Know Your Competitive Advantage

Competitive advantage is what all businesses are seeking: it allows your business to charge higher prices for your products and services or to get more customers. Everyone is seeking competitive advantage in their market.

Gaining and maintaining competitive advantage requires that your business be focused on the proper things; that is simple, but not always easy. There are really only two areas of business focus in order to establish competitive advantage: first, you must be competitive in your industry and secondly your business must differentiate itself from the competition. Sounds like a contradiction to me! Let’s take a closer look at each.

In order to be competitive in your industry your business must do “industry basics” well. For example, if you are Starbucks, you can have the nicest storefront possible, with great music and a cool ambiance. But, if your coffee is not at the right temperature, or tastes bad, you will not be able to compete in your market. For a coffee shop, temperature and taste are basics and the company must focus on them in the right way.

In what might seem to be contradictory, it is also true that you should not exceed your industry basics in the name of competition. That practice can be costly and self-defeating. Take the example of a distribution company that competes in a market where 5 day delivery of goods is the standard and customers do not expect more. If a company were to spend time and money on next day delivery, they would be wasting money creating differentiation that their customers don’t want. Doing so puts the focus in the wrong place and could actually hurt the business.

In many cases, businesses do not always focus on the right places to understand industry basics. For example, a business’ financial results, in comparison with the industry median for that result is often a good place to see where your business stands in your industry.

A software development company might look at their software production cost (Cost of Sales); they may not be competing on price, but if their production costs are significantly higher than others in the market, they will have a hard time competing. Proper focus here will keep them competitive in their industry.

Differentiation, on the other hand, is not about industry basics. It is about how your business can do something differently to distinguish itself in the industry. Of course, what you do differently must also be something that your market wants!

Let’s look at distribution again. Supposing that the company that tried to differentiate with quick delivery took some time to talk to their customers that are retail operations. Perhaps they might discover that their customers spend time breaking down the goods they receive from the distribution company into smaller lots for reshipping. The distribution company might be able to save their customers time and effort by packaging their goods in such a way that the customers would have minimal repackaging to do.

At times, it might be possible to turn an industry standard on it’s’ head in order to gain competitive advantage. Prior to Starbucks, most of the coffee industry was centered on fast food coffee chains such as donut shops. Fast was the operating word. Starbucks created a product that included not just upgraded coffee, but an entire experience.

The company wanted people to stay longer, not leave quickly. Starbucks achieved tremendous success with that strategy; only recently have they made moves that have harmed them (but that’s the topic of another Blog).

The name of the game in competitive advantage is to stay focused on the right things for your industry!

I’ll Just Do It Myself

We have all experienced it in our small business, time is tight and a crucial task must get done. You have explained it (you thought) to an employee but the task is not getting done. Or worse, it is not done the way that you want it done. In order to cope with the frustration, you decide that it is just easier to do it yourself. Then, you wonder why you are working 16 hour days, staying longer than any employee.

I am sure that most of you have been in this situation on many occasions. The problem is that if you can’t find a way out of it, not only will you continue to work those long hours, but it will be very hard to grow your business. You just can’t do everything yourself! What to do? Here are three ideas that may help: concentrate on your strengths and delegate your weaknesses, document well any process that you will delegate, outsource any business process that is not in your businesses’ core competencies.

Concentrate on your strengths and delegate your weaknesses. We are all better at some things than others. Some of us are detailed oriented and well organized, while others work well with the overall themes and direction of a company. The former will probably be better at operations and the latter at setting strategy and guiding marketing campaigns. One of the keys here is to completely honest with about what you do and don’t do well. It is hard to assess yourself by yourself, so don’t be afraid to call on a trusted advisor to help.

A useful exercise when you are trying to determine your role in your company is to create a diagram of the “buckets” or areas of work that you do. You might be surprised by what you find! Once all of your buckets are defined and the activities they include are outlined, you can review more objectively what you are good at and what might be delegate. Doing this exercise with a trusted advisor will add to the depth of understanding that you may gain.

Document any process that you will delegate. Since you have created most of the processes in your company, you know it really well. However, our tendency is to assume that when we explain a process to another, they will catch the nuances without a great deal of detail. I once helped a business owner that thought that a 15 minute explanation of a process that had been honed over several years was all that was necessary. Proper documentation, including the steps of the process, perhaps a diagram of the process flow and a list of the meaning of the terms used form the basics.

There are many useful tools to use when documenting process. Personally, I like to use the different tools that originated in lean concepts are helpful.
Outsource any process that is not among your company’s core competencies. In a small company that is starting to grow, there are many processes that are not among the core competencies. As the company grows, it becomes harder to perform some of these processes with internal staff that are not specialized. Payroll, human resources and benefits come to mind for many companies.

Using these three ideas can help you delegate work more effectively and find more time for yourself.

What is the Role of the COO?

Recently, I came across an article (see the reference below) that supports the idea that in general, the role of the COO is misunderstood. The authors of the article contend that the role of the COO depended largely on the CEO and posited 7 different potential roles for a COO (or any operating executive) depending on the CEO and his skills, abilities and personality.

I found this interesting, as a colleague had posited a different idea, that the Role of the COO was dependent on the nature of the business and in particular, on the ultimate responsibility of the COO for the overall operations of the company. The member pointed out that while the COO often had direct reports that were in charge of different aspects of operations, since the COO was ultimately responsible for those operations, that fact would shape the role of the COO.

The basic theory of the article mentioned above is that there are 7 potential roles for the COO:

1. To implement the CEO’s strategy;
2. To lead a particular initiative, such as a turnaround;
3. To mentor a young, inexperienced CEO;
4. To complement the strengths or make up for the weaknesses of the CEO;
5. To provide a partner to the CEO;
6. To test out a possible successor;
7. To stave off the defection of a highly valuable executive, particularly to a rival.

Since the premise of the article is that the role of the COO depends on the CEO, it should not be surprising that that only role 1 and 2 above seem to relate directly to operating a company. The article itself points out that many of the COOs and other operating executives that they interviewed did not always focus on the day to day operations of the company, but often had other significant tasks to pursue.

On the other hand, as my colleague pointed out, the type of business and the operational realities would also seem to weigh heavily on what the COO must undertake in his or her role. The day to day operations of a manufacturer, distributor or service company differ greatly. The size of a company would have a major impact on what a COO is doing on a daily basis. In a smaller company, the COO is more likely to be a, dare I say “hands on” manager than in a larger.

In either case, Bennett and Miles do point out that in their research, the success of the COO depends to an extraordinary degree on how well the CEO and the COO develop a sense of trust, using the metaphor of “having each others back”. The relationship of mutual trust is often difficult to attain for various reasons both internal to the relationship as well as what the authors refer to as “Those seeking to drive wedges” between the two.

Personally, I believe that both the authors of this article and my colleague have uncovered different aspects of the COO’s role in the modern corporation. On the one hand, the relationship of trust between the CEO and the COO is vital to the COO’s success, but we cannot minimize the how the nature of the responsibilities of the COO will also color the role to a great extent. We will look at both aspects of the COO’s role in future postings.

In the meantime, I would be very interested to hear from the COO’s and other Operating Executives in the audience: what is your experience in your role as Chief Operating Officer?

Second in Command, The Misunderstood Role of the Chief Operating Officer, Nathan Bennett and Stephen A. Miles, Harvard Business Review, May 2006.

Not Another Meeting!

I shudder to think of how many meetings I have attended during the last decade. Late in the afternoon, when I review my schedule for the next day I am tempted to ask the question, “Am I working tomorrow or going to meetings?” Many of the meetings I have attended in recent years included people on multiple continents and varying time zones. I have come to believe that the meeting may very well be the bane of modern business.

On the other hand, I must profess guilt at having been the instigator of many of those meetings. Running a business in a collaborative manner demands meetings. If this is to be so, it is imperative that meetings be well run and productive. Here are 4 tips that will help improve your meetings.

Have an objective: An old saying says it all, “If you don’t know where you are going, that’s likely where you will end up!” In order to avoid meetings that wander all over the place and never really come to a conclusion, have a clear objective for your meeting. Be sure that every person coming to the meeting knows the objective, and is prepared in advance to achieve the objective.

Have an agenda: A meeting without an objective will go nowhere. A meeting without an agenda will meander along the way, whether or not there is an objective. An agenda of precise topics that meeting attendees are prepared to take up will help maintain the group’s focus and promote productive conversations. Meeting attendees should be expected to be well prepared in advance. Nothing kills a meeting quicker than a group that is not prepared.

Have a timetable: The meeting should have a set beginning time and ending time, and these should be adhered to. Start the meeting at the appointed time, no matter how many attendees are missing. End the meeting on time as well. Attendees will lose any enthusiasm they may have for the meeting if they know in advance that the meeting will drag on forever. Attendees should have an idea of how long they may speak to any topic so that a “run-on” participant does not hijack the meeting. In addition, don’t be afraid to end a meeting early if all the work has been accomplished.

Have a moderator: It is often difficult to chair a meeting and be an active participant at the same time. Consider having a neutral moderator whose purpose is to keep to the agenda, direct traffic among participants and generally keep order. In small companies, it may be hard to find the extra person who is not actively involved the subject at hand, but for the more important meetings it can be a great help. For mission critical meetings, you may even want to consider hiring a moderator from outside the company. Of course, it then becomes essential to brief the moderator in advance of the session.

Small Business and the Unemployed

For several years I have been presenting seminars at Career Place in Barrington, Illinois, working with numerous unemployed. Many of these people had developed a one-page handout that contained highlights of their qualifications and experience. Often, a list of targeted companies was also on the one-pager.

The problem is that most of the companies targeted on these handouts were Fortune 500 and other large companies. Unfortunately, many of the large companies have not been doing a lot of hiring lately. I counseled these people to look at small businesses, because when you consider companies with $500 million annually in revenue and less, there are several thousand in the greater Chicagoland area. I am sure that this is true in many other metropolitan areas as well.

For the unemployed there are two questions to ask: why seek out small business and how to do so?

Why the unemployed should seek out small business.

Most entrepreneurs that start businesses have great experience…in something other than business. The entrepreneur focuses on doing whatever is necessary to get the business going. In particular they are focused on their customers, how to find them and how to get the customers to buy.

During startup, entrepreneurs are usually less interested in business practices than in their fundamental expertise. And for them, this is the correct attitude to start with. However, if the entrepreneur’s idea gets traction and the business starts to grow, there are a host of business pitfalls that need to be avoided. In the past, I have written articles on the importance of tracking cash flow, in particular incoming cash as a basic and often ignored process. In other cases, entrepreneurs have never done a “break even” analysis that would show them whether or not they are profitable.

Many unemployed have the skills necessary to help these small businesses grow and thrive. On the other hand, often small business owners don’t even know what they need. There have been times when I was discussing different aspects of business with entrepreneurs only to have them discover that I had information and skills they needed; they just didn’t know that they needed them!

In other cases, small businesses are seeking the proper people to help them, but the positions they are trying to fill don’t show up on Monster or in ads. This brings us to the second question.

How to find and reach out to small businesses.

Since many small businesses do not know what help they actually need, or have limited resources to find people, it is up to the unemployed (or employed looking for a change) to find the small business and reach out to them.

There are many resources on the Internet and in libraries that can aid the research. A good example is the Business Affiliations Database from Lexis Nexis, available in many libraries. You are able to search for companies by many different variables. First, to find the kind of company that you would like to work for determine the SIC or NAIC codes (industry classifications) using an online database, easily found in a search for NAIC or SIC. Once you find the classification of the company’s industry, you can use that as part of you search. In addition, you can search by company revenues and geographic area.
Now you have a list of companies to approach, but what to do next? Corporate Affiliations will list, for most companies, the owners and officers.

My suggestion is to write a letter to a person at the company explaining that you are interested in possibly working in their industry and are conducting research. Who should you choose to write to? That will take a bit of creativity, but here is an example: supposing that you are an experienced marketing person, and you notice that the company does not have a marketing director listed. Your best bet is to contact the person that would most likely have a marketing director reporting to them, perhaps the CEO or COO. Then write your letter.

Several days after your letter has been sent, follow up with a phone call requesting a short meeting (15 to 20 minutes) where you could ask questions and conduct your research. If you find a gate-keeper, try to enlist their help; explain the research that you are doing and ask for their help in setting up an appointment. Be sure never to say you are looking for a job.

Once you have an appointment scheduled, be prepared not only to ask good questions, based on industry research that you will do before the appointment, but also be ready to talk about what you do and how it is applied. Often, you will be surprised at the interest the person you are meeting will have in what you do. Even more so, you will frequently be directed to other people to contact, both within the company as well as at other companies.

Small businesses need a variety of experienced business professionals in order to thrive. Use the information in this article to take the initiative and find a niche for yourself in small business.

We Have a Strategy…Now What?

In a recent Blog posting (A Simple Strategy), I outlined a simple but effective process for creating a Strategy Map for an organization. Many organizations use different processes to create a strategy and that is a good thing. However, simply creating a strategy is not enough; the strategy must be successfully executed as well. A new strategy does not permeate an organization by osmosis! There are two key steps to implementing strategy: first, create a prioritized list of strategic projects and second, plan and execute each project. Here are some tips on how to do that.

Create a list of prioritized projects: There are many ways to create a prioritized list. When working with a client, I prefer to use a brainstorming technique to start. First, the organization’s planning group reviews the Core Competencies, along with their related Value Drivers, Must Haves, Must Do’s and Metrics (see A Simple Strategy). The group should be made up of people from different areas and levels of the organization in order to get a comprehensive perspective.

Next, the group lists up as many ideas for strategic projects as possible, with no discussion or judgments made. Once the group has finished with furnishing new ideas, discussions begin. Often, as the discussion takes place, a consensus will form around the projects that seem to be of the highest priority. If no clear consensus emerges, the group may use a weighted vote to get a better idea of priorities.

In the end, the group must have a list of clearly prioritized projects, each project having its own priority level. You cannot have 2 projects with the same priority, as it leads to much confusion and conflict over resources. Once the list is complete, strategic project planning may begin.

Strategic Project Planning: Project Planning should normally be done by the entire project team, if possible. However, creating a Project Charter answering key questions about the project may be done by the project manager and a smaller group. It is possible that this work can be done effectively by the same group that created the prioritized list of strategic projects. The key questions fall into five areas: Organization and Authority, Strategic Alignment, Deliverables, Metrics and Project Impact (For a copy of the Strategic Project Charter Checklist, click here).

Organization and Authority: Who is the project manager and what is the project Manager’s authority? Who does the project manager consult if a decision is not within his/her authority?

Strategic Alignment: Who are the stakeholders? How does the project align with the organizations Core Competencies and Value Drivers?

Deliverables: What is the work to be done? How will it be done?

Metrics: What is success? How will the Value Driver Metrics be applied to measure success?

Project Impact: What resources are required to execute the project? How will the project impact company resources and operations?

My next posting will be a Case Study on Strategy and Execution from one of my clients.

Business Agility

Once a company has the processes in place to drive their strategy to the lowest level of the organization, they must also have a way to acknowledge and react to changes in the business environment that can change strategy. In addition to defining the Business Action Framework, Michael Hugos has done groundbreaking work on Business Agility. The truly agile business is ready to respond quickly to whatever circumstances the economy throws at them. Hugos avers that if a business has the three basic systems of business agility: Awareness, Balance and Agility, that business will be able to focus and respond successfully to whatever the marketplace brings forth.

According to Hugos, there are three basic systems that form “loops” within a business that are the basis for agile operations. As mentioned above, those loops are Awareness, Balance and Agility. The important concept here is that the three loops are interconnected, each one providing feedback to the other loops, without which the system would not work.

The first loop, Awareness, places a strategic focus on the marketplace right now, gathering information about what is happening with customers, clients and the marketplace in general. The information in the Awareness loop may come from outward looking systems, such as market research. However, inputs can also be found in business systems such as ERP and CRM. Data mining or Business Intelligence software can be helpful.

Information gathered by the Awareness loop becomes input for the Balance loop that has two purposes. First, the balance loop reviews all processes to standardize as much as possible. In particular, business agility relies on standard processes that can be automated to as great a degree as possible, allowing energy to be focused on the non-standard.

The second purpose of the Balance loop is to identify inputs from the Awareness loop that are non-standard. Any input that does not fit into an existing process is considered non-standard. The non-standard is what represents opportunity for the agile business.

The third loop, Agility, receives input from the Balance loop and performs analysis to understand emerging opportunities and threats. In particular, the Balance loop plays a key role in the ongoing implementation of strategy. When an opportunity or threat is identified, the Agility loop actively addresses what is different, and creates new processes to put in place to take advantage of change.

In addition, the Balance loop also plays a crucial role in the ongoing, incremental revision of strategy to meet the challenges that emerge. Strategy should not be a “once a year” activity. A vibrant, successful strategy must be transformed constantly if the business is to remain truly agile.

This week’s post is basedon an excerpt from the second edition of my book, Project Management Accounting.