Monday, February 12, 2024

Scaling a business depends on controllable factors

 One of my favorite musicians is (was) Warren Zevon, who had a great sense of humor and was also a good musician.  You may be familiar with his song "Werewolves of London" but perhaps one of my favorite songs of his is "Lawyers, Guns and Money".  In the song, he describes what it will take to get out of a particular jam, and notes that neither lawyers, guns or money will get him out of his predicament.

While the song is humorous, it made me think about the reverse question.  Why are some songwriters or musicians so successful, while others, equally talented, aren't successful.  And, if we take the analogy further, can we ask:  what are the factors that make some companies so successful, while others, in the same industry, with the same information, aren't successful?

It's not lawyers (although they may help), it certainly isn't guns, at least not yet, and while money can appear to be an advantage, just remind yourself that Yahoo! was the big search engine when Google was conceived, and Yahoo! could have purchased Google for a reasonable figure in the early days.  Money is helpful but not decisive.

What are the factors that dictate the success or failure of a business, and which of them can we control?  Luck and timing play a part in the success or failure of any business, but what's more important is management focus, alignment, communication and setting priorities.  Easier said than done.

What we can control vs what we cannot control

In any venture, there are factors that the leadership can control, such as when to spend money and what to spend it on.  There are also factors that the company could control, but through inaction, distraction or simple lack of acknowledgement they fail to control.  There are also externalities that cannot be controlled, some observable (competitive actions) and some potentially random (timing and luck).

We ought to ask ourselves as leaders in any company:  what can we control?  Do we have line of sight, awareness and accountability on everything we can control?  Next, what can't we control that we need to be aware of?  What externalities could impact us?  What shifts or trends could reshape our ability to compete?  And finally, what factors are important but perhaps unknowable?

We shut down because...

This takes me back to a funded startup in the early 1990s.  I was working as the global VP of Marketing for a software startup doing data mining on large data sets.  We had the right ideas and were just beginning to show value on customer experience and preventing churn, when the attacks on 9/11 happened.  While our product/market fit wasn't perfect, we were learning and getting better, but at that point we needed another round to get the product exactly right and ready to launch.

We couldn't anticipate what would happen during the attacks, or the way that VC funding dried up after the attacks.  So, about eight months later, the company was no more.  

Looking back, I can say with some certainty that with another round, we probably would have created a compelling product, but with equal certainty that we had more to do to create the software the market wanted.  The unexpected and uncontrollable event doomed us.

It's easy to blame the failure of the company on the lack of VC funds, and many companies shut down and blame externalities, or issues that were out of their control.  These factors do cause issues, for startups and larger firms, but my work over the last decade has taught me that while we often blame these unforeseen and uncontrollable issues for failure, the reality lies much closer to home.

Controlling the controllable

After working in innovation and strategy for over 20 years, a few things are clear.  First, most companies don't really understand what factors they can control, and most leadership teams need help prioritizing and controlling the factors within their control.  A list of some of the things that need focus and control include:

  • What is the company's core value proposition?  Why does what you do matter and why are you truly different than competitors?
  • What is each person's role in the leadership team and next level down?  Where does one person's job or role begin and another one's end?  Are there areas of uncertainty or discord between roles and jobs?  Can you build a RACI model for your business that everyone agrees on?
  • What are the fewest, most important things (priorities) that the leadership team must focus on to achieve their goals?  What shiny objects or nice to haves are regularly paraded about, and how does the leadership team dispose of things that aren't top priority?
  • Is your leadership truly aligned to the same outcomes and goals?  Does their compensation and evaluation align to the company's goals?  Are there disagreements or gaps in the leadership team about strategy, execution or measurement?
  • Is there clear accountability, and are people held accountable to plans and execution?
  • Does the leadership team communicate well within the team, and equally well and equally consistently to the rest of the organization?
If you've read the bulleted list, you'll be thinking just about now that these are basics.  A good leadership team should be doing all of these well.  Yet I can tell you that in my experience working with leadership teams (from VC backed startups to rapidly scaling firms with PE investment to Fortune 500 companies) that these issues recur over and over again, and are the main reason that companies fail to achieve their goals.  It's not lawyers, guns or money, or luck or timing that creates success.  It's focusing relentlessly on the basics.

There is a saying that a well-aligned executive leadership team, with a good strategy, can do just about anything, and I believe that is true, if they are truly of one mind, aligned to a great strategy, with clarity about roles and responsibilities and willing to hold themselves and their teams accountable.  When a leadership team focuses on these basics and does them very well, they are controlling for the things they can control, optimizing and anticipating issues and dealing with them quickly and directly.

The problem is the people

Which leads me to another content favorite - Hard Core History with Dan Carlin.  If you don't listen to Hardcore History, you should. It's a great podcast.  I'm listening now to his account of the war in the Pacific in World War II, and he makes a great point.  Both the Japanese armed forces and the US armed forces were filled with great leaders, good soldiers and weapons.  He points out the problem wasn't with the weapons but with the people.  He makes the case that the war could have ended much more quickly, or differently, "if it was fought by Vulcans".  His point is that emotion and ego often created conflict.  A good example is MacArthur, who let his ego cloud his ability to work with the US Navy.  Carlin's premise, and it's one we all should pay attention to, is that if Vulcans, who decide purely on logic, were in charge, things would be done differently.  Instead, humans are in charge, and we decide based on emotion, knowledge, logic and a host of other factors.

My brief segue about Hard Core History aside, the same concepts are true about leadership teams.  What gets in the way of success are different agendas, misalignment, different priorities, poor communications, distrust, lack of clarity, lack of accountability, poor execution, lack of measurement.  When I talk to leaders in businesses of all sizes, these are the issues that really create difficulty and drag the business away from what it could achieve.  These factors exist in small, underfunded startups and in large, public Fortune 500 companies, because, ultimately, we are people with selfish interests trying to work together to create a company that creates value and rarely do people see eye to eye on everything.

These conditions exist in good times and in bad times, by the way.  When a company is profitable and the markets are good, it's easy to overlook or ignore issues or challenges in these factors.  Then, when hard times hit and it's important to button up and become more effective and efficient, poor habits or lack of focus is hard to change, since it has been ignored previously.

Working it out

While leaders in every organization have a tremendous amount of work on their plates, it makes sense to check in on these factors at least quarterly.  Just as people exercise to keep their bodies fit, companies should review their interactions, alignment, execution and accountability to ensure that the organization works at peak performance.  There are simply too many factors, that are too critical to success, to allow these to atrophy or to gloss over non-compliance.  

And, as these factors become clearer and more closely evaluated, two things will happen.  The organization will work more effectively, freeing up time for executives to focus more on the strategy and less on the day to day, because they are no longer bridging gaps, and, as the engine of the business becomes more efficient, growth and scaling is actually easier to accomplish.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:00 AM


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