How can you remain strategic in our current economic environment? How can you position your business to handle the events of an uncertain future with tighter budgets, fewer employees, and higher productivity demands? How can you remain competitive, much less improve your position in light of our current times?
One great strategic skill you can practice, with little or no up-front costs is to go outside. Collect as much data as possible from your customers (or constituents), vendors, competitors, and analysts relative to your business or industry. Objectively evaluate the information, permeate your business with it. John Kotter devoted a chapter of his current best seller, A Sense Of Urgency to this very topic. The information outside your company holds the keys to the future.
Over time a company's success makes this more difficult. Many businesses start out scratching and clawing for every advantage they can find. Eventually, after some initial success, the outside world becomes less relative. Internal ideas get preference to the outside world. Internal ideas become the fuel for the engine.
Outside, however, the next upstart is coming. Not initially, but eventually. For a while everyone competes with you using known tools and weapons. One Goliath tends to fight another Goliath the same way with the same weapons. But David comes along using a different weapon and drops you with one shot.
To improve your competitive edge, to avoid the next David, to build or keep the lead, you have to stay aware of the outside. You have to bring the outside in. You need to know what every new idea is, why it might be important and how it can affect your business. But your business doesn't need just another exercise or corporate directive. No one has the money or time for another directive. This needs to become part of your culture. Your business culture must appreciate outside information about your industry and use it successfully. Data from the outside must be collected, evaluated, processed and appreciated if you are to avoid becoming the Goliath.
- Collect. Gather all the information you can from every source you can think of. The Internet makes this easier than ever. Do you survey customers? Do you interact at all with your customers or constituents beyond when they purchase something from you or pay the bill? Search them out. Find out what makes them tick. What makes them select you? For that matter, find out why people choose your competitor(s), too. What makes your competitors tick? What do your competitors say about themselves in their marketing and sales information. Are there industry analyst comments or publications about them? Make it a habit to know what others in your space are doing all the time. Check out similar industries as well. For example, if you provide a bill payment service, check out developments in invoice printing or the financial services industry. Do you know what industries might produce your next David? You could talk to vendors too. But in doing so, remember, people who take your money sometimes have a hard time telling you things you don't want to hear.
- Evaluate. Objectivity is your friend. Be as open an honest about the data you've received as possible. Many times, the most difficult information comes from the closest sources. So try to put yourself in the shoes of the people providing the information. Why are some customers happy and some leave? Are there perception issues, or are these real issues? Try to understand your detractors. Try to take their position. You can't fix everything, but if you understand the issues you can address challenges that arise in those areas.
- Process. Once collected and evaluated, act! Decide what to do and do it. You may decide not to do something. Even so, give the information to Marketing so they can develop a message around your decision. But do something with the information. Make reviewing and archiving the information part of your culture as well. You may need nothing more than a monthly meeting to review any new data collected and see if there is any action to take. But you must act, or soon you won't be doing any of this.
- Appreciate. This practice needs to come from the top. Reward people who design repeatable processes to ease data collection. Measure your success. Anything you measure and reward can become part of your business culture, and that's what you need.
Sustain long-term leadership. Repeat these steps and build an outside-in focus into the culture of your business. Otherwise, watch out for the next David...