Strategy and brainstorming facilitation in Ojai, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles

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What if I told you that there is One Thing that, if you rallied your team around and focused your attention on in the next year, could grow your business by double-digits?

One of the most misunderstood and controversial topics in company strategy is the idea of the One Thing. Nine times out of ten, when I introduce the concept to a management team, the response is “It’s impossible for us to choose just one thing. We just finished our strategic planning, and we have 10 key priorities this year. If we drop any of these balls we’re dead in the water. Our business just isn’t that simple.”

Don’t confuse the One Thing with your operating priorities. In any well-run business, each department is going to have multiple priorities for the year – things they need to improve on, process they need to optimize, and so on.

I’m also not talking about a silver bullet, which typically sounds something like “if we had this one feature”, “if we sold in this one country” or, “if we would just lower our price”. Silver bullets are grasping at easy solutions to tough problems, and there’s nothing easy about the One Thing. To paraphrase Ben Horowitz in the Hard Thing about Hard Things, there are no silver bullets, just lots of iron nails.

The One Thing is about focus, and finding the 80/20 rule for your business. It’s the answer to the question – “What that one thing that, if we’re able to get every team and every department rallied behind, would be our biggest lever to growth this year?”

When this concept was first explained to me, it was by a former CPG executive who took over as CEO at an aging and declining food brand, and by focusing on their One Thing, achieved 3x growth in less than 3 years. After struggling to figure out why sales were declining, the CEO and his direct reports went out into the field to visit grocery stores first-hand. After visiting just a few dozen stores around the country, they observed that, as an older brand, they were consistently being moved to the bottom shelf in favor of younger brands. They quickly realized their One Thing was shelf positioning. Was it as simple as asking to be moved up a shelf? No, it required a coordinated strategy of meetings with the executives at the nationwide grocery chains, participation and cooperation of dozens of broker teams, special promotions, and much more. Having One Thing doesn’t mean your strategy will be easy to execute, but it does mean you will simplify the goal and the message to make it easy for everyone to understand.

We’ve used the One Thing to help transform and turn around a number of businesses. In a manufacturing company, our One Thing was improving the relationship with their dealers. Sales were sliding, so we started traveling around the country to reconnect with our dealers to try to figure out what was going on at the source. We expected to hear that we were missing something in our product suite, or that we were too expensive. Instead, we heard a number of deeply concerning things – “you’re difficult to work with”, “you take forever to ship”, and my favorite, “sometimes I can’t even get a hold of you”. When we got back to the factory, we also tuned in to how we talked about our dealers internally, and we heard things like “our customers are so demanding” and “XYZ customer is a pain to deal with”. We realized were taking our dealers for granted, and we had created adversarial relationships with the channel. A new competitor simply wanted the business more, and they were willing to be more flexible, they were doing a better job of listening to their needs, and they were providing better service. They were stealing away our dealers all across the country. To turn our sliding sales into growth, we realized we’d need to rebuild our trust with the channel. Sounds simple, right? On the contrary, it meant everything from changing how we managed finished goods inventory to how we invoiced. Every department needed to be on board. Having a single overarching priority that year meant we all shared a common goal, and a common language. It meant we tracked our progress to that goal. Most importantly, it meant it was top of everyone’s mind. The result? Our sales slide turned into double-digit sales growth.

Sometimes the One Thing isn’t self evident. More often than not, discovering your One Thing requires time in the field, polling customers, listening to employees, and lots of self-reflection. Having someone from the outside provide a fresh, non-biased perspective doesn’t hurt either. If you’re intrigued by the One Thing and want to chat about how to find the One Thing for your business, drop me a line at matthew@spark-insights.com

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We’ve all attended¬† unproductive meetings – strategy meetings that don’t wrap with an actionable plan, meetings to decide on a direction where no decision is made, or brainstorming meetings that result in zero new ideas. While sometimes that’s because there wasn’t a clear agenda or maybe because of a lack of coffee, I’m willing to bet that, 80% of the time, the meeting was derailed by one of four personality types. As a manager or facilitator, you need to know how to recognize these personalities and have strategies for mitigating their counterproductive tendencies.

Tell me if you recognize these behavior patterns:

The Arm Crosser: Sits through the entire meeting not saying anything, usually with arms crossed, often frowning, and sometimes harrumphing. Typically engages in “meetings after the meeting” where they complain to a colleague that the meeting was a waste of time, or that the direction chosen was clearly the wrong one, and what they would have done differently.

The Multitasker: Uses the meeting to catch up on email. Interrupts halfway through to repeat something someone said 15 minutes ago. Calls another meeting two days later to rehash the same topic.

The Dominator: Tries to wrestle control of the meeting as early as possible to press their ideas or agenda. They are the most recognizable personality type because their voice is 20dB louder than everyone else, and they are doing 80% of the talking. A variation on this theme is the Passive Dominator, who listens just long enough to make the team feel they are being heard, but uses the remaining time to tell everyone why their viewpoint is the right one.

The Nay Sayer: Responds to every new idea with “let me tell you why that won’t work”.

The Tangent Taker: At first opportunity introduces a completely tangential topic – e.g. “What we really need to be talking about is why we don’t have Stumptown Coffee anymore in the break room and the impact that’s having on morale.”

You probably won’t change personalities and habits, at least not in the short-term, but you can dramatically reduce their impact on the meeting with a few key techniques.

Post-It: Time to break out the Post-it Notes and Sharpie markers. Whether you’re looking for new ideas, or running a project post-mortem, when it comes to getting everyone’s input, use Post-its rather than an open discussion, which tends to be dominated by one or two people.

Make sure everyone has a marker and a few packs of Post-Its. Using a large, blank piece of paper, write down the issue you’re trying to address, whether that’s new potential uses for a product, brainstorming on a new feature, or a SWOT analysis, and paste it on the wall. Invite everyone to take 10 minutes and write down as many ideas and input as they can think of, and post them on the blank sheet. When the time is up, go through the Post-Its with the team, asking for more detail and grouping like ideas. Depending on the goals, you can then start prioritizing or narrowing down the ideas with the group or moving them into an action plan.

Post-Its give people time to think, and let the introverts have as much impact and input as the extroverts in the room, while the extroverts still have the same opportunity to contribute. I much prefer Post-Its to whiteboards, which make it difficult for everyone to crowd around and make it harder to prioritize and group ideas.

Plan: We all know that a meeting should always have an agenda, but the structure of that agenda makes a world of difference in how productive it is. In a brainstorming meeting, or one where a decision needs to be made, start with getting all of the ideas on the table. This is where visual techniques really come in handy.  Go broad, then cluster and group, then narrow and prioritize.

Set ground rules: In the email invite, and before the meeting starts, circulate and reiterate the ground rules for the meeting. No phones, no laptops, and everyone participates. No ideas are bad ideas – there will be an opportunity for the group to synthesize and prioritize, so no interrupting or shooting down people’s input.

Facilitate: One of the hardest things for a new facilitator or manager can be getting used to interrupting. To keep the energy level high and keep the pace of the meeting moving, you’ll need to interrupt or prompt the team from time to time, and every personality will need a different approach. To the Arm Crosser, “we haven’t heard from you yet”. To the Dominator “hold that thought a second”. To the Nay Sayer “we’re going to get to prioritizing and eliminating ideas soon”. To the Tangent Taker ” let’s put that in the Parking Lot list, and we’ll either come back to it if we have time or set a separate meeting”

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on strategies for more productive brainstorming and getting the most participating in a meeting. Submit your comments below! And of course, if you’d like to chat about having an expert facilitator moderate your next brainstorming or strategy meeting, drop us a line.

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