Peter Meyer

Peter Meyer

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It started with what appeared to be a stroke. Yes, this is about your business, please stick with me here. We'll highlight something that can help you to grow your business more consistently and systematically.

The stroke patient assumed that his event was part of the unstoppable decline of his brain. His assumption: Brain death is a given. With that assumption neuroplasticity must be impossible.

And now you may be asking what neuroplasticity might be. This may be over simple, but neuroplasticity is what happens when patients re-route their own neural pathways so that different parts of the brain take on new functions. That suggests that our mind can repair our brain. For centuries this was considered impossible.

Now there is plenty of literature to support the sensibleness of neuroplasticity. So today I can turn to my friend and say:

"20 years ago, your stroke would be considered permanent damage. Here in 2016 your doctor has studies that demonstrate that you might be able to repair your neurological injury without surgery. Are you interested?"

This question is going to generate a conversation. In a few paragraphs I'll bring it around to our businesses, but let's consider how to explain the brain part in plain English.

Example: Treatment for One Patient
What I say here will become part of the business discussion. It'll be simplistic but accurate enough to say something like:

"When you drive to work, and the freeway is under construction, you can route around the blockage. If you have to repeat the detour for enough days you just adapt. You still get to work in an automatic manner. You make a good route and continue to use it. "You don't need a surgeon to do that do you? You just explore the alternatives yourself. It's almost second nature to assume that it will work. And when you hit that roadblock the first time you don't need to know exactly how you'll adapt. But you assume that you will find a way to make it work.

"The same thing can happen in your brain. Your synapses hit a block, and you can just stop and sit there and wait. Or you can make a different route. We used to think that impossible. Now we call it neuroplasticity.

"This always starts with assumption and conviction. In the traffic metaphor, you're assuming that you'll make it happen for your drive. That conviction, that you'll do this, is the key that helps you transition from stuck in traffic to moving on a new path. You don't need to know the next turn to feel sure that you can make one happen.

"The studies show is that this assumption is clearly transferable from car traffic to your neurology. That means that the solution is not in knowing the exact path. The solution is in knowing that you'll make a path."

In other words, the key to making this work is asking the patient to decide that he can reroute. I'm not trying to show the patient how to reroute. I am confident that when he decides that he can, he'll do it. That sounds odd, but it is clinically pretty accurate.

Applying This to Your Business
Your business will probably face roadblocks as it grows. The question is not if you will. The question is not whether you immediately know what to do, you may or may not. The question is:

"What assumptions do you and your team members make when the road crumbles in front of you?"

This is may sound odd, but I'm not asking you to assume that you will find new paths, nor take them. I'm asking you to assume that you will make them. Lets look at two examples.

Examples: Making Sales Happen
This can be as simple as when sales project comes to a roadblock. Early in my career I was close to finishing a deal to provide an important solution to a turbine company. The customer's executives had chosen our solution, verbally committed, and then told people outside their company. We felt pretty good about it.

Until the CFO discovered that he could neither pay cash for the project, nor tap his credit. The sale was going on hold because the CFO could not get the money until the next year. It was clear that the President of the turbine company wanted do this project immediately, but said that he felt limited in what he could do. He felt compelled to delay. However, to me a postponement would be tantamount to losing the sale.

What you want in your representative is someone who will not stop just because the CEO says no. You want a representative who will start face a roadblock and assume that his or her job is to look around the roadblock and make, not find but make, a solution. The ultimate solution isn't clear, but the assumption is.

In this case we built a custom lease for the customer and closed the sale in a week. The President got the value for his company he wanted. But that isn't the point is it? The point is that my team all assumed that we would make this work.

I had a similar situation with the owner of a chain of newspapers. He chose my solution and started to implement it. However, the many unions couldn't agree among themselves on how to support our project and everything stalled. It wasn't about the project. It was about politics between union locals. However, this was halting any chance to get the value the plan could bring.

The owner wouldn't accept the statement that "it can't be done." This man had a long history of exceeding previous limits, and his business and social stature reflected that. He assumed that we would make a way. He asked my help and we made a path for it to happen.

The solution we crafted kept his papers growing for several years. It happened when he worked from the assumption that he could and would make a new path inside his plants.

The 2x2 Growth Grid
Those examples might be a flash of the blindingly obvious to you. That is a good thing, but lets look at how this works.

Remember the 2x2 Growth Grid from a previous post? It has a vertical axis of 'limited or growth' and 'take or make' on the horizontal axis.


Lets map the examples here. The President of the turbine company was in the lower left corner. He was assuming a limited capacity. He chose to take the options provided, not try to make any. The owner of the newspaper chain made a different choice. He was focused on growing past previous limits and choosing to make a new path instead of taking the case presented by the unions. The owner of the newspapers was up and to the right on this grid.

This is about our operating assumptions. We control those. How we do that happens deep in the fabric of the business, just like changing neural pathways. This is about choosing business neuroplasticity. And we can make that choice.

The otherwise impossible solutions work when you start with the assumption that you can grow and that you can make instead of just accept what seems to be there. The same is true when you choose, even though it might be heretical, to do this in your business.

From Intuition to Successful Growth
For the patient, for the sales person, for the CEO, for the owner, the key to success isn't knowing what path she or he will take. It is his or her personal assumption that she or he will make the path the company needs.

You know intuitively that not all salespeople and not all executives are excited about making a new path. For them the pattern of success from the past is the right starting assumption. The past is always relevant, but it doesn't guide us. We get to make our own choices here. Do we assume growth? Do we assume that we make instead of take? Do we assume that we can build new paths? When we do, we are performing neuroplasticity on our business. And we are promoting sustainable growth.

You've probably told people that finding problems is a good thing. Problems indicate that you're making progress. And you also know that solving problems quickly is just as good.

I'm going to assume that you don't need advice on how to make problems. This article is about a practical method to solve your problems more quickly. It may sound odd to you, but I'm going to ask you to pull your own strings here.

An Example: Starting with A Knotty Problem
A few years ago we were involved in a messy competitive sales situation. We were bidding to provide consulting services to a telephone company in the Eastern United States. This company (we'll call it Telco) was trying to figure out how to reduce the cost of operations by $100 million dollars within 6 months. That was to pave the way to acquire another phone company by the end of the year. The mandate to cut that cost was coming from government regulators, and the Telco executive team was serious about making all of this happen.

Telco asked for bids from several consulting firms including mine. The specifications were very loose, the project ill defined, and the procurement process had become a complete mess for Telco. They had multiple bids, all so different that the offers couldn't be compared to each other. It was beginning to appear that it would take most of the year just to choose the consulting firm.

Choosing the Right End of the String
Now to the string. Next time you are in a grocery store look for a bag of flour or grain that is sewn closed by one of those strings that you tug to open the bag.

You've seen this. When you pull on one end of the string that secures the bag, the knots get tighter and the string gets more intractable. You're pulling on the wrong end of the string.

However, when you go to the other end of the string, you can open the bag with one easy pull. Solving that problem is much quicker and easier when you start at the right end.

This isn't just for bags of flour or grain. The metaphor applies to problems like the one at Telco and perhaps in your own business. (This metaphor comes from Walter Method Messages by Florence Stranahan.)

The String at Telco
All of us, vendors and the Telco team, were clearly pulling on the wrong end of the string. How could we tell? When we pulled harder, the problem just got knottier. We consultants were proposing apples and oranges by trying to define the project to match our own strengths. The purchasing and evaluating teams at Telco could not untangle a way to move forward. The team at Telco was getting frustrated.

So was I. I wanted to get on the right end of the string, hand it to the client, and have them pull it. At that point I was willing to lose the contract if it was best for getting the Telco merger accomplished. The senior Telco executive who owned this project told me that she was feeling just as frustrated. So on a Friday afternoon I called and made a radical suggestion. She agreed to it in about a minute.

On Monday I had Jan, the most aggressively independent and neutral facilitator I knew, in a conference room at Telco. Jan's travel and visit were on my nickel, but both she and I were clear that she did not care who paid her. Her job was to find the right end of the string no matter who won the contract. She was hired to advocate for Telco.

Jan had only one directive: To interview the top 12 Telco leaders and find the one string that was best for Telco's business. Not best for a vendor, best in the view of the Telco leaders. It didn't matter if that string favored a vendor, all that mattered was that Telco could look at the interview results and know that these were the right success criteria for starting and finishing the project.

You could argue that Telco should have already done this, and you'd be right. And you know that large organizations sometimes just can't seem to get to that. I was hiring Jan to help them do something that otherwise wasn't going to get done.

If you are leading a team like this, or facing a knotty problem like this, you are not alone. The solution is not in pulling the string harder and more heroically. The answer is in finding the right end of the string.

Finding the Right End of the String
Jan started on Monday and by Friday of that week she had interviewed all 12 key leaders in person and had the 11 of them in the conference room with the sponsoring executive and I. Jan asked the Telco team to look at the various success criteria she pulled from the interviews. She put all the relevant criteria on a whiteboard. (This is a process that my firm uses often.) She asked the team to select the success criteria that were right for Telco, not for the vendors. She then stood back and let them argue about which one or ones were right for them.

Jan was telling the team to find the correct end of the string. In the prior 9 months they hadn't done this. Now it was time, and in two hours, they chose three criteria on which they all agreed.

This wasn't fast or pretty, but Jan facilitated a conversation that helped the Telco team define a scope and plan that was the best for where they were. I took notes for the group, but the Telco team did all the work.

Did It Work?
Yes, but what worked here? The correct end of string was defined by the customer needs, not anyone else' ideas. It seemed like a flash of the blindingly obvious. This was the right end of the string for this project.

The senior executive took my notes to her office, read them, and immediately directed (not asked) Jan to start work on making the plan happen. Since Jan worked for me, the competitive bidding was over. The project started that night and we all worked through the weekend and the rest of the month. In effect, the bidding nightmare ended the moment the team chose the right end of the string to pull.

In 6 months Telco satisfied the regulators. Three months later they bought the other company. Pulling the string from that end, the customer's definition of success, was what worked.

You could read this as a victory for my firm, and we were happy to do the work. However the real victory was for Telco. They made the choice to stop pulling on the wrong end and to go find the right end of the string. What was the right end? It was choosing the success criteria for their own business irrespective of the tangential issues. Once they agreed on the criteria that helped Telco position for buying the other company, the answers were as simple as opening that bag of flour. The right end of the string was clear once they stopped straining on the wrong end.

The Winning Strategy
What is the strategy you might take away from this? Start with this idea: - If the problem that you are trying to solve seems complicated, knotty, and unclear, you are pulling on the wrong end of the string.

If you want to find the right end: - Write down your success criteria and then eliminate everything else. You'll find the right end of the string right in front of you.

Is it a flash of the blindingly obvious? Good.

Next: Heroism is fun, but don't you want to prevent it instead?

You already know that because you are wise, experienced and successful it doesn't make meetings better. This quick note, prompted by my friend Jonathan, is about a practical structure that you can use that can dramatically shorten and improve your meetings: Success criteria.

Success Criteria
This comes from a technique that our firm uses to keep complex projects on target. I hate time wasting sessions, so we use this structure to get more value from less time in meetings. It's simple. It works.

We all use agendas, and what an agenda describes is the topic. This note is about much more. What I'm asking you to do is go further and to describe the outcome you want from your meeting. Before you start the meeting, answer a simple question: "When we are done in an hour, what will have changed?" The answer to that is your success criterion for that meeting.

The discipline is to have the success criteria in your mind before the meeting starts. Let me be clear: If you haven't defined success for the meeting before you start, you deserve to have a mediocre meeting. And you probably will. What I am asking you to do, what works, is to know how to define success around where you are going before you ask your team to sit down together.

TV or Conversation?
Let's consider two different kinds of meetings. One is where you want to disseminate information. This is like broadcast TV. You're the host, and they're the audience receiving information from you.

The second is a meeting where you are looking for buy-in. For that you want engagement, and the sense of dialog can help. Think of this as conversation mode, where you talk with the team, not at them, to generate acceptance of an idea.

For the broadcast meeting (TV mode) the success criteria are easy. It could be as simple as: "When we are done, I'll have told you about the quarterly numbers."

For the conversation (engagement mode) meeting your success criteria might be: "When we're done, you'll know next quarter's targets, and I'll ask you to commit to helping us all meet them."

Putting Success Criteria Into Your Meeting
To implement this success criteria strategy, schedule a meeting. Then ask yourself what you want to see changed by the end by the end of that meeting. For instance, do you want your team to have:


  • Learned something specific?
  • Bought into something?
  • Developed a solution that they can all support?
  • Told you something specific that you need to know?


Whatever the answer, make it measurable and then use it to fill in the blank: - When we are done here at 3 pm, __________ will have happened. Then tell the team as you open the meeting.

For a bit more effectiveness, put your success criteria on the whiteboard, and ask if everyone is OK with it. Wait for their answer.

You get even more effectiveness when, at the end of the meeting, you go back to what you wrote on the whiteboard and say: - When we started an hour ago, this was the target. Are you comfortable that we made it?

And wait for the answer.

This whole thing will feel incredibly clumsy the first time you do it. Then the second through fifth times, it will just feel kind of clumsy. But by the end of three to six cycles of this you'll love the results.

Next: Try it. If you like it, thank Jonathan.

Following on from the previous post, let's take a look at some practical examples of using String Theory (as I called it) in real business examples. This one is about unraveling company politics. Organizations have politics and they get knotty. Here's a case where we worked out a better answer.

Liz called with a difficult problem that came from success. In the middle of her career in high tech, she'd joined an old line financial services company. They asked her to help them build partnerships with 'new wave' companies. She was perfect for them, and a challenge. The company management (lets call it FinServ) chose her because she is part of their future. The tension comes because she is a fast mover in an industry that has shifted slowly. Not all of the company executives have the same bias to action. And Liz called me because that was suddenly a problem.

It started when Liz started to land customers with names and valuations that were on the same level as FinServ. Then she had a phenomenon that she didn't expect - competition from within her company. It seemed that everyone wanted to meet with the customer, and to work their own projects with the client. Executives and managers from all over FinServ were calling her customer.

If that happens once or twice, it is not a big deal. However, the client's top managers were getting multiple calls each week. Worse, the offers and proposals often conflicted with each other. FinServ was competing with FinServ.

For a short while it was flattering for the client, then it became a nuisance. Liz started to be concerned that FinServ looked more than a little disorganized. Her worry was that FinServ's credibility was challenged and so was hers. She was apprehensive that she might lose the customer if this continued.

Liz isn't a part of the informal power structure at FinServ and she had limited organizational authority. She wanted to fix this issue. It would be difficult to arrange, but she wanted to sit down with FinServ's President. She wanted him to mandate that contact with the customer be co-ordinated with her team. Divisional independence is valued at FinServ. Her request would be a hard sale and might be seen as a power grab.

Liz and Finserv had a difficult problem. I like and respect difficult problems. So we got into string theory.

The basic idea is simple enough - there are two answers to the question of how to open a bag of grain that is sewn shut. You can pull at the string from either end of the closure. One end of the string is difficult and gets more so as you tug harder. Pulling on the correct end is easy, one tug and you have success.

The solution isn't to pull harder. The solution is to choose the right end to pull.

Choosing sides in FinServ would be very difficult, and the string was clearly going to knot up if she promoted one internal group over another. The wrong end of the string was to fight politics with more politics inside FinServ. Choosing a side there was very difficult. That is usually a sign that we are on the wrong end of the string.

However, not trying to solve this was worse. She might lose the customer. That would be bad for FinServ, and bad for Liz.

She decided that the right end of the string would be to focus solely on what is best for the customer, not FinServ. So she sat down and laid out what it would mean for the customer if FinServ burned them off. She showed how FinServ could best support that customer. Not from her company's point of view, but from how the customer saw it. Her new plan was to go to FinServ's president and say: "Here is what is right for the customer, not for any one group in FinServ. Would you sign onto this plan if it helps the customer first? If it includes a primary point of contact?" She chose to pull the string from the customer perspective, not the FinServ perspective. It was a risk, but it felt to her like the correct risk to take.

It meant that she'd ask the CEO to tell every manager or executive in FinServ that the company was going to support a customer first plan. She'd have to remain completely neutral by focusing solely on what was best for the customer.

Would this be easy? Probably not. Would it be easier than trying to manage the FinServ political landscape? No question. Starting with the customer needs and making them the only criteria was right end of the string.

Another practical example of string theory, a bit different but very relevant, comes from my friend Mort.

Mort is a serial CEO who, at retirement age, sold his most recent company. We had lunch last week so he could pose a really interesting question.

Mort had just been to see his doctor and then gone to a school reunion. The doctor suggested that his current good health is probably going to continue for another 30 years. His high school mates (including three doctors) had told him that at their age he should be happy to get two more healthy years. When lunch arrived Mort asked me how I'd approach this problem.

This is not my normal business topic. I've been writing about problem solving, figuring out how to address and resolve really difficult problems in our businesses. He reads my work, and wanted to discuss how to apply it here. I like and respect Mort, and I like and respect difficult problems. So we got into string theory.

The basic idea is simple enough - there are two answers to the question of how to open a bag of grain that is sewn shut. You can pull at the string from either end of the closure. One end of the string is difficult to move and it gets more so as you jerk harder. However, pulling on the correct end is easy, one tug and you have success. The solution to get what you want isn't to pull harder. The solution is to choose the right end of the string to pull.

We spent most of lunch looking at the different ends of the string for this problem. Trying to decide which doctors are right was the difficult end. The more Mort relied on the answers from Doctors, the more knotty it all got. The right end of the string turned out to be Mort choosing to look at how he felt about his own abilities. When he looks at his sense of himself, he feels capable and ready to act from that. This end of the string is tied to his internal, primary, reference. When Mort looks at his sense of himself, he feels capable and ready to act from that. He is confident in himself.

The right end of the string became this question:
"If you were 18 years old, and had this 30 years question, what would you do?"

What made this work for Mort is that he put himself in two positions. One is that he is governor of himself. When he decides that he is able to craft his future, he works from his strengths. Those strengths have helped him create and run successful businesses. He's pulling on the string from a position of internal strength. For Mort that is a thinking model.

The second position is that when he gets proactive, the string immediately feels easier for him. When he is reactive, it does not work as well, the string feels tangled. He senses this more than thinks it; it's a feeling model for him.

Taking a half hour to choose the right end of the string allowed Mort to choose the right path for moving forward with his career. It made the decisions much simpler.

What's his choice? He picked up his coffee and said: "I better start a new company."

Do you have a role in your community? If you are a leader, what is your responsibility as a steward? For this short article: Yes you do; and it's not as complex as it might seem.

The Challenge:
Knowing How to Read the Future

As leaders we're positioned to help define how the future unfolds. And as a good leader, people look to you for direction to move forward. I'm going to encourage you to embrace this. It is good for you and for your business no matter what your day job might be.

You may be reading this on a plane as a steward walks past you, but for this note lets choose a wider meaning of stewardship. To be a steward is to take care of something for now and for the future. We are, in this sense, all stewards for our teams, our customers, and our next generation. We want to take care of the economy and the environment in a way that we pass on something that is as good as or even better than we have now.

When I listen to managers, executives, and parents I often hear some variation of: "How can I possibly know what the next generation of customers or family or team members will need?" One of the side effects of increasing access to data is that you and I can't know. We can't tell people what to expect. Increasingly, if you think that you know the coming details, you're going to be wrong.

I've written before about how observing something changes it. Setting quantum physics aside for a moment, there's a practical application: The more you try to read into the future, the more difficult it gets to be even remotely correct. Good stewardship means releasing any urge to predict the details of the future. In daily life, good stewardship requires starting from a different place.

Data and Being a Steward

So what do I say to leaders who want to be good stewards? I have two answers for you. One is understanding yourself and the other is to choose to teach a principle, not data.

Why data? One of the keys to our ability to create new markets and to grow our businesses is the ability to find and generate data. The good news is that our ability to do this grows exponentially almost every month. The other side of that is that as the data increases, what we know about our environment doesn't follow suit.

We can use data, or get lost in it. However managing increasing flows of data is becoming more and more key to making markets that never existed before. When you do that right, you accelerate your business. When you do it less well, you get bogged down in bytes and your business falls behind. The data is not the solution.

The Approach: Lead the Acting,
Not the Answers

This is going to be a pair of short answers. Not easy answers, but short.

Where do you start? I'm going to let Anthony Scriffignano answer this.
"As leaders in organizations today the question is understanding why you do what you do as much as what you do. If the two are out of alignment, you should take that seriously and consider not only adjusting one or the other, but also what is causing the intention to vary from reality."1

Then, after this application of self-understanding, I would add:
We're helping to change things. We're inducing uncertainty. Our role isn't to make things certain. Our key role is set principles and act from them, not to react better. The key certainty is that we can act as successful makers just as much as takers. You can and should be a great maker.

None of this is an easy prescription, but if it were easy, you wouldn't have this job would you?

Tomorrow we will change the world in which we live. However, we won't quickly understand the data and constructs that come from that change. When you accept your stewardship role your teams, customers, business and self all benefit when you align yourself first. With that, then set principles for action, not reaction, as the environment changes.

You are not adapting to the environment as that happens. You are changing it at the same time by knowing which principles should drive your action.

The best news: The certainty is not in the data, what is certain is your ability to set principles for action. And you can start that right here and now, in the aisle seat as the steward walks by.

1. Anthony J. Scriffignano, Ph.D., SVP / Chief Data Scientist, Dun & Bradstreet, from the stage at the Churchill Club on May 2, 2017.

Managing uncertainty has become more and more a part of any business. This article is about growing and that always deals with uncertainty, but these days just treading water feels uncertain.

So is there a good course to manage the ever changing paths? Yes. Can we learn something from the story of the planet Vulcan? And yes, I am serious.

This is not a discussion about facts. It's about understanding how to help people manage uncertainty. You may not have been thinking much about the planet Vulcan, but it has a history that can help us.

Finding the Planet Vulcan

You may think of Vulcan as the planet where Dr. Spock (from Star Trek) was born. Vulcan actually predates Star Trek. And it really applies to managing growth.

Let's start with Sir Isaac Newton, who developed what we think of as the law of gravity. After his death in 1727 astronomers spent over a century applying the gravitational attraction model to planets. Most results fit Newton's model but there was always one problem: The planet Mercury. There is a blip in Mercury's orbit for which Newton's math doesn't allow.

But the theory does work if you have a small planet between Mercury and the sun. That fits Newton's law, but as good scientists the astronomers wanted to lay eyes on the planet. It wasn't easy with the then current telescopes, but enough scientists found the planet that it was taken as fact in 1859. The argument was settled for most when prominent astronomers such as Le Verrier and James Watson declared that Vulcan had been seen. It was real.

Losing the Planet Vulcan

Somewhat later Albert Einstein started developing a general theory of relativity. It was a lot of work, the calculations took perhaps eight years to conduct. Then he wanted to test them. Looking for some examples, he chose Mercury's orbit. The math worked, and explained the blip in the path.

Now that was a problem. Vulcan's existence and Einstein's relativity model could not both be true. Most scientists accepted relativity. With that acceptance no-one could find Vulcan in telescopes. The planet ceased to exist as quickly as it had been found.

Managing Disappearing Planets in
Your Business

In your business career, have you ever seen something that was considered an absolute certainty that was then rocked by a new theory that challenged it? If you have a smart phone near you, you've an example of certainty being challenged. Open the hood of your car, the same is true in engine design. Or maybe you won't even have a car in the near future, and isn't that the end of a certainty?

Does that mean that we should all start denying facts? Or that science is bad? Or that our business assumptions and norms don't matter? No, but it means that we have to assume that rock solid facts actually aren't.

The obvious question is: If we can't rely on what we may not know about technologies, customers, regulators, and the economy, well on what do we rely? I'm going to suggest a different question: "Is good management about what we know, or what we don't yet know?" I am going to say that good management is about what we don't yet know.

To succeed in growing a business, we have to assume that the planet we see may not really be there. Market disruption is all about removing things that have become obsolete. Land lines at home, distributor caps in your car, a volume knob on a television set were all certainties for what seemed a long time. You might have built business assumptions on those, and now have a failed business.

On what can you rely? Not on a planet or a distributor cap. You can't rely on any object or product. But you can rely on your own capability to grow and expand. Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford calls it "mindset" and has written an excellent book by that name. Look at it this way:
- You can learn.
- You can encourage the people on whom you
rely to learn.
- And you can encourage them to ask questions
and listen.
Those are the key to managing disappearing planets.

Finding the Next Planets

You always have the option to develop technologies. You always have the option to ask what the next serious problem will be. Go with the problem. The problem as the customer sees it will define the solution that stays, just as wider problems made Einstein's theory the right solution.

Solving a problem can open up new problems. Planets appear, then disappear. What is important? Your ability to ask the right questions to get to the next problem. Problems are good for growth. What we have seen over and over is that if you manage your team to find the right problem, and do it again and again, then the planets will align and your business will grow.

Friday, 10 November 2017 02:36

How to Grow and Not to Be Ahead of Your Time

Making the Unknown Safe for Your
Customers and for You

By Peter Meyer, September 12, 2017

How often have you looked at a great business idea that failed and said: "They were ahead of their time." Or worse: "We were ahead of our time."

Was it luck or something that you can manage? Are you subject to the vagaries of the times or can you act to make your changes succeed? This article is about doing the latter. Instead of "We were ahead of our time" lets try a different quote, from Willam Gibson:

"The future is already here. It's just not widely distributed yet."

What does that mean? That you may already have the future in your current business plan. If so, the challenge is to find the right way to distribute it.

The good news? You understand the future view.

The bad news? Your customers and team members see it as the unknown.

The worse news? The more pressure that we, our customers, and team members feel, the more likely we are to avoid the unknown. It just seems too dangerous and time consuming. And what is increasing these days for both us and our customers? Pressure.

Is it any wonder that your customers and your own team tend to avoid the unknown? And doesn't that slow their growth. And your growth?

You know my axiom:

"Change is good when you do it to yourself. Change is bad when someone does it to you."

It does not have to be bad news. Consider this example of letting customers distribute their own future and then feel ownership for it.

Bringing the Unknown Into the
Business Via Information Technology

If you want to grow successfully, you will eventually need to lead your customers into the unknown. You know that the landscape is littered with failed attempts to make change safe. Lets take one of the hardest examples in almost any enterprise. Which team often has the best sense of the future? The Information Technology (IT) team. Which team is most often stiff armed when it suggests the future? The same IT team. Whether it is right or wrong, it's clear that much of what a good IT team would distribute never gets to the team's customers.

For many general business executives IT is near the top of the list of unknowns to avoid. But who is the customer for most IT departments? These same general business leaders and their teams. Let's get even more difficult: Where might be the hardest place for IT to gain traction? Health care or academia, where the professional practitioners are highly independent of the administration.

So let's take this hardest case and use an example that works: Sutter Health, a large health care chain headquartered in Northern California.

"More than half my job is exposing the unknown and making it known." To do that, "We are making the unknown safe" comments Sutter's fairly new Chief Technology Officer (CTO) is Wes Wright.

His team is thinking about more than ease of access to the new. They are also focused on helping the user feel rewarded by self-enablement. "The idea is to make it easier for our clinical and business partners to behave just like they are downloading Netflix on their iPad. . . When you load an application on your iPad there is a personal reward for it, it gratifies you in some shape of form. At work, that personal reward has to be clear, and has to be implemented at least a bit by the user. In IT we can't make the connection to your personal reward. Making that connection possible is about enabling people to take up self-service at work."

This is not just about ease, it is about the user feeling rewarded by self-enablement.

How Sutter Builds Customer
Engagement With the Unknown

To build this, Wes' technology team follows a process where they go into the clinic and listen. And only then do they develop and offer enablement/empowerment tools. The practice is that the tools are designed from the lessons of working next to the clinical staff. The IT team then offers the advantages, and visibly make clear that they have listened and understand. "We do it *with* the clinicians, not *to* them."

Finally, the team is taking the potential rewards to the clinicians and allowing them to enable these by themselves. Wes uses the example of Netflix, but this is also similar to how the care team would develop and implement a new treatment plan.

"Historically health IT has sat back and said we need the requirements from the business. That's not the new health IT. The new health IT will be at the clinical and business partners' shoulder and since we know their work, figure out better and more rewarding ways."

"We don't sit here and wait for requirements anymore. Instead, we should be in the clinic with our clinical partners and know what their real requirements are." With that, the team develops and delivers. "Our goal is to make technology transparent to our clinical and business partners."

Another way of framing the way the IT team wants to work with the business and the doctors is to increase the clinicians' ability to treat IT like they treat medical technology. Or home technology. The principle is to look for ways to let them guide their own deployment of key information technologies.

Sutter's team makes the unknown safe by starting with their customer's work. If having to choose between technically elegant answers and ones with which the clinician can personally connect, the team only suggests change for the user when it can feel personally rewarding. It may mean giving up elegance for acceptance, this is a pretty reasonable trade.

Then instead of implementing the change to the user, the team makes it easy for each professional to self-enable. This step is key. It is how the users can make the unknown safe.

What Does That Mean For
Leading Growth?

Back to Peter's rule of change: Change is good when you do it to yourself. Change is bad when someone does it to you. If you want to make the unknown safe, don't do it to your customers. Let them do it to themselves.

This requires a form of surgery for the team that thinks they know the answers: An arrogance-ectomy. No matter how well you think that you know your customers (even if you really do) it pays to approach them in a way that your team listens and learns. Once you have done that you have earned the right to make suggestions. No matter how well immersed you are in your craft, you don't have that right until you are caught listening.

What the Sutter technical team does works. They sit with their business users and observe instead of teach. With the results the team doesn't implement solutions. The strategy is to make it easy for the customer enable them. Like the Netflix example, if the customer intuitively feels a reward might come, she will be more likely to step into the unknown on her own. Then the change is good.

If Sutter Health's IT team can make the unknown safe, why not your product or sales team? Why not apply this to your next great idea? What have you got to lose besides a few cycles of failure?

Thursday, 28 December 2017 01:53

Do You Want to Encourage Last Minute Revenue?

This is in response to a request: "Have you got a strategy to encourage the last bits of revenue from the calendar year?" So let's consider something you can do this week. Let me start with three thoughts.

First: Most of my clients and business friends are looking to get as much revenue as possible in the next few weeks. If that is you, keep reading.

Second: The traditional path is to discount deals and add pressure to the sales team and customer. This works some of the time, but you know that there are deals where it won't work. Everyone knows the game, and your customers are often resistant to it. They think of end of year revenue as our problem, not theirs. And they are usually right aren't they? So we try to buy or pressure their help.

Third: Most people, under pressure, return to old habits. The more pressure we apply, the more they work from history. In other words, under pressure most people hunker down to what they used to do.

Is that what you want?

If pressure and discounts are not working, consider reversing the pressure. Two options for you:

1 - Go to the prospect and say that you are done trying to pressure him/her. Ask what they would want that would add value instead. If you have a $500K proposal on the table, instead of discounting another $25K, ask what service you could provide that is not in the proposal that would help them this year or next. If you can do it for less than $25K, just make it part of the deal. They get something they didn't expect, you get to hold your price at $500K.

The point is not that you are giving them a discount in another way. The point is that you are letting them define value as they see it and you are delivering it. You are releasing pressure and changing the conversation. When the customer relaxes, she or he can see other solutions. You gain as well.

2 - Back off the pressure, start talking about 2018 plans and goals. Ask what she or he wants to get done next year, and just let them talk about that. You'll learn about what your future deals can be. Just as likely, if they are budget constrained (pressure from their own organization instead of you) then see if you can help them do some of that in this year's budget. You become part of the solution to their problem. You might wind up modifying your offer to be part what you had in mind and part what they had in mind, but still book a deal this year.

The point is not that you are backing off. The point is that you are engaging them to help them get something done that matters to them. You are releasing pressure and changing the conversation.When the customer relaxes, she or he can see other solutions. You gain as well.

It may be hard in December, but take a breath. Help your customer take a breath. Let both of you move from hunker down to a two way conversation. You might just book some good 2017 business as you do.

By the way, if you are asking where I have been, thank you. I spent a large part of the past few months intensely experiencing our health care system. I'm fine, getting stronger, and working again. And now I'm blogging again as well. My mind is going full speed, spin me some questions and requests!

Thursday, 28 December 2017 01:51

Growing Revenue: How Do We Make Money Happen?

This is a book and blog about growing your revenue, your time, and helping your people grow as well. Since we are talking about business, we’re going to start with revenue. In the end, it will be the tail that wags the dog, but revenue tends to get the most attention.

You have probably told someone that money doesn’t grow on trees. You have to make it happen. And if this someone was a teenager, you probably said that it was through hard work.

But there is more, isn’t there? People who work incredibly hard have businesses that crater. Some people who work smart have operations that excel, but even more have businesses that putter along and don’t excel. People who are connected succeed, but just as many people who are connected fail.

What is the difference between failure and growth? To illustrate, I’m drawing a 2x2 grid or Johari Window. The vertical axis goes from the assumption of "limits" at the bottom to the premise of "growth" at the top. (You can read more about this in Dr. Carol Dweck’s book: Mindset.) On the left side of the horizontal axis you will see "take" and on the right "make." (The photographer Ansel Adams discusses this in: "Ansel Adams: An Autobiography.") How does this 2x2 model work in business? Let’s explore that.


First, this is not fixed. Looking at the vertical axis, you see an assumption that scales from "we are limited" to "we are going to continue growing even further." Each of us is somewhere on this scale in every moment. At the same time, each of us makes an assumption of "take" versus "make" and that’s reflected on the horizontal access. We don’t live in one pane. We move from pane to pane as we learn and explore.

This book and blog are going to start with exploring good practices for growing revenue. But revenue is just the side effect. We’ll look at how to use the same window to help your people grow and then help you to grow more access to your time. In other words, you can use this as a tool to help you build your whole business.

And it starts with a core premise: We choose where we want to be in the window.

Limits or Growth?

We approach every moment with mindsets, our views of how we operate. One of those is just how limited we are. This is the feeling that we’ve topped out. Maybe we feel that we can only go so far, and then we’ll be done succeeding. Perhaps we feel that there is no limit, that we can grow indefinitely. The lower left of this window is assuming that we will have a limit. The upper left is feeling that we can grow further than we used to think possible. We don’t live at either end, we are always moving somewhere higher or lower on the scale.

Dr. Dweck and some associates have written extensively about how this works for students. Dweck refers to "fixed mindset" and "growth mindset."
• "In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.
• "In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it."
[Dweck, C. S.; Leggett, E. L. (1988). "A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality". Psychological Review 95 (2): 256—273. DOI:10.1037/0033-295X.95.2.256.]

Some people like to reach a place of excellence and then stop, thinking that this is the end of their ability. Some can’t stand that idea. They insist that there is nothing but upside opportunity. Success for the upper end of this axis is not reaching targets, it is continuing to grow past them.

How we define success when we start projects is important. If success is to aim for a specific target, you can get and then stop there. Your target becomes a limit on growth. Saying that we want to grow past a milestone isn’t placing a limit.

To be clear, when we define success as meeting a targets we are staying low on the vertical axis. When we define success as continual growth we are higher on the vertical axis. Yes, we meet targets along the way, and that is a byproduct.

Most of the people you work with will be somewhere along the spectrum. At first, you might think that this is binary: either you work from a fixed and limited mindset or you work from a growth mindset. In practice, all of us move up and down the vertical axis each day with each challenge.

Take or Make?
In his photography, Ansel Adams set many standards. Lets focus on one key assumption from which he worked: "You don't take a photograph, you make it."

When you pick up a camera, you have two choices. One is to look at what you have been given. The other is to look at what you want to do with it. Do you ask your team to approach a project based on what they are given? Or do you ask them to look at what they can make with whatever resources are reasonable?

You initiate from one of two starting points. You can look for what is available. The other is to try to make an image that you want. Along with many other great photographers, Adams strived to make, not take.

It is easy to say that we have a limited set of resources from which to generate success. The same is true of Adams standing on a promontory. He had only one camera, and a few plates on which he could make images. He had a limited view in front of him. Still, he took the position that he built his photograph to match his vision, and that he’d make an image and not just take one.

Adams made photographs by working from his inner vision, and assembling the resources in a way that worked well for him. He made images work by starting from his inner strength. It is something he had, that we all have.

This is also not binary. There also are many times when Adams says that he got the image he wanted by what he called an act of God. In the "make" vs "take" spectrum, you don’t need to get to 100% make. Just moving past 50% will put you in a rarified atmosphere. The people around you have enough ability. The question is whether you can help them choose to make something more with their ability. Do they sleepwalk through the work? Do they follow the traditional paths with enthusiasm? Do they make new paths? These would appear as three different marks on the horizontal axis.

You can ask the question that grows revenue on this axis:
- Are you taking what you are given from the outside or making what you will want from the inside?
Consistent revenue growth comes when you help people see a way to take themselves further to the right.

Which of Four Positions Will You Be In Today?

In any given sales or development effort, you and the people around you might be feeling that you:
- Have topped out and it is time to take what you have and pause (lower left pane).
- Are at your best and you want to make more and more with what you have (lower right pane). - Have much more that you can take and use (upper left pane).
- Have much more that you can do, and you can make revenue that was never forecast (upper right pane).

The more time you help people spend in the upper right, the faster your revenue grows. Just as important, the success there is self-reinforcing. If you can help your team taste the upper right more often, then they will want to live there. Then your task moves from pushing increased growth to managing increased growth. This is a better problem to have, no?

The more time you and the people around spend working from high growth and make assumptions, the more they will grow as people and you will grow your time. This is the cornerstone of growing your revenue, time, and people.

Getting you, your people, and your business to the upper right is what this book and blog are about.

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