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You may be able to spell strategy but do you know what it means? Most business leaders believe they have a strategy but ask them to define it – or to quantify its success – and you are often greeted with the same old blah blah about being the best in class, investing in quality, having the lowest costs, or – worst of all – living deep within our markets.

If you’re keen to clarify your strategy, you could do worse than read Cynthia Montgomery’s The Strategist: Be The Leader Your Business Needs (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Strategist-Leader-Your-Business-Needs/dp/0007426674 ). She is the Timken Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and has watched and influenced the debate on corporate strategy that has raged for decades in America. For Montgomery, a true strategic leader is “someone who engages in a conversation about the purpose of that company”. The company’s performance is driven by the quality of that conversation and the way it shapes business decisions.

Montgomery has taught many managers at varying stages of their career and from companies of all sizes. Her students are asked to devise strategies that are critiqued by the class. She remembers one particular business leader from Venezuela who attended many of the sessions and always ask: “What are you doing that’s really distinctive?” Montgomery often asked the same question in a slightly different way: “Help me understand why your business really matters.”

Either way, the answer to that question could improve a company’s strategy – especially if, Montgomery suggests, they are answered not by a CEO working on gut instinct, or coming up with the same old “blah, blah, blah” after a nanosecond’s consideration but after a series of in-depth conversations with senior managers in which the ideas are tested against a variety of situations.

This might all sound too much hassle but it could transform your business. A very experienced non-executive director said whenever he was invited to join the board of a new company, he would visit their head office. What swayed his decision wasn’t the presentations, the profit and loss or the boss’s charisma, it was how the senior executives answered the same question: “What is your strategy?” The more inconsistent the answers, the less likely he was to rate the business. 

In 1995, Columbia University professor Sheena Lyengar, one of the world’s leading experts on the art of choosing, conducted a famous study. She presented consumers with two supermarket tables: one with 24 types of jam and the other with just six. Her experiment showed that 60% of customers stopped by the table with 24 choices but only 3% made a purchase. Only 40% of shoppers stopped when presented with the smaller selection of jam but 30% of them made bought something. In an age when we’re constantly trying to give our customers an increasing array of options, sometimes less is more. As US company Cornerstone Print and Marketing has suggested in its blog (http://www.cornerstoneprintmarketing.com/about/news.html/article/2013/04/01/aim-to-own-a-single-idea-in-your-customer-s-mind), sometimes the most successful companies effectively own a phrase in their customers’ minds. When you think search engine, you almost subliminally think Google. The pertinent question this blog asks is: “What word or idea do you want to own in your customers’ minds?”

 

 

Wide-format print continues to attract entrepreneurs who want to launch their own businesses. Many of these new companies succeed. Many fail – and not always for the obvious reasons (eg cashflow, a tough market). Hilary Briggs, a profitable growth expert who has worked with many SMEs, has identified seven mistakes many entrepreneurs make (http://hilarybriggs.co.uk/resources/7-mistakes-people-kill-business/ ): doing too much themselves, not knowing what they don’t know, growing too fast before their model is proven to be successful, not having anyone to bounce ideas off or get disinterested feedback from, hiring the wrong people, lacking self-awareness and sticking in their comfort zone because they’re afraid to look ignorant, stupid or weak.

Anyone who has founded or run a business in this industry will, if they analyse that list honestly, admit they have committed at least one of those blunders. Briggs suggests it is especially common for founders of businesses to ignore the fact that not every employee is as passionate about the business as they are.

Nearly two years ago, Fespa’s Richard Kensett offered printers five useful tips for marketing themselves online ( http://www.fespa.com/news/blogs/guest-blogger/top-5-tips-to-cracking-content-marketing-for-your-print-business.html ). If anything, his thoughts are even more relevant today. In essence, he said print firms needed to be more creative online, ensure their brand was consistently expressed across all channels and offer personalised, useful content that is easy to share.

Sounds easy enough? So why aren’t more printers doing it? Too many think having a functional website and a Facebook page is enough. Yet how many likes has that Facebook page got? What’s the biggest discussion you’ve ever had on it? And how many of the people who ‘like’ you on Facebook actually interact with your company in any other way?

Content marketing sounds expensive, laborious and time-consuming. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. The ‘right’ content that gets you noticed can be something as straightforward as a photograph, some compelling words or even the right question? But if content marketing is to be done well, it has to be done often.

If you feel you’ve missed the boat, don’t worry; one of the great virtues of content marketing – especially when it comes to using social media – is that it is incredibly easy to catch up. Jeffery Hazlett, the author of ‘The Mirror Test’, says: “You don’t need some high-priced consultant to get started. Just remember the 4E’s: Engage, Educate, Excite, Evangelise.”

 

It’s a simple question but the answer is usually far from straightforward. Ron Ashkenas, a managing partner at Schaffer Consulting, estimates there are 83,000 books on Amazon about change management. That represents, in his view, 83,000 pieces of evidence that companies are failing to manage change – even though this issue has been discussed since the 1970s.

In his blog on Harvard Business Review (http://blogs.hbr.org/ashkenas/2013/04/change-management-needs-to-cha.html) Ashkenas suggests that companies fail because they often outsource management of change to ‘experts’ rather than encouraging managers to take the responsibility.

His advice to any company wondering why it is struggling to manage change is to ask three simple questions:

1. Do you have a common framework, language and set of tools for managing change? Obviously, if you don’t, you’re more than likely to be one of the 60-70% of firms that feel their change management effort has failed.

2. Is change management embedded into your project plans or run separately or in parallel? Again, embedded is better but it’s astonishing how many companies haven’t learned this.

3. Are managers or ‘experts’ accountable for change management? If the answer is experts, you’re in trouble. As Ashkenas concludes: “Making change management happen needs to be a core competence of managers, not something they can pass off to others.”

There's no easy way to put this so let's get straight to the point: are you Peter Sellers? By that I mean, when you present to your staff, customers, investors, do you give a passable impression of the politician in his famous Party Political Speech? Listen to it here (http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=GxBtGuu9BVE&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DGxBtGuu9BVE) and hear a fluent, easy to follow speech hitch says nothing at all. Sellers' politician isn't missing the point - he has no point to get to. Before you next present to your staff or customers, watch this speech and learn. 

Ron Johnson is not stupid. He made Target hip and launched Apple's fabulously successful retail operation but he is having a tough time as CEO of American retailer JC Penney. One of his mistakes was to do something very logical. Instead of offering shoppers constantly changing markdowns on a high priced product, he thought it made more sense to just start with a low price. The trouble is shoppers didn't agree. As James Suriowecki noted in the ‘New Yorker’( http://www.newyorker.com/talk/financial/2013/03/25/130325ta_talk_surowiecki) the "game of cat and mouse with regular, ever-changing discounts is illogical, but it's one that lots of consumers like to play."

Surely there's a lesson here. If retailers, who have been manipulating prices for decades, can get it so wrong, what hope is there for the rest of us? One of the secrets of a successful pricing strategy is to persuade each customer they are getting the best deal. Sounds obvious but by the time the number crunchers have analysed each proposition to death, this powerful, simple truth is often forgotten. Remember that all finance departments in whatever sector or country they are based have one thing in common: they never lose a sale - at least that's what they'll tell you.

 

George Osborne isn't the only British boss looking for growth. The effect of recession on the UK high street, the development of wide-format and the decline of commercial printing have prompted an intriguing debate (http://whattheythink.com/articles/62098-wide-format-graphics-printing-numbers-speak-loud-clear-those-first-mover-advantage/) sparked by a report by industry analyst Marco Boer who sees industrial print as the great growth opportunity. You'll have your own opinion but wide-format printers should read his forecast before defining their strategies for the future.