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Monthly Archives: February 2012

‘Strategic planning’ – a phrase that strikes at the very heart of many entrepreneurs’ freewheeling spirit, the antitheses of the six-month pivot and an echo of the corporate biz-speak they’ve rejected decisively (only to replace it with the equally predictable lexicon of the start-up?).

It’s understood mostly as something that there is no time to do. Not in the hurly-burly of managing a growing business. Planning is a luxury reserved for big-ego execs who gather at destination hotels and off-season spa resorts to thrash out product release schedules and marketing matrices by day and drain the lounge bar dry well into the night – not an appropriate activity for the lean mean fighting machine you need to be if you’re running your own show.

Having experienced both, I can affirm that there is some truth in that image; I remain unconvinced that an all-night marathon of carousing with a genial bunch of Finnish, Irish and Texan colleagues in a Beijing hotel bar did much for the following year’s corporate strategy – though I did make some good mates. But I’ve seen that it is just as easy to squander time with the senior management of a vastly smaller enterprise, though the wastage is more likely to be the result of persistent calls from demanding clients and un-empowered team members in need of nannying than from partying on expenses.

Most clichés contain a essential nugget of truth and ‘if you fail to plan, you plan to fail’ is no exception. Yes, it can be much harder to do forward planning in a fast-growing early- or mid-stage business. You have less data, fewer people, less time and far less head space. If your workload and revenues are project-based, you are in planning hell, unable to see beyond the end of the month.

Yearly financial planning, for example, often defeats small business MDs. Through a combination of the sheer scale of the task, the huge volume of unknowns and the apparent impossibility of setting aside more than a couple of hours at a time to focus on it, the annual forecast easily becomes one of those daunting non-urgent (in the continuous present of the entrepreneurial MD) tasks that never quite gets done.

There’s a simple remedy; don’t even try. Instead, adopt the habit of quarterly rolling forecasts, which are updated from a combination of the previous quarter’s actual numbers, some reasonable foreknowledge of the next three months’ big expenditure items and a sensible sales forecast that incorporates percentage likelihoods and approximate timings for as-yet-unconfirmed prospects.

There’s still a good smattering of known unknowns in there, like how many new clients might materialise out of the blue, and even a few unknown unknowns – the rabbit-in-headlights look on the creative director’s face when he discovers his partner is pregnant, for example – but you are so much closer to having an evidence-based foundation for knowing what could happen than you were before. And the longer you do it, the more accurately predictive the results. Better still, teach a numerate team-member to do it and delegate. Once you get your management information geared up to provide the necessary data, it can be done within a working week from the end of the preceding quarter, and in less than two hours.

The time that’s freed up when you throw off the tyranny of annual forecasting is better spent on quick-and-dirty long-term road-mapping. This is best done together with fellow founders/owners/directors/senior managers. More than one head is better than one. Shut yourselves off for a half-day, preferably away from the work space. The lobby of a hotel that’s grand – or hip – enough, to have waiting staff serving coffee and bar snacks to blow-ins off the street is a cost-effective venue – and allows for a late afternoon segue into well-earned beers.

Work on a two-year horizon across a sheet of A3 paper, set it down landscape and draw ten vertical lines to create eleven columns, of which numbers 3-10 are consecutive quarters. In your first column list five or six key aspects of your business – revenues, hires, org chart, core costs, product releases, gross profit…whatever you feel is essential – and draw horizontal lines between them.

Set this aside while you spend a half-hour summarising where you want to get the business to in the ensuing eight quarters. This requires a lot of self-discipline, combined with a firm facilitator. It is crucial to frame it as an exercise in downloading what you all already intuitively know; if you are still agonising over and arguing about where the business is heading (the subject of a previous post) then maybe you do need to book into this hotel for a couple of days and go the whole hog. Use the last column of your map to record what you would like the business to look like in two years’ time.

Then, in column two, document the current reality; how many staff, the shape of the org, last quarters revenues etc. Rounded-off rough numbers will do.

Now you have your point ‘A’ and your point ‘B’; where you’re starting out from and where you’re heading. It’s relatively easy now to see the eight columns in between as steady incremental steps along the way. But the real beauty of this methodology is that it acts as a basic primer in thinking holistically.

Businesses are systems and the don’t develop properly unless each element is evolved in synchronisation with all the others. When you can see, together, right there in front of you on the table, how bringing a hire forward by one quarter will affect profits and what that, in turn, means you need to achieve in sales, so you know how to amp up the previous quarter’s biz dev… and you do this many times, in many permutations, across the map over the course of the afternoon, what you build is both an holistic picture of the medium-term future and a different way of thinking together.

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When my powerhouse (mother, wife, MD) friend Jaya Chakrabarti asked me at the beginning of this year, via this blog ,for my top ten tips for creative entrepreneurs , some readers were a little surprised by Tip No. 5: “Stop multitasking; it’s the devil’s work”.

We are so used to being bombarded with advice from productivity gurus, downloading tools that transform our desktop or inbox into a task management hothouse or sitting through do-more webinars delivered by toned-down sociopaths disguised in Brooks Brothers suits that we are now brainwashed into thinking that the more things we can seemingly do at once, or within a ten minute window, the more squarely we are set on the road to success. Not so.

Sure, there’s a place for multitasking. The kitchen, for example. Two-thirds of the time I single-handedly run a household consisting of myself and my teenage sons, so I have adaptively developed new behaviours – I can unload a full dishwasher in exactly the time it takes for a teabag to brew, for example. Or cook risotto whilst hanging a wash on a drying rack in the next room. You get the picture.

What works in the utility room, though, doesn’t play so well in the office or studio.

The optimum mental mode for stirring a pan of flavoured rice is not so different from that which is most conducive to bagging the recycling or erecting an ironing  board. That kind of multitasking, often evoked as a defining characteristic of women – sometimes by women themselves when  pointing out the essentially unevolved nature of the male psyche – is a highly useful skill to learn, one that could potentially save a few marriages.

I suspect it is the unconscious transfer of this piece of contemporary folk wisdom into the work sphere that has led to quite a bit of manic and hopelessly ineffective behaviour by the leaders and senior managers of growing businesses.

There’s a simple exercise I’ve done with several clients – corporate and entrepreneurial – over the years. The account I offer here is a generic composite, but if you do recognise yourself in it, then I suggest another exercise – building a well-known phrase or saying around the words ‘fit’ and ‘cap’.

All I do is get the person in question, the director or MD, to write down, literally minute by minute every single thing they do, for two or three successive days. A wonk-y colleague once extrapolated this to a more scientific extreme, identifying some 160 tasks going on daily in a particular team and mapping them against a timeline for each team member. Not only did this reveal damaging levels of multitasking but it also showed that almost everyone was working on tasks that were three levels below their role and experience, most of the time. Very useful intelligence, which we subsequently used to nail down job descriptions to improve work satisfaction and productivity.

Nothing I encountered in corporate entities prepared me for the entrepreneurial sector, though.

Here, multitasking can be virtually sectionable. Tasks lasting just one or two minutes each, wildly fluctuating in focus; from a new business call to a snippet of project management to editing a newsletter entry to signing off a payment to scheduling an appraisal to fixing a software bug…It’s the mental (in both senses) equivalent of doing a triathlon by running a few metres, chucking yourself in the water, only to immediately jump out and onto a bike before pounding the road on your feet once more. Result: you don’t get very far, and your body can’t take it. Well – surprise, surprise – nor can your mind.

These behaviours are acute in growing companies for a number of reasons. There are fewer people to get things done, especially senior people who take responsibility for stuff. Staff aren’t always paid top rates, so there’s a reluctance to ask them to do apparently demeaning tasks. Not least – let’s be honest here – many entrepreneurs are control freaks, manic micro-managers, which is precisely the reason they work for themselves.

Some simple advice. Accumulate similar mental-mode tasks into ‘bundles’: project management; financial; client direction (not client management, that needs to be done in real time by people you employ); strategy; organisational development; operations and so on. Once you have two hours worth of stuff to do in a category, do it. That’s enough time to stay in the flow and capitalise on the effect of being in a consistent mental mode. We all know this already, experientially, from doing biz dev calls; we’re much more confident, articulate and effective when we set aside a morning and do one after another – we ‘get on a roll’ and our self-limiting fear of rejection and failure, the one Steven Pressfield calls The Resistance, falls away.

So save the multitasking for the kitchen, the garage – or even the bedroom. If you want to achieve maximum entrepreneurial efficiency in the workplace, leave it there where it belongs.