Wednesday, December 7, 2016

4 Steps To Optimizing Team Strengths For Innovation

team-strengths-for-innovationMost entrepreneurs I know are individually very innovative, but a successful startup can’t be a one-man show (for long). That means they need to build an innovative team, which is not a skill that most people are born with. In fact, some very innovative individuals, known as ‘idea people’ or inventors, often end up creating the most dysfunctional teams.

A typical approach to dealing with team dysfunction or no innovation process is to work around it, which normally leads to startup failure. The only way to build productive, collaborative, innovative, and cohesive teams is by resolving core dysfunction issues and implementing a structured process for innovation.

There are many resources out there to help you address team dysfunction, but very few provide much insight on a process for maximizing startup team innovation once you have the motivated people. Chris Grivas and Gerard Puccio published a classic book, “The Innovative Team,” which seems to hit the issue directly, with stories to illustrate key points.

They outline a simple process or framework for fostering team innovation, called FourSight, which is composed of four steps, capitalizing on the leader’s and other team member’s strengths and interests, that is consistent with my own experience in big companies as well as small:

  1. Clarify the situation. Innovation is not all about coming up with new ideas. It really is first figuring out which challenges are the most important. Clarifying means sorting out the real problem from the symptoms or distractions, and focusing all team energies there to change things for the better.

  2. Generate ideas. This requires divergent thinking, with the strengths of every team member, to generate as many ideas as possible. Then it requires convergent thinking when there are enough ideas to choose from. Look for that sparkling new idea or “eureka” moment to develop into a workable solution.

  3. Develop the best solution. No idea is born perfect. Here the goal is to transform a novel idea into one that can be implemented successfully, with tinkering, adjusting, and polishing. True creativity brings novelty and usefulness together. This step includes verification will the solution will actually work, and the improvement can be measured.

  4. Implement plans. This is the stage where project plans are created and implemented. Now it’s all about action, and in many ways, about managing change. People who prefer this stage of the process tend to be drivers, known for making quick decisions and getting results. It always helps to temper their preference with patience and sensitivity to others.

In business today, it takes a team to get work done, whether we are talking about a startup or a large conglomerate. The potential of any team is defined by its members, not just individually, but collectively. Then the right process is required for innovative thinking that is greater than the sum of their individual talents and skills.

Although most startups say they want to create a culture of innovation, they should realize that there are implications. Leaders have to focus on open and honest communication to maintain trust. Founders have to be willing and able to reject ideas that won’t work, in a way that still encourages more creativity.

Entrepreneurs have to remain open to creativity and change, despite high-pressured investors driving more toward “making it through the day” and “timeline deliverables” than producing well-developed and novel products, improvements, or new directions.

By becoming more consciously and deliberately creative, entrepreneurs can enjoy their lifestyle with more satisfaction, enabling their team to do the same, and together produce results that no one has yet dreamed of. Are you building a team yet which fits this mold?

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, December 5, 2016

7 Ways To Think Outside the Box To Grow Your Business

thinking-outside-the-boxToo many entrepreneurs put their best creative thinking into the startup idea, and believe that the business implementation simply requires following tried and true business practices. In my experience as a startup advisor, nothing could be further from the truth. To win, you need to think outside the box to deliver a better customer experience, business model, and new positioning.

It isn’t something that comes naturally to most business people. They are trained in school, and by many experts, that running a business requires logical workflows and analytical thinking. It takes extra effort and focus on some special techniques, including the following, to get the edge you need over your competitors in customer attraction and retention:

  1. Set order-of-magnitude goals. If your goals can’t be achieved by conventional thinking, your brain and the people around you will more likely revert to out-of-the box ideas. Successful entrepreneurs call these paradigm shifts or disruptive technologies, where new solutions cause unanticipated opportunities.

  2. Challenge your team to focus first on quantity of ideas, not quality. This is the essence of brainstorming and ideation. Ideas from the edge often don’t look good at first glance, but need time to evolve into full-blown creative solutions. Even bad ideas often have a nugget of potential that can be transformed into one of your best alternatives.

  3. Offer incentives or competition. There is nothing like friendly competition or an attractive reward to bring out a new base of un-edited ideas. This approach works best if you make it a quick effort. There is a good possibility that one of these will evolve to be the gem you need to grow your business.

  4. Search for recognizable patterns in disconnected domains. Out of the box thinkers get new ideas by comparing unrelated subjects, such as customers and investors. I find that startups rarely think of customers as investors, even though major customers might see ROI as a positive reason to invest in future growth, and chose to pay for equity.

  5. Explore contradictory approaches. This forces you to change the way you look at alternatives, and suddenly the alternatives you look at change. For example, the old assumption that lower prices will drive volumes, may give way to higher prices and exclusivity implying more value to discerning customers.

  6. Change the way you talk, and your thinking will follow suit. When you make a conscious effort to focus on the positives rather than the negatives, your creative mindset will push the positive limits, rather than get stuck on worst case scenarios. Almost all alternatives have pluses as well as risks, so push the limits on the positive side.

  7. Challenge the outer limits of alternatives. With the pace of change today, it makes more sense to plan for obsoleting a product line with a new alternative well before profits go to zero. “New” companies, like Uber, can build billion dollar valuations, and start acquiring older companies seen as much larger.

It’s important that you apply these initiatives to all elements of your business, rather than just on new products to sell. If your imagination is primarily technical by nature, then you need to complement your efforts by attracting partners with more imagination in marketing, sales, finance, and operations. A successful business is a combination of creative ideas in all these disciplines.

You can’t “will” a certain number of creative ideas, but you can certainly measure how many have been implemented in your business recently, and measure what worked and what didn’t work. If you can’t name some new ones in the works right now, your business, or your career, is likely falling behind the competition. Start thinking outside the box.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 11/17/2016 ***

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Sunday, December 4, 2016

11 Attributes Of Great Entrepreneurs I Have Known

Elon-Musk-TeslaAt some point in their life, hopefully everyone strives to be the best in their chosen profession. Most people think that being the best requires more intelligence, more training, and more experience. In reality, in business or even in sports, the evidence is conclusive that it is as much about how you think, as what you do.

I saw this illustrated a while back in the classic sports book, “Training Camp: What the Best Do Better Than Everyone Else”, by Jon Gordon. His evidence and real life stories conclude that top performers in all professions have the same key traits listed below. I agree they certainly apply to the great entrepreneurs I have known. You need to think about how they apply to you.

  1. The best know what they truly want. At some point in their lives, the best have a "Eureka!" moment when their vision becomes clear. Suddenly they realize what they really, truly want to achieve. They find their passion. When that happens they are ready to strive for greatness. They are ready to pay the price.

  2. The best want it more. We all want to be great. The best don't just think about their desire for greatness; they act on it. They have a high capacity for work. They do the things that others won't do, and they spend more time doing it. When everyone else is sleeping, the best are practicing and thinking and improving.

  3. The best are always striving to get better. They are always looking for ways to learn, apply, improve, and grow. They stay humble and hungry. They are lifelong learners. They never think they have "arrived"—because they know that once they think that, they'll start sliding back to the place from which they came.

  4. The best do ordinary things better than everyone else. For all their greatness, the best aren't that much better than the others. They are simply a little better at a lot of things. Everyone thinks that success is complicated, but it's really simple. In fact, the best don't do anything different. They just do the ordinary things better.

  5. The best zoom focus. Success is all about the fundamentals, and the fundamentals are little and ordinary and often boring. It's not just about practice, but focused practice. It's not just about taking action, but taking zoom-focused action. It's about practicing and perfecting the fundamentals.

  6. The best are mentally stronger. Today's world is no longer a sprint or a marathon. You're not just running; you are getting hit along the way. The best are able to respond to and overcome all of this with mental and emotional toughness. They are able to tune out the distractions and stay calm, focused, and energized when it counts.

  7. The best overcome their fear. Everyone has fears. The best of the best all have fear, but they overcome it. To beat your enemy, you must know your enemy. Average people shy away from their fears. They either ignore them or hide from them. However, the best seek them out and face them with the intent of conquering them.

  8. The best seize the moment. When the best are in the middle of their performance, they are not thinking "What if I win?" or "What if I lose?" They are not interested in what the moment produces but are concerned only with what they produce in the moment. As a result, the best define the moment rather than letting the moment define them.

  9. The best tap into a power greater than themselves. The best are conductors, not resistors. They don't generate their own power, but act as conduits for the greatest power source in the world. You can't talk about greatness without talking about a higher force. It would be like talking about breathing without mentioning the importance of air.

  10. The best leave a legacy. The best live and work with a bigger purpose. They leave a legacy by making their lives about more than them. This larger purpose is what inspires them to be the best and strive for greatness over the long term. It helps them move from success to significance.

  11. The best make everyone around them better. They do this through their own pursuit of excellence and in the excellence they inspire in others. One person in pursuit of excellence raises the standards of everyone around them. It's in the striving where you find greatness, not in the outcome.

Jon is convinced that people are not born with these traits, they must be learned by everyone. He talks about staying mentally strong, and maintaining a big-picture vision while taking focused action. So if you aspire to be the next Elon Musk or Steve Jobs, focus on your attitude as much as your business plan.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, December 3, 2016

7 Keys To Making Staff Meetings An Asset vs Expense

Staff_meetingBy Ernst Gemassmer, Chairman, Startup Professionals

Most of us view weekly staff meetings today with a degree of trepidation and frustration. Many have suggested that it is time re-engineer this process, or eliminate the meetings entirely.

In an old survey on staff meeting obstacles conducted by GroupSystems, I found the following not-so-surprising statistics for the average 50 minute staff meeting:

  • Much time wasted on inefficient process – over 30% of the total time
  • No meeting minutes or decisions recorded – 59% of the cases
  • Nothing usable gained from meeting – 68% of respondents

These kind of statistics are often used to suggest that staff meetings be eliminated, but I don’t agree. I would assert that these meetings are necessary to run a company of any size, and are not a necessary evil. The alternative is chaos, or autocratic leadership.

The opposite of chaos is some type of democratic leadership, which requires regular meetings of all teams at every level, on a regular basis. In my experience, these can be very productive for all concerned. But the following basic principles are followed:

  1. Communicate the time, purpose and process. Executive staff meeting. The CEO who sanctions the meeting must set expectations clearly. People need to know what they are expected of provide and communicate, what they will hear, and when to be there.

  2. Schedule in advance, and stick to the schedule. Schedule meetings at least every other week throughout the calendar or business year. Start on time, even if everyone is not present. Demonstrate respect for the people who show up on time by beginning promptly. Individuals that come late can 'catch-up' later.

  3. Don’t delegate and don’t derail your own meeting. Except in an emergency, you should show up on time, conduct your own meetings personally, or cancel the meeting. There is nothing so frustrating or ineffective as a meeting run by a surrogate, used for personal tirades, or dragged off track by a vocal member.

  4. Everyone has a voice, with a moderator for action items. I recommend a fixed agenda segment where each attendee distributes and discusses a one page written report. The report is to follow a specific format including progress, problems, and plans. Each subsequent meeting picks up incomplete items. Action items are logged by the leader or scribe.

  5. If decisions are required, close the loop on each one. A group decision does not require a total group consensus, but it does require a process that is agreed, understood, and followed by all. How many meetings have you left where no one knows what was decided, or worse yet, everyone has his own view of the outcome?

  6. Moderate the discussion and the filter agenda items. Staff meetings are definitely not the place to discuss individual performance (handing out praise is fine), or spending time on specific projects that relate only to a few individuals. It is the place to communicate goals for the following period, and acknowledge accomplishments for the past period.

  7. Hold them consistently across every division/functional department. The CEO should encourage each of his direct reports to conduct staff meetings in their own divisions or functional areas.

It may well take you several weeks to reinvent your staff meetings along the lines recommended above. However, you will quickly note that the team will cooperate more than before, and will more likely surface critical issues, determine alternatives, and avoid surprises.

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Friday, December 2, 2016

9 Transaction Models Shape Your Customer Experience

stewart-oconnellFocus is everything in a business, whether it be a new startup or a large enterprise. In my role as a business advisor, I often see well-meaning entrepreneurs try to be everything to everyone, which results in many things done poorly, and few totally delighted customers. People are confused by multiple messages, and employees are frustrated trying to personalize customer experiences.

These days, the whole business experience is often more important than the product. If the shopping process, delivery, and support experiences are not designed-in and delivered consistently, no after-the-fact effort or product feature can compensate for the lack of it.

The specifics and need for an overall service experience design were driven home to me in a new book, “Woo, Wow, and Win,” by Thomas A. Stewart and Patricia O’Connell. The authors provide details and multiple examples of how imagining, creating, and rethinking the execution of every aspect of the transaction not only better satisfies customers, but advances your strategic goals.

Most experts agree that there are at least nine generic types of customer experiences commonly in use by successful businesses today. As a place to start, I recommend that you model your business after one of the following archetypes, understanding the pros and cons, rather than defining a new one with a large inherent learning curve:

  1. The aggregator – one-stop shop. Popular examples of this type include Amazon for buying, eBay for selling, and Craigslist for anything. Aggregators delight customers by offering a vast array of products or services under the same experience. Success requires a lean and powerful back office, and a quick recovery when things go wrong.

  2. The bargain - we will not be undersold. Many entrepreneurs start out down this path, with dreams of being the next Walmart, Costco, or Dollar General. The challenges include lean margins, with little room for personalization on mass offerings. The biggest danger is to think that nothing matters except price, in an age where service is king.

  3. The classic – top of the line, just the best. Brands such as Mercedes, Brooks Brothers, and Yale University confer prestige and power to their customers, and imply excellence. Yet they have to be careful not to chase fads, without ever falling behind the times. Paying top dollar is part of this customer experience, so the audience is limited.

  4. The old shoe - we are your local; you are our regular. There are few market positions more powerful than being a familiar, comfortable, hometown business. Very few of these are able to go national or global and still retain the warmth and intimacy of their expected customer experience. Change is hard in this model, and the human element is key.

  5. The safe choice – you cannot go wrong with us. Safe choices are frequently old brands, like traditional banks and department stores, but even technology companies like IBM can fit this mold if they design themselves appropriately. With this model, the urge to evolve is tricky, since change scares people, and can easily distract company focus.

  6. The solution integrator – we put complex things together. Well-recognized users of this model include Deloitte, Lockheed Martin, and Oracle. These companies walk the fine line between selling discrete services and products. Productizing can easily destroy the magic of the service, putting them in the same customer experience as solution sellers.

  7. The specialist – no one is better at what we do. You can find specialists in almost every industry, focused on a particular type of service. Their challenge is to make their excellence visible to customers, and design a customer experience that delights users. Focus is their strength, and they must avoid the temptation of mass-market for growth.

  8. The trendsetter – we are sleek and hip. Trendsetters, like Uber, turn their first-mover advantage into a business model, enticing others to play their game. They are cool, and they foster engagement, not distance. Yet sometimes, they can get too far out in front of customers, and lose the market. Experience design has to change as the market evolves.

  9. The utility – we are a public trust. Many of these are regulated, and risk becoming bureaucratic. It’s tough to design and maintain a positive customer experience, since customers often cannot choose their utilities. Yet, over time, if they take their customers for granted, they can be pushed out or superseded by other solutions.

In any case, your challenge is deciding how you are going to market, and designing every aspect of your customer experience. The model selected will drive what offerings you make, and what expectations you set. Just as importantly, it identifies the customers you seek to delight, and the customers you expect to happily look elsewhere without becoming your nemesis.

Service design and delivery can only be successfully done proactively, and it has to start with what you want to promise as the seller, rather than trying to accede to everything a customer asks. Is your company as focused on designing the customer experience as they are on the product or service offered? Your long-term survival and success depends on it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 11/30/2016 ***

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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

5 Quotes From Business Founders Destined To Fail

victim-mentalityPeople with a victim mentality should never be entrepreneurs. We all know the role of starting and running a business is unpredictable, and has a high risk of failure. For people with a victim mentality, this fear of failure alone will almost certainly make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’m sure you all know someone who is the perennial victim. The problem is that most of these people aren’t likely to accept your assessment, so it’s hard to help them. They don’t see themselves as others see them, and many simply refuse to accept the reality of the world in general.

According to a classic article by Karl Perera, called “Victim Mentality - You Don't Have to Suffer!” there are many indications of a victim mentality in a person’s thought process. Here are some key ones he mentioned, applied to the entrepreneurial environment:

  1. “When things don’t work, I secretly believe I’m the cause.” Victims act as though each business setback is a catastrophe and create stress for themselves. These people feel more importance and ego when relating problems rather than successes.

    A survivor believes that bad things are an anomaly to be brushed off, or just another challenge to overcome. In fact, they look forward to the challenges, and get their most satisfaction from declaring success.

  2. “When I talk to myself, I never have a positive discussion.” Second-guessing every decision affects mood, behavior, and happiness, and is likely to cause or intensify a victim mentality. If you are negative, you cannot see reality, leading to more bad decisions, confirming you are indeed a victim.

    Survivors continually relive their positives, and see themselves as miracle workers. They live in the present or the future, and rarely dwell on mistakes of the past. They have faith in themselves, and life as a whole.

  3. “When others put me down, I‘m wounded to the soul.” Negative comments from others are devastating to a victim. Offensive behavior towards you actually says more about the other person. But if you have a negative mentality you will just take what they say or do at face value, and believe that you deserve to be the victim.

    The survivor always stands up and fights negative comments, and usually turns the blame back on the deliverer. He is quick to counter with all his positives. He builds boundaries around negative or toxic people, and avoids them at all costs.

  4. “I believe in fate, even though it’s unfair.” If you succumb to fate, then you think you are responsible for all the bad things that happen to your business. The victim feels that he or she has been treated unfairly but is trapped. There seems to be no way out.

    Survivors believe that they can make things happen, rather than let things happen to them. They accept random turns in their life as new opportunities, rather than unfair punishment.

  5. “Everyone is punished for a reason.” Religious beliefs can have a positive or negative affect on your life. If you believe in a Supreme Being who is responsible for everything, it’s easy to believe that your pain and misery is punishment for something you did wrong.

Survivors obviously take it the other way. They enjoy a personal relationship with the Supreme Being of their understanding, and feel a gratitude for everything positive in their life. They may ask their Supreme Being for help, but rely on themselves for results.

This victim mentality is not a good thing under any circumstances, but it’s particularly lethal when applied to an entrepreneur. If you would like to be an entrepreneur, remember that you don't have to be a victim. Take a hard look in the mirror. Truly the only one who makes you feel like one is the same person who can make you a survivor - you!

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, November 28, 2016

7 Poor Leadership Habits You Must Avoid At All Cost

head-business-stressLike many other career-minded business professionals, are you still waiting impatiently for that appointment to a leadership position, so that you can begin demonstrating your real leadership ability? In reality, you are already being evaluated for leadership by the habits and attributes you demonstrate today, so now is the time to sharpen your focus and behavior, not later.

Everyone knows that leadership means taking the lead, but some forget that there are negative behaviors that can override even the best initiatives. Leadership is not about how well you give orders as the boss – it’s much more about what you do than what you say. In that context, here is a list of things from my experience that you need to stop doing now, to qualify as a leader:

  1. Don’t ever play the blame game. Blaming something or someone for any failure, however slight, is a sure way to get you branded as a non-leader. Everyone makes mistakes, so accepting responsibility and learning from the consequences, rather than denying culpability, is what separates winners from the losers in the longer term.

  2. Stop stressing out and worrying out loud publicly. Team members expect leaders to calm their worries, not create or amplify them. At best, worries expressed by others come across as excuses for possible later failures. Every leader has qualms and fears, but only verbalizes their own positive ideas for moving ahead to overcome the challenges.

  3. Never highlight the negatives of others or the company. Leadership is all about highlighting positives, rather than punishing negatives among team members. People who speak critically of co-workers, friends, and customers, are positioning them as scapegoats for later failure. Leaders seek private discussions for negative feedback.

  4. Avoid the perception of being too busy to help others. Real leaders always find time to be accessible and listen to others, and make genuine offers to help. Being “too busy” or overwhelmed is the most common excuse for leadership failure. Your skills in prioritizing, managing time, and delegating are the antidote to the busy perception.

  5. Don’t use multitasking as an excuse for mediocrity. In every job position, the leader is one that you can count on to demonstrate integrity and quality in everything they do, no matter how many distractions or related tasks must be managed. Mediocrity is a disease that will quickly infect others, and can ultimately bring down your whole company.

  6. Procrastinating and keeping your work area unorganized. If it looks to others like you're out of control in your present assignment, you'll never be considered for a leadership position or more responsibility. Doing things haphazardly and procrastinating is error-prone and not productive. Co-workers are always looking for positive role models.

  7. Failure to communicate regularly and effectively. If you find yourself with a thousand emails in your inbox, or regularly don’t bother to follow-up or call people back, it’s unlikely that anyone will consider you for a leadership position. Communication must be consistent, timely, and efficient in all media types, whether written, oral, or texting.

Some of these behaviors slip out of all of us in extreme environments. The challenge is not to let them become habitual, and to exhibit more good habits than bad ones. Otherwise you and the people around you will see only bad habits, and not your accomplishments. Your reputation and morale will suffer, your consideration for promotions will decrease, and productivity will suffer.

Leadership habits and attributes don’t happen as part of a promotion, or automatically appear after years of work. The best habits are learned by proactively taking small steps forward every day, learning from failures, and highlighting the strengths you already have. Anyone can improve their own behavior over time, and suddenly finding themselves an “overnight success.”

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 11/14/2016 ***

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