’t function without me.
  • I wouldn’t know where to start to build my exit plan.

Many also believe they have unlimited time and delusions of immortality.  Unfortunately the future has a habit of arriving suddenly and with a vengeance! A sudden medical condition.  A business broadside.  A family crisis.  They and their businesses are caught flat-footed! 

Most experts cite the time required to create a solid exit plan to be between 3 – 5 years.   The benefit to you and the business begins immediately.  So the message is simple.  Start today!

Exiting is a process, not an event.

It took a great deal of effort to build your business with you at the helm.  Extracting yourself from the day-to-day, building the structure, people and processes to do what you do now will take even more effort.  Here are five steps to a successful exit plan.

1.   Start with you.  You’ve got to think deeply about what you want and what really makes you tick.  This can be tough sledding as you have to throw off the mantle of the expectations of others and be real about your motivation and what drives you.  Often, just writing a couple of paragraphs about what you are doing, with whom and how you are living your new life can be a liberating process.  Don’t worry about how you get there (which is where most of us start).  Be as specific as possible about describing your “life after”.

2.  See your business with the eyes of an outsider.  We spend many years working “in” our businesses when we should be extracting ourselves and working to see around the corners.  I often use a role-playing technique to jump-start the thought process and ask business owners to contemplate the purchase of their own businesses – pro’s and con’s.  This simple exercise often forms the underpinning of the first plan.

3.  Identify and hold accountable the people leading the transformation.  Companies don’t create change, people do.  People are the impetus of all good change…and bad.  There are usually two fundamental reasons for poor change efforts.  First, is that the people charged with the transformation aren’t the right ones.  Second, the business owners themselves sabotage change by jumping back into the business, abandoning their role outside the day-to-day. 

4.  Communicate and keep the eyes on the prize.  Building new roles, processes and structure is destabilizing for you and your people.  The destination not only has to be seen clearly, it must be embraced and celebrated.  Engage your employees in building that destination and track your progress toward it with regularity and transparency.  Celebrate and reward those who actively support.  Quickly exit those who do not.

5.  Get regular, outside-in feedback along the way.   A good advisory team plays a powerful role in a successful exit and new beginnings.  Whether it is a significant other, a set of experienced business advisors, mentor or all of the above, constructive outside-in feedback is critical.   Too often we see what we want to see or hear.  Feedback keeps it real.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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December 2014


No Regrets

Dec 14, 2014 9:49 AM
Bruce Hunter

As the year comes to a close, it’s an opportune time for reflection and planning for the year ahead.  What better time to take stock and get revved up for change than over the holiday period while spending time with family and friends? 

Although the title of this piece speaks to business regrets, I’d like to spend just a little time first on the personal as they are inexorably intertwined with leadership.

It’s been a tough year.  I’ve lost two very good, long-time friends to terminal disease and two others taken far too early.  In reflecting about these events, I happened across a book and several blogs referring to a book, “The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying” by palliative nurse, Bronnie Ware.  The book, which has been widely quoted and summarized, highlights her discussions with those entering the final phase of life.  Where better to draw inspiration than from those who go before? Here are the top 5 Regrets.  

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3.  I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4.  I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.

5.   I wish I’d let myself be happier.

This list caused me to reflect on the literally hundreds of discussions I’ve had over the past years with business leaders of every size, shape and color.  I’ve distilled those conversations into my own list of Top 5 Regrets of Business Leadership.  I offer them now for your consideration and action.

I wish I’d listened more and done less.

I wish I’d understood that it’s all about having great people.

I wish I’d lived my business life with the philosophy that family comes first.

I wish I’d had more focus.

I wish I’d been more fearless.

Homework Challenge:

Take some quiet time over the holidays with this list and create a “Top Three” for yourself over the next year.  Identify a specific action you will take to address each item your list.  Keep the list handy and yourself honest by referring to it throughout the year, tracking progress.  You’ll be amazed what great things happen as a result!

Happy New Year!

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November 2014


Happily Ever After. Building a transferable business

Nov 13, 2014 1:51 PM
Bruce Hunter

“Ronald, your hair is all nice.
Your clothes are all pretty.
You look like a nice guy, but you know…
You are a BUM!”
 
And they didn’t get married after all!
 
Closing lines from “The Paper Bag Princess” by Robert Munsch.
 
 I’m willing to bet that it is because of that ending that Robert Munsch has sold over 3 million copies of this short children’s story around the world.  Of course Ronald, the prince was a prime jerk and we revel in the strength of the Princess to put him in his place.  Ronald got what he deserved.

It’s a stretch to link Munsch’s fairy tale ending with that of unrequited unions on the business front, but I’m going to attempt it regardless.  Too often, I see prospective buyers and sellers meet to discuss a potential sale with hopes dashed on both sides as they realize that the marriage won’t work. As with Robert Munsch’s story, the union wasn’t meant to be in the first place.  Too often, the fault is that of the seller, not the suitor for three reasons:

1.  An unrealistic expectation of business value.
2.  Unpreparedness for the scrutiny and the lengthy process a sale entails.
3.  An inability to build a business that can function without their direct day to day input.
   
 It takes hard work and often years to build a business that will yield the type of return that the business owner has dreamed as the “happily ever-after” event.  For those that are willing to spend the time and effort, the end will justify the means in the form of cleaner and more valuable exit.  For those that don’t, it means either dissolution when the owner exits or an inability to capture the inherent value in the business.

The impetus for this newsletter was a piece written in the Tuesday, May 13, 2014 edition of The Toronto Star by Romina Maurino.  The headline proclaimed, “Most start-ups hope to be acquired within three years.  Canadian Entrepreneurs eager to sell, but show startling lack of preparedness, PWC survey shows.” While the article focused on start-ups, this situation extends to most privately owned businesses and the expectations of the owners.

Few business owners have spent the time and effort required to build their businesses into entities that are transferable.  And if you doubt it, just ask the folks at PWC or any other seasoned M&A advisor.  To maximize the performance and transferability of any business, the owner must create an infrastructure and hire the people to allow the business to prosper without their day-to-day input.  To do so, requires diligence, focus and often a very disquieting role change for the business owner.  To grow, they have to let go.

In order to provide some help in this area, I’ve created a comprehensive FREE questionnaire and scoring key that provides business leaders with a roadmap for improving the transferability and value of their existing business.  Please feel free to reach out for a soft copy.  I can be reached at bhunter@lighthouse360.com.

Alternatively, this questionnaire and many other tools are available in my new book, “The Success Cage.  You’ve built a business that owns you.  Now What?”  The book can be accessed through my website at http://www.lighthouse360.com or through Amazon in hardcover, softcover or e-book. 
 

 


 

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October 2014


First things First

Oct 12, 2014 8:18 AM
Bruce Hunter

I read a story about a business professor taking his students through the concept of time management the other day and it hit home.  Addressing his class, he picked up a large empty jar and proceeded to fill the jar with large rocks.  Looking at the class he asked, “How many of you believe that this jar is full?”  Of course, the majority of the class agreed that he couldn’t fit any more rocks into the jar and therefore concluded it was full.  The professor then added some gravel to the jar, shaking the gravel so it filled up the spaces left by the larger rocks.  He repeated his question.  By this time of course, the students were on to him and concluded that the jar was unlikely full.  He further demonstrated the point by then adding first sand and then water to complete the demonstration.

“So what was the point of this exercise?” asked the professor.  One student raised his hand and answered, “No matter how much we think we can handle, we can always deal with more.”  “A possible lesson but not the one I was trying to make” concluded the professor.  “Here is the point I was trying to make.  If one were to reverse the exercise, you would never be able to fit the same number of larger rocks into the jar.  The point?  Deal with your larger challenges and opportunities first.” 

Answer the question. What are your 'big rocks'?" Then, put those in your jar first.

Covey said it in his seminal book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.  He called it Quadrant 2 versus Quadrant 1 thinking.  Quadrant 2 contains less urgent but important actions.  Quadrant 1: Urgent and Less important.  Our predisposition is to focus on the latter, which of course crowds our ability to get to the really important work.

Here is a simple question I use with my clients to great effect.

“What’s the ONE THING you need to do that would remove the biggest barrier to your growth or access your greatest opportunity?”  Answering this question very often removes the paralysis of indecision and helps deal with the ambiguity of too many options.  It provides focus and impetus. It’s taking the parable of many rocks and focusing on the biggest.

What’s your biggest rock?  Are you dealing with it?

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August 2014


Build Accountability!

Aug 7, 2014 11:29 AM
Bruce Hunter

For three years I had the good fortune to coach one of the most impressive leaders I think I’ll ever meet.  He was young, just up from the United States to take on the leadership of the Canadian arm of a global services firm.  Sure, he was massively intelligent, brilliantly strategic, good with people and focused.  But what made him stand out…way out from the rest of the people I’ve mentored was his dedication to self-improvement.  He was both fanatic and sponge.  He reiterated at every meeting we had (which was monthly) that his goal was to become the best leader the organization had ever had.   Together we created a plan and series of actions to build toward that goal and reviewed it monthly, setting course corrections as we went.  By the time he returned home, he left the legacy of a vastly improved organization and made great progress toward his never-ending goal of building his leadership capabilities.  He made my job easy by taking personal responsibility for his own development.  He pushed me as hard as he pushed himself.   There was always something else to learn, some way of improving.  By focusing on himself, he inspired others, including me.  Now, when people ask me how to create accountability within an organization I answer that it starts with the person in the mirror.

Every day you are leading by example.  Good or bad.”

  Here are my 5 Steps to creating an accountable culture and organization:

1.  Establish a clear goal.   It’s not your job as a leader to provide all the steps necessary to achieve that goal.  That will be up to those who are closest to the business.  It is your responsibility however to provide direction, clarity and transparency about what you are setting out to achieve.  Set it and get out of the way.

2.  Ensure that there is individual and team commitment to that goal.  One of the biggest mistakes I see made by leaders is to assume that because they’ve communicated a destination or goal that it is accepted.  The most important part of building accountability into the culture is achieving the buy-in of the organization.  You must connect, by-person, with hearts, not just heads.  People commit most strongly with emotion.  Your job is to inspire.

3.   Establish clear roles and responsibilities.    Employees need to understand what role they uniquely play and what they are responsible for.  Lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities is usually where the system and performance starts to fall apart.  Time and effort spent here is key to creating traction on performance and an accountable culture.

4.  Build a system to regularly measure, communicate progress and course correct.  Covey said, “To get what you expect, you must inspect” or “What gets measured, gets done”.  I’ve seen too many great plans fall into disrepair not through incompetence but through neglect.  A great start is often de-railed by lack of follow-through.  Something as simple as regular monthly meetings to review progress is a good start.

5.  Create the freedom to navigate priorities.  The U.S. military moved away from a very strict protocol of “following orders” toward outlining executive intent.  This allowed soldiers to react to circumstances unforeseen in plans while remaining on-course to the final objectives.  No plan survives unscathed when it meets with the reality of the market.  By providing your employees with direction not dictums you will improve both accountability and execution.

This note started with a description of one of the most impressive leaders I’ve had the fortune to have worked with.  He created a highly performing and accountable organization by starting with the most important person.  Himself.  And that is where you and I must start as well.

 

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June 2014


The Incumbent's Curse

Jun 19, 2014 7:56 AM
Bruce Hunter

 

The popular show Dragon’s Den on CBC and now Shark Tank in the U.S. profile entrepreneurs eager to share the details of their fledgling businesses to prospective investors.  One by one, they are ushered into the presence of the panel with most leaving empty-handed and chastened by the experience.  As the audience, we have a wonderful opportunity to play Dragon in the comfort of our homes.  We sit confidently, like Caesars, ready to proclaim with a quick flick of the wrist, either a thumbs up or down to the presenting Entrepreneur.  In our home at least, most never see the light of day.

So what did these budding entrepreneurs miss?

Of course it could be a multitude of things. However one thing in particular stands out in my mind.  They have become too close to their idea to be able to apply the judgement that someone with a clear, outside-in perspective sees in an instant.  The idea sucks!

The term “The Incumbent’s Curse” was coined by Chardy and Tellis, two business researchers who used it in somewhat of a different sense.  They describe it as an individual or company who is so enamoured by success or hampered by bureaucracy that they fail to introduce the next impetus for growth.  Hello RIM, IBM before Microsoft or a myriad of other examples.  While many of the business train wrecks we see may be born of hubris or bureaucracy, my experience would say that the root of most who fail is something different.  It is the inability to see their businesses from the outside-in.  To see with fresh eyes. 

We’re all guilty of incumbent’s curse.

 Long after I had left my previous position at a Fortune 500 company, I happened to bump into a long time supplier of marketing services to that company.  Given that we were connected solely through that previous relationship, the talk eventually got around to the “Old Days”.  I reminisced about my previous employer and spoke glowingly about the fact that we, unlike others our size, had treated our suppliers relatively well.

My former supplier looked me dead in the eye and said, “And on just what planet were you located?  You guys were just as bad as the rest.  I can think about several circumstances that we were asked for proposals, and the ideas in them were used but the job was awarded to others.  In other circumstances we weren’t paid for work performed.  You weren’t the worst, but you were certainly no paragons of virtue.”

I was stunned.  And chastened.  My view of both myself and my former employer was instantaneously blemished.  I don’t remember exactly what I said in that moment but I’m sure that I put my tail between my legs and left… head low.

Here are few thoughts on how to avoid the Incumbent’s Curse.

1.  Get additional perspective.  Enlist those without specific knowledge of the subject at hand and get some perspective.  This approach has long been the central benefit of advisory groups – peer or otherwise.  One such group I was previously associated with was Vistage (The Executive Committee in Canada).  They had a terrific saying which spoke to the benefit of outside perspective when approaching a business challenge brought by a member to the group.  “Sixteen members. No blind spots”.  It works.

2.  Start with the destination.  One of the strategic planning companies I work with makes a specific point to avoid planning from today to tomorrow.  They insist on starting with a very specific view of the future desired state, purposely avoiding the question of how to get there.  Their reasoning is to avoid the natural tendency we all have in dismissing ideas we believe are not doable.  Planning from the future to the present allows many more ideas to remain alive…which in turn improves the output.

3.  Take a walk in the woods.  Make a point to pull yourself (and/or your team) physically and mentally out of the situation.  There is a reason most planning sessions are done outside the work place.  It may seem a little contrived but immersing yourself in a different situation or experience really does provide the basis for thinking differently.

4.  Trade challenges.   Prepare a brief summary of the issue or challenge you are working with and share it with someone you respect.  Have them share one for you to approach in return.  The process will open a few doors for both of you.

5.   Use a “box” process.  This is a very specific tool used in group settings to encourage the exploration of different solutions.  Start with outlining your challenge to two people.  After concluding your explanation of the challenge and the background, physically turn your chair so your back is toward the others.  Without speaking, it is your job to listen to the others discusses your challenge.  You’ll be amazed first, at how difficult it is to keep quiet and secondly, how much information is provided in a very short period of time.

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