George Carlin was one of the great humorists of the 20th century, drawing his observations from culture, politics and the restless world around him. One of his greatest quotes sticks with me: “Just when I discovered the meaning of life, they changed it.”
This quote reminds us that change is the only constant. For me, though, it also reinforces that I must never be satisfied in business, because satisfaction breeds complacency. My three decades of success as an entrepreneur (first in manufacturing, then in consulting and strategy) are very much grounded in a lifelong desire to create my own future. I bring the future into focus every morning by asking myself three simple questions:
- What am I going to sell today? (Sooner or later, you have to sell something! I like to make it sooner.) One of our best critics is my partner John’s youngest son, Quinn. Whenever we tell him our latest business idea, Quinn grounds us with the simple question: “That’s great; will it help you sell more?”
- What one thing can I improve in my business today? Change drives efficiency and customer delight, and “improvement” sounds much less daunting than “innovation.” I highlight one thing because success flows fastest when you focus on one activity at a time.
- How do my answers to the first two questions tie into my company’s long-term strategy? This question helps me stay on course, and avoid chasing shiny, short- term opportunities that invariably take our business off-track.
These three questions help me coalesce my thinking around growth and prosperity. They serve as a constant reminder that innovation comes from paying attention to customer delight, and that clarity drives growth. While these questions have served me for decades, the business environment has changed dramatically. That leads to three new insights I’d like to share.
You can’t do it alone. Not any more.
As entrepreneurs, we need to get out of our own way, as quickly as possible, to allow our businesses to reach their full potential. I get it. When we start a business, we’re alone. Look left, look right, there’s nobody beside us to help us. But as a business grows, so does the team around you, and business owners must make the leap from “island thinking” to inclusive leadership. The world is spinning faster, and product lifecycles are shortening. You can’t do it alone any more. Nobody can. The good news is that companies large and small are rife with engaged, entrepreneurial thinkers. Your new cadre of millennial employees (and much of Generation Y, the cohort that preceded them) were not raised like the boomers that came before. They were not told to keep your head down, put one foot in front of the other, don’t cause problems. They were raised to think independently, to make a difference. Growing up with social media, millennials are accustomed to interaction, dialogue, opinion and debate, about anything and everything. Today, smart leaders drive innovation and collaboration by making their workplaces more stimulating and engaging. You need to attract and retain the best of the best. Fortunately, this evolution is fueled the most basic of skills: listening, sharing and empowering.
Low Tech may be your best tech.
A few years back, a group of managers with a major company proudly presented me with 800 business-improvement ideas generated by their innovation program. The ideas were solicited through an online platform and stored on one individual’s laptop. What a waste! Languishing in a system dedicated to storing ideas, not adopting them, these ideas were old and often obsolete. The company had never devised a plan to turn these ideas into higher revenues, reduced costs, streamlined processes and improved customer engagement. Consider this advice from productivity expert Alan Henry on LifeHacker: “The best productivity methods keep your to-dos in front of you and prioritized so you never wonder what to work on next. Some are complicated, but others make it easy to see everything, organized by priority—so easy you could use Post-It notes if you wanted.” The organizations’ problem was founded in “out of sight, out of mind.” When the computer was turned off, the idea bank was closed. Change flourished through transparency and consensus. My solution, which I have implemented with clients and in my own business, is a simple 4’ x 6’ whiteboard. After identifying our top five strategic areas, we use masking tape to outline five columns on the board. Within each strategic area we then identify the top five “to-dos,” writing them on the board and assigning teams and critical dates. This board is left in open view for all team members to see and update. For occasional meetings, the board is rolled into our meeting room to help us assess progress, identity challenges and push the best ideas to market. Sometimes you have to go old-school. In offices driven by front-burner issues, opportunity can only compete by staying in plain sight.
The future changed while you were sleeping.
Just a few months ago I woke up to the news that researchers in Guelph, Ont. had used 3D-printing technology and a titanium skullcap to replace most of a dachshund’s cancer-ridden skull. A CBC report labelled it “a novel procedure.” “Novel?” That’s Canadian modesty for you. It was an incredible accomplishment driven by teamwork, technology, compassion and the drive to make another’s life better.
As George Carlin taught us, nothing stands still. We may not all be able to save a life, but we can (and must) find new ways to improve our customers’ lives. As the new year dawns, you must resolve never to be satisfied with the way things are. Because your customers will never be, either.