Which little things do you let slide?

We often let little things go because we have “bigger fish to fry”. We prioritize tasks, clients, products and services over others of the same sort because we have to. Prioritization of what’s important today over what might be important tomorrow, or even later today is perfectly normal. We have to do it.

The challenge with little things is that they add up, particularly when they’re repeatedly set aside. They have a way of ganging up and creating momentum, as if they were a colony of ants. Together, a colony can move things much larger than any single ant.

We cannot allow any error in judgment to delude us into thinking that ‘letting the little thing slide’ would not make a major difference.” – Jim Rohn

What little things?

What sort of little things come to mind for you as important for your business?

For me, the little things that matter are those things that tell me what the business thinks is important. Every business says the customer is important, but how do they prove it? Do their words match their actions? Little things are a great place to sort this out.

Little things explicitly communicate what’s important to the owners of the business. They tell me about the culture of the business and paint a picture of what’s important to the business’ management team. These things indicate how hard the ownership and management has thought about what their customers need, want and expect.

Their consideration of and emphasis placed on these things is reflected in the staff’s behavior. Their behavior is an indicator of the quality of management. It signals management’s emphasis during staff training, as well as the quality and frequency of that training. All of this points at the importance placed on serving their clients’ needs, wants and expectations.

Think about the curb appeal of a house. Consider your impression when stopping in front of a home with a weedy, un-mowed yard. Now think about the impression you have when viewing a nicely manicured one. What does that tell you about the upkeep, maintenance and care taken for the rest of each home? Your impression might be wrong – but changing that impression is tough. A business with poor “curb appeal” may never get a chance to improve the impression they’ve left.

That’s exactly what little things can do. They have a knack for sending a big message to your clients.

Prioritization by impact

Big things matter. If you think back over your career, I’m sure you can think of a number of big issues that started out as little things that were left to fester. But which ones? It’s critical to separate the little unimportant things from the little things that can fester into big ones. And how exactly do you do that? One of the most important prioritization skills you can develop is the ability to determine which of these little things are unimportant and which need to be dealt with before they create big problems.

I tend to look at the impact, rather than the size.

If something small is likely to impact a number of people, it won’t be small for long. That’s the kind of little thing that requires short term attention. Little things to you, your team and your business might be big things to your clientele, which speaks to your awareness of client needs, wants and expectations.

If something small isn’t communicated, it can become something big simply by not letting your clients know about it – and know that you’re aware of it. Even if you believe it’s a little thing, communicate anyway. This gives the client a chance to say “Thanks, no problem” or “Hey, it’s not a big deal in and of itself, but it’s going to create another problem that causes a big impact.” The incremental cost of that brief advisory to the client is tiny. The return on investment on that communication can be sizable if it helps keep a small issue from morphing into something ugly.

If you only identify one of these situations per year and it results in keeping a client you might have lost, the return on investment is obvious. If you retain one sale a month by categorizing these little things and taking action on the important ones, the return on investment is obvious.

Learned on 9/11

I stepped out of the shower at my parents’ house just moments after the first plane hit. TV news was claiming it was accident, suggesting that a small plane had wandered off course.

It seemed unlikely that a pilot would wander that much off course during daylight hours, particularly that close to two very busy commercial airports. The hole seemed too large for a small plane. It was a perfect day, weather-wise. From my perspective, the accident story didn’t add up. I wondered why the newscast had taken that angle.

The video of the first plane took care of that.

Lessons: Think before you speak. Gather facts, don’t assume. There is little value to rushing to judgment simply for the sake of speed. Trust your gut.

Distractions

I stepped out of the bathroom and stopped in front of the TV. The second plane appeared on the TV screen and removed all doubt about intention vs. accident.

I had flown to Dallas a few days earlier to attend a wedding and a meeting. I planned to drive to Austin that day for a meeting with a business partner. We had a brief call and agreed that neither of us felt good about spending the rest of the day in front of the TV. Letting these acts impact our businesses was simply not how either of us were wired. We had hectic schedules and this was clearly going to complicate life for some time to come. We decided the meeting was on.

My parents didn’t try to talk me out of it. I left for the four hour drive to Austin shortly after the first building collapsed.

Lesson: The easy thing isn’t always the right thing. You can allow the world to distract you, but that’s your choice. I was pretty clear early on that the attacks were terrorism. I remember being resolved to keeping the meeting because I was not going to allow them to prevent us from doing business. It was a small, symbolic victory that I couldn’t be talked out of.

Distributed is good

The radio said all planes were ordered to land ASAP during my drive to Austin. I remember thinking that it was a smart strategy to quickly clarify the status of thousands of airplanes.

We actually got something done during the meeting in Austin, and I drove back to Dallas. News interviews over the next few days showed many people frustrated with being stuck out of town, and unable to return to work or home. Some were collaborating to share a rental, spending thousands to rent a car and drive across the country. Remote work and a distributed company enabled us to live where we wanted. I was fortunate to be at my parents’ place, so I could stick around there as long as necessary.

Lesson: Eliminate unknowns as simply as possible. The simplicity of “land now at the closest airport” reminds us to seek a simple solution. Distributed companies that allow employees to live where they want and work from anywhere suddenly made sense to a lot more people, even though we’d been doing it for years.

Do your clients feel safe?

My return flight was booked for the 12th. I was rescheduled for return to Montana on the first day commercial flights resumed – Sept 15th. The vibe at DFW was strictly by the book. Passengers were tense and quiet. Everyone was quietly scrutinizing their fellow passengers.

Large, muscular athletes in Oklahoma State logo’d outfits started coming down the aisle. I first thought it was the Oklahoma State football team. OSU’s 2011 schedule tells me it probably wasn’t the football team. Their presence changed the passengers’ state of mind. The clear and unspoken change: “this plane is much safer now“.

Lesson:Perception matters. I remember the immediate change in perceived safety and how it changed the vibe on that plane. At the time, I didn’t correlate it to the value of creating a safe environment for your clients – regardless of what safe may mean for them. I later realized how compelling that shift was and how critical it is to create that sort of environment for clients. I’m speaking not simply of perception, but real safety.

Seek out the lessons life and business is trying to teach you, particularly in the worst of times.

Emergencies or “Mom, why is your hair on fire?”

Is every day or every week the context for another emergency or crisis at your business? How do you and your staff survive it from week to week?

What do I mean “emergency” or “crisis”?

I’m thinking of some sort of event that causes you and/or your staff to drop everything to solve a problem that has arisen with a client, or worse, with a product or service that impacts numerous clients.

The ups and downs

While the upside of such events is small, they do exist.

  • Your team learns how they can depend on one another.
  • Your clients see your team and your capabilities at their best. Usually.
  • Your management sees what the team can handle and what it can’t.
  • Sales often discovers an opportunity.

Several things take punishment during these situations:

  • Your reputation with the client. Even when / if you quickly bring resources to the situation and resolve it, the memory of “yet another crisis” will take time to erase, particularly if you and your team were ultimately responsible. Being able to resolve a situation means a lot unless you could also have prevented it.
  • Your team’s resilience. While these situations “build muscle”, they also contribute to fatigue.
  • Your team’s timelines. If these situations are normal, then your team is likely to expect their timelines to be less meaningful because they know someone else’s crisis will intervene.
  • Costs during a crisis management are almost always higher because exceptions have to be made.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste”

You’ve probably heard this Churchill quote, but I think a better angle on your use of it is this quote:

Sometimes when Fortune scowls most spitefully, she is preparing her most dazzling gifts.‘ -Winston Churchill, 1931.

While there is no doubt that you can use the point of the “…go to waste” quote to your advantage to sell products and services that might provide preventative care, services in time of crisis or similar, not letting crisis go to waste is bigger than that. Using these situations as a lesson and example helps your staff, particularly your sales staff, grasp the value of that which your client-side product, service and delivery teams can do when pushed. The creativity and problem solving your teams provide might prompt your sales team to come up with new products and/or services that didn’t seem important a few weeks ago.

Better yet, and in a nod to Churchill, the situations themselves provide the context (and yes, a little bit of fear) that your clients may need to understand why an investment in preventative services is a good investment. At times, simply being able to show up on your client’s site a few times a year to step through their workflow and see what you can’t see every day is hugely valuable.

Programmers often cringe when they watch clients use their software because they can’t believe how the software is being used. The user’s reaction to a particular feature or user interface / user experience can be just as compelling. Until you invest in the time (even on your client’s dime) to immerse yourself in their business and experience what they experience on a daily basis with your products and services – you probably haven’t learned enough about them to help them in the best way possible. That impacts sales as well, since the lack of this knowledge can easily keep you from understanding the one powerful motivator, situation or pressure point that is the key to everything they do.

Can you prevent them?

Emergencies and crises can a product of letting products, services and/or situations fester, or of being so busy and/or understaffed that you can’t take proper care of your client relationships. However, they can just as easily happen to your company despite being on top of everything as best as you know how. A client’s own situations with their clients, equipment, staff, planning – or lack thereof – can create these situations just as easily.

For the situations you can’t avoid or easily resolve through consistent preventative maintenance, account management and client relationship care and feeding – it’s best to have a plan of attack. Your plans won’t always work out. Your plans won’t always prepare you for every situation. Despite that, having considered what you will do for the situations you’ve dealt with in the past – particularly repetitive ones – will help you and your staff deal with the new-to-you emergencies.

Focus alone isn’t enough.

If you’re a frequent reader on business improvement, you’ll undoubtedly read something that encourages you to focus. Focus on one niche. Stop multi-tasking and focus. Worry about the numbers – they should be your focus. Focus on the customer or on your employees, or on <insert list of more focus items here>.

OK, so what should I focus on?

Focus alone isn’t enough. You can’t really give the proper amount of dedicated attention to 37 different things. You’re going to have to figure out what YOUR list is and either delegate, skip or outsource the rest. Otherwise, nothing will get the attention it deserves and all aspects of your business are likely to suffer.

In the early days, this is toughest because it might just be you and no one else. So what drives your decision to let something slide a little, be it a day, a week or “forever”?

The long term.

It depends on your long term goals, but most of the small business owners I talk with tend to be 50+. As a result, they are seeing retirement a decade or two out. In most cases, they’re at cruising altitude with their business and have left behind the years of struggle and work to keep it open, then make it profitable and so on. They’re focused on maximizing the value of the business in the time that remains before they decide to sell.

The best have focused on building that company from the outset. “What do I focus on when it’s just me?” was answered for them years ago. Notwithstanding the random short term challenges that we all face now and then, their answer is “What can I do that is most important for my clients while growing the value of my company over the long term?”

The upside is that for a small business, it focuses you on the things that should get and keep your attention even if your plans to sell are 30 to 40 years away.

So your eyes are riveted on the buyout?

Yes, even if it’s decades away.

Building for a buyout is much different for a small company than for one on Wall Street. A privately-held company can focus on becoming more attractive to a buyer via predictable, consistent positive cash flow and profitability – with no stock price to lose sleep over. These things come over the long term through obvious accomplishments that most small businesses strive for: solid products and services, repeat business, great customer care, etc.

Obvious, right? The things that make a company profitable to the owner will eventually be the things that make it attractive to purchase. Part of that attraction is eliminating as much risk as possible from the buyer’s purchase. I don’t mean guaranteeing revenue or profits. I mean by selling a company that is inherently low risk due to the way it operates.

For example, you can reduce risk and build value by building quality, value-packed products, services and systems that produce dependable recurring revenue. You can reduce risk and build value by providing great customer care. Those loyal customers produce recurring sales and provide referrals that lead to new clients. You’ve reduced risk by structuring your company to survive the day you get hit by a bus. The same strategies will protect the company if you decide on short notice to fish Alaska for six months.

Do you feel your business is ready to sell?

When you sell a house, there’s that list of projects you have to get done in order to make it easier to sell. Once you finish the projects that seem essential to selling your home, seller’s remorse sets in a little bit. You wish you had made those improvements years before so that you could have enjoyed them. You enjoy the home a little more in your final days there – in part because of the changes you put off for months or years for whatever reason.

A business often has the same list. They make the business some combination of less risky, easier to run, more profitable, and/or less hassle. Over time, the value of these projects pay for themselves and make the company more attractive to the right buyer.

Making the company more attractive to the right buyer takes a long term view. You and your team will benefit in the meantime.

Merchandising means “Don’t forget the ice”

If you have a retail storefront, do you have a solid idea what business you lose to big online retailers vs. the business you can depend on? What sales do you lose to big box retail? Perhaps the bigger question is this: Are you selling what your clients want and need? Does your merchandising support those needs?

Let’s backtrack a bit. Yesterday was a “honey-do day”. A retail experience or two is often required to complete the day’s achievements and “level up” to good husband for the weekend.  For me, retail shopping is more like a marksmanship thing than a grazing-like activity. I prefer to get in, get what I need and get out with a minimum of time and friction.

Sell what they need to finish the job

My first stop was at a big retailer that specializes in stuff you might buy on a honey-do trip. I picked up a corner shelf for the bathroom in a section of the store where shelves of this nature (free-standing or otherwise) are plentiful. The one I selected is intended for hanging.

Despite selling a plentiful amount of “hang this to use it” items across many departments, the store had none of the hardware needed to hang something – not for the item I bought or any other. However, they had what seemed like hundreds of (often ridiculous) “As seen on TV” items that prompted me to wonder who would pay for warehouse space for such things. But I digress.

I asked one of the people in the store if they had hanging hardware. They didn’t.

Why would you sell stuff that hangs without selling stuff used to hang those things? Because you aren’t thinking like a customer.

Thinking like a customer

When a shopper ventures out into retail, we tend to have one of two missions: “browse” or “complete task”. I think it’s best to serve clients on both missions. In the latter mode, we humans are often forgetful people. We multi-task. The phone rings. We leave our list at home. We’re imperfect at times.

Smart merchandisers can cure some of that.

When you go into a beer store, they have beer. They also have ice, coolers, bottle openers, snacks and other things you may need, or may have forgotten before leaving the house for a day at the lake. Sure, they are there to increase sales, but they are also there to save your trip by triggering any remaining “Oops, forgot to get ice” thoughts before they become expensive. It’s annoying to get out in the middle of the lake or settled in camp two hours back in the woods on a dirt road, only to find you forgot the ice. They understand that your needs extend beyond beer.

When you go into a fly fishing store, you can buy flies. For an expert who has what they need, a fly fishing store has local flies. For the noob who doesn’t have what they need (or the expert who forgot something), a fly fishing store has local flies, and just about any other fly fishing related item you need. They understand that your needs extend beyond flies.

Smart merchandising is good for you and your customers

At some of the best merchandised stores, you’ll find the mission completion items you need right there in the aisle with the item that took you to that aisle. These simple, thoughtful (and yes, sales-increasing) acts of merchandising save shoppers time and steps. They allow shoppers to avoid the time needed to dig around elsewhere in the store for an item. Even better, they may remind your customers to get the (in my case) hardware to hang an item so that they don’t drive all the way home only to realize they need to return to town to get the pieces and parts to finish the job.

Are these things incredibly obvious? Certainly. Obvious or not, does every store do so? No.

Be one of the stores that does.

Don’t have a retail location? Your online store’s shoppers have the same challenges. They forget the ice, or the cables, or the hanging hardware, and other little things needed to complete their mission.

It’s OK to be focused on being the best at selling the item your customers need – but don’t let them forget the ice.

Would a succession plan save your business?

What happens the day after you’re gone or incapacitated? Do you have a succession plan in place for your business?

While I suspect that most business owners have taken care of the family side of things – i.e., they have a will and/or a trust, etc. Has the business been taken care of?

We’ve talked in the past about how few businesses survive a fire, mostly because they haven’t taken care of the contingency planning necessary to continue operations when the business’ physical facilities have been destroyed.

A succession plan is different from a contingency plan. It provides a plan so that the business survives the death or incapacitation of the hands-on owner-manager, or even hands off owner in a family-owned business.

What happens tomorrow?

Going back to the contingency plan for physical business damage, look back at the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Despite the destruction of their facility and the loss of all but one employee on site that day, the credit union was open for business the very next day by virtue of off-site employees and redundant systems.

This required the foresight to discuss and put together a plan, which included off-site backups, training for all involved and an execution plan.

Whether or not you are ready for a physical disaster at your business, the likelihood of tragedy striking the owner is just as important – perhaps more important.

An important question starts the conversation: Do you care if the business outlives you if the worst happens? If you don’t, this seems like something your family, clients and employees should know – though I’m not sure you’d tell them if you feel that way.

If you want the business to outlive you, you have to confront that situation and discuss it with your team and your family. Who takes charge? If you don’t lay this out in advance and have agreement with your family, your death could set in motion a struggle that could destroy the company despite your wishes.

Who takes on your day to day responsibilities? It’s likely that more than one person will have to do so, depending on your role. It needs to be discussed with your executive team and documented for your family, whether they will be hands on or not. Think of it as a living will for your business.

How will things work in the first day, week, month, quarter?

Is there a documented, step-by-step checklist to get critical, keep-things-running work done? Who knows what to do? How do they know? How does everyone know that they (one person or several) have the authority to act?

Oh, they just know” isn’t the answer you want. If you don’t believe me, call your senior people into your office and tell them you are leaving for a 90 day sabbatical in the morning and you will be unavailable by phone or email. Ask them who will run things while you’re gone. Who will be responsible for x, y and z? What duties are they unaware of or untrained for?

Are you comfortable with their answers? Are they?

Can you…

  • Make payroll?
  • File payroll taxes?
  • Deal with property taxes and the state?
  • Pay bills?
  • Get the mail?
  • Write a check?
  • Deposit receipts?
  • Access online payments and transfer them to a bank account?
  • Access your bank accounts and line(s) of credit, if any?

Who pays the power bill that’s due three days after your death or permanent incapacitation? If you’re the only one who can sign a check, how does that work when your picture is in the paper the next day and your vendors (and your bank) keep seeing checks with your name signed on them? Sure, much of this is electronic, but there will be scrutiny on the accounts. What happens if the bank freezes your accounts?

Who takes care of things like that in the short term if you are temporarily incapacitated? Even if unhurt, but simply lost in the woods on a hunting trip for a week, the inability to sign a check or access your business accounts could create a problem.

Smaller things have derailed companies, or killed them, given the wrong timing.

But I don’t trust anyone with that stuff!

If so, you have work to do. Your attorney, accountant and banker can help, but if you still don’t trust anyone, that’s a fundamental problem to tackle. A business with no trusted senior employees is in a really bad spot. I understand that “trusted” doesn’t necessarily mean “trusted with the checkbook”, but you still need a solution if you care about the post-you business.

Buying decisions are personal

One of the challenges we have when running a business, and more importantly, when trying to make a sale – is understanding what makes our clients, buy (or not buy), run away screaming (or some such). They have their own reasons which may (or may not) relate to you and the actions you and your business have taken while dealing with them. Combined, these things are yet another complex reason why buying decisions are another angle at Business is Personal.

Personal to them, not simply to you.

Why they don’t buy

Many times, the reason they decided not to buy has nothing to do with you. It’s personal.

Business is Personal to them because their transmission went out over the weekend, or their best friend’s niece is in the hospital, because the basement flooded at home so for the next few weeks, they probably don’t have time to install and configure that software you’re trying to sell them (or it no longer seems important), or they got into an argument with their spouse last night and that RV is no longer important… until the argument is forgotten and the lure of being in the boonies (with a little comfort) is important again, or their daughter got a full scholarship to a college 2500 miles away and now your spouse is a wreck because the reality that their little girl is growing up and leaving the house has hit home and distracted everyone.

For now, that is.

Distraction is personal

The things that change your prospect’s minds, or put off their buying decisions are countless. Most of them are personal. The phone rang and their mother wasn’t feeling well. The teacher called and their son needs to study harder. Some of them are not personal. The boss emailed and they have to go out of town next week. Priorities changed for any number of reasons.

These are not reasons not to buy, or reasons to buy – but they impact your clients every day. Life is quite often more important than your products and services. You might have the best RV in town, the best service department, the best price and the best financing, but today – none of that matters and it’s not your fault. It just is.

It’s easy to get discouraged when this is going on, but that’s the one thing you can’t allow for. You can’t give up. You can’t assume that they changed their mind because your product or service aren’t good enough, or your salespeople aren’t good enough, or your price isn’t cheap enough. There may be occasions when one or more of those conditions are valid, but most of the time – that isn’t the problem.

Distraction is.

People’s lives don’t revolve around your product or service until they do, and then they don’t 19 hours later when the phone rings or that email arrives.

Why they need your patience… and your reminders

Engagement is critical. Nurturing is critical. Both play a role in your business and do far more than keep your name in front of them. They remind your prospects that something you sell was important to them a few weeks ago before they were distracted by something that was important to them at the time.

Seems like a simple thing, but the difference between re-engaging with a prospect, getting the conversation back on track and eventually completing a sale, vs. “unexpectedly” losing a formerly hot prospect is the difference between a re-engagement follow up and waiting around for the prospect to figure out that they were going to buy something that at one time or another was important to them.

It’s work. It’s marketing. And it’s the kind of re-engagement effort that is often the difference between reaching next month’s revenue goals…. or not.

What stage?

A critical aspect of your re-engagement effort is gauging where your prospects are along the buying timeline. It’s not really a timeline though. It’s more like a set of behaviors about-to-be buyers exhibit when they’re at a certain point in the process of buying. Years ago, Perry Marshall and his crew noticed that when someone searched Google for “guinea pig”, it meant they were ready to buy, vs when they searched for “guinea pigs”, they were doing pre-purchase decision research.

Study your buyers’ timelines and use what you learn to create a re-engagement plan. You’ll need communications appropriate to re-engage people at each stage of the purchase timeline.

Are you using your marketing data effectively?

Earlier this year, we discussed planning your marketing, advertising and the run up to promotions and events using a marketing calendar. Today, let’s dive in a little deeper by adding metrics to the equation, specifically – marketing data.

Got income goals?

Presumably you have a budget and as a part of it, income / revenue goals. How certain are you that you’ll hit them this month? How certain are you about hitting them seven months from now?

A few pieces of math might help, but it will require some data collection, or analysis of your existing sales / order data to get there. Keeping it simple, here’s the questions you’ll need to be able to answer:

  • How many new leads did you get last month?
  • Did any of these new leads come from special events or promotions?
  • How many of the new leads who DIDN’T come from special events or promotions have already purchased something?
  • How many of the new leads who DID come from special events or promotions have already purchased something?
  • Was last month’s lead count typical for this month last year?
  • Is your close rate from promotions and events different from other lead sources? If so, why?
  • What’s the average order amount from a lead that comes to you via special promotions and/or events?
  • What’s the average order amount from all other leads?
  • How many leads does it take to close one order, on average? If this varies substantially for leads gained through promotions or events, make note of this.
  • Can you track leads to the source of advertising that brought them in? If so, are the close rate and/or average order amount from any one lead source substantially different from other sources? (high or low)
  • What’s the average number of days needed to close a sale? Is this number of days different for “regular” leads vs leads gained from promotions and/or events?
  • Is the average number of days it takes to close a lead shorter for any particular lead source (or sources)? If any sources stand out as notably longer or shorter, make note of them

That should get you started. Gather this information and we’ll move on to the next step.

Making use of all that work

It will probably seem like a lot of work to gather (and keep gathering) all that info. It is, but solid order and advertising management systems can make it easier. Even if you’re doing it with a yellow pad or an Excel spreadsheet, it’ll be worth it.

Start with the amount of income you have budgeted for next month.

Given the numbers from the prior section, how many sales will you close next month? What about the month after?

If that number is below your budgeted revenue, how many more leads will it take to reach your revenue budget next month?

Given that number, how will you get that number of leads this month so that you can reach your revenue goals in future months, based on your close rate and the number of days it typically takes to close a sale?

Step back

Let’s change tracks for a bit and step back to why we’re doing all of this work and why you might feel a little uncomfortable at this point.

Do you regularly make your monthly revenue goals? Do you know why?

If “regularly” doesn’t describe your business’ achievement of revenue goals, I have more questions: Have you ever made your revenue goals? How did you arrive at them? Why did you make them? Do you make a push every month that sales appear to be coming in below budget? What does “a push” look like? Does that mean you advertise more? Hold more promotions and/or events? Pick up the phone and cold call more than usual?

Does it feel like you’d have a better shot at confidently predicting how next month is going to go, revenue-wise, if you were using your lead, order and marketing data in this way? Would you (and your employees) feel more confident if your achievement of revenue goals was more systematic and less arbitrary? How would it affect how your family feels about your business? Regardless of what retirement means to you, how would a systematic way of “controlling” revenue impact your ability to plan and eventually exit when you decide to retire?

Start simple, but start today.

Eliminating complexity. Except when you shouldn’t.

Business people (myself included) seem to have a habit of making projects more complex than they should be. Introducing complexity to a project often seems like the right direction to take because a simple solution can’t cover all the bases, or doesn’t seem so effective. We convince ourselves that “simple can’t do the job” and that’s all it takes to start running down the road to Complexityville.

Consider an extreme example – the recent events in Nice. Far more complicated plans might have failed due to one aspect or another of the plan not going as expected. Perhaps it didn’t go as expected, despite what happened. Complex attacks are likely foiled on a daily basis and we never hear about them because something went wrong they never made it to “implementation”, or an attack started and the various agencies caught it before anything bad happened. Yet a simple plan like “drive a truck into a big crowd and run over people” unfortunately succeeds, in part because it doesn’t require clockwork-like efficiency and accuracy, nor does it require a complex sequence of events to happen in just the right way. Any wacko who can drive can make that happen.

While it’s an awful, terrible example, it makes the point far better than I wish it had.

Constraints

We don’t always need a highly-complex, 32 (or 320) step project to achieve the outcome we want. In fact, the more complex we make a project, the more opportunities we allow suppliers, life, business, employees, clients, prospects and (of course) ourselves to trip over the tiniest of obstacles – any one of which can prevent a project from being successful. There’s a term for this: “The Theory of Constraints“.

Constraints aren’t just things you weren’t expecting. They’re also parts of the project that don’t necessarily turn out like you expected, or when you expected. The tiniest things have a way of turning momentum at the least opportune time. Large or small, your post project reviews should analyze what you can do to prevent a particular type of step from derailing your projects – including considering whether or not these particular steps should be eliminated altogether. Pilots use checklists – and these are regularly refined as support personnel, mechanics, pilots and others learn of things that reduce or eliminate the possibility that a particular item is going to threaten the safety of a flight. Whatever works for you – use it, but eliminate what you can if it isn’t necessary.

The beauty of complexity

Complexity has its positives. Doesn’t align well with what I said above, does it? It has its moments, despite the negatives in most situations.

The beauty of complexity is that it has negative impacts on your clients as well. I don’t mean that it’s good that they have negative impacts. It’s good that you can fix those things. Complexity wastes their time and their money – and if they’re lucky, nothing else. Have you put any thought into how complexity affects them? What sort of complexity can you help them eliminate from their work processes? More often than not, you’ll learn a great deal by watching their workflows. Figure out how to improve them, or eliminate their complexity. They’ll often be more than happy to discuss them, as long as you don’t come off interested in doing little more than closing a sale. Show that you’re interested in their workflow and improving them and the sale will come.

When is complexity OK?

As with most discussions of this nature, there are exceptions. There are appropriate times to use complexity as a tool. One common use is complexity as a barrier to entry to the business you’re in. If the process of consistently delivering your products and services is highly complex, it’s difficult to mimic. If people have come to expect what you do, then replicating it is also difficult, which makes it more difficult to compete with you.

That’s why systems are critical. Complexity without a system to manage and execute it takes us back to the Theory of Constraints, where every little bump in the road, miscalculation, unexpected result, timing problem or material change introduces a chance to fail. If your systems produce consistent execution, the complexity your systems support make it a steeper climb to compete with you. That’s a positive form of complexity.

Nothing happens till you sell something

For two weeks now, I’ve been encouraging about to become newly unemployed CFalls folks to rise up, figure out the value they can deliver and start their own business. Now it’s time to sell something.

This might be the part you’ve been dreading. Sorry, but you need to get over it. Selling the right product to the right person so they can do what they need to do (or get what they want) is honorable work. That sour stomach you get about selling is because you’ve experienced so many bad salespeople inflicting the hard sell on someone who had no interest in their product. That’s not what you’re about to do.

As I stated last week, the process is not easy. One of the things often used in the tech business that can make it easier is a process called “Lean Startup”. Lean Startup uses a process that is perfect for people starting out on their own – the use of the word “Lean” is intentional: This is not a process that requires that you order stationery and business cards, have a sign installed over your newly rented office and start pouring money into furniture, advertising, and so on.

Stay Hungry

The good news is that it takes advantage of things many hungry, underfunded entrepreneurs would do anyway: Spend as little as possible on stuff you don’t need, focus on a solution customers actually want, refine it quickly with multiple interviews / discussions with your prospective customers and swallow your pride long enough to ask for the sale.

If a “Startup Weekend” happens to pop up somewhere in the area in the meantime – take part in it. These events are often focused on technology-based ideas, but this is NOT a requirement and you don’t have to be a tech person to participate. The things you will learn by starting a business in 54 hours over a weekend will benefit you greatly, as will the relationships you build. The folks that often take part in these events are usually highly connected, entrepreneurial and happy to provide feedback on your idea and make introductions for you.

Nose to nose, toes to toes

Now is not the time to decide you need to take a college course, read the 27 books all entrepreneurs must read before starting a business, produce a detailed pro-forma for your banker, take a Udacity course on Lean Startup, etc. While the free Udacity course is good (for example) and the reading and pro-forma might serve you at some point – now is not the time for that.

Now is the time to get nose-to-nose, toes-to-toes with the people who you think are best suited to take advantage of what you want to do, discuss it with them and ask for the sale. Until you do that, get some feedback, ask for the sale, repeat (often) and start to get some feedback and reaction to your proposed offering,

It’s ok to tell them your business is new – they’ll probably figure that out anyway. They should quickly be able to figure out that you know your stuff based on how you position your offering and how you discuss how you intend to make it worth their investment.

Listen. Really listen.

One of the most valuable things you can hear during these conversations is “No, that’s not what I need.” You can either turn off and move on to the next person, or keep listening and keep asking questions. You know the process, product, solution you’re selling. It’s ok to ask them about the problems they’re having, what keeps them up at night, what makes them worry every day, and so on. If you ask the right questions and truly listen to what they’re telling you, you will find them making comments about things they invest time and money in to solve a problem. It might be a patch, but that’s ok.

They will spend time and money to get through something, solve something and/or perform a workaround simply to get some work done. Their workaround or process to get them by might seem crude or even ridiculous to you – that’s an indication that the problem is important enough for them to spend money on.

How can you make that better? Cheaper? Faster? More efficient? Safer? More dependable?

Sell that.