What’s your coffee?


Starting out, there’s a debate between two principals. One says, “We need to offer a broad range of services that puts our arms around the widest possible group of customers.”

The tempting thought: that if you tell potential customers everything you can do for them, they’ll pick just the right thing from your long menu of options. That generalists are always useful.

The other says,  “We need to go narrow to tempt a smaller but more interested group of customers.”

The contrary thought: Customers may need specialists less often, but when they’re looking for a lock-smith, they don’t want a metal-worker. That specialisms open doors.

Should we go broad or narrow? Or, what’s more attractive: an all rounder or a specialist?

What’s your coffee?

It’s like coffee. If a customer wants great coffee, they won’t stop at the corner shop where it’s a commodity served for convenience, hotness and a coffee-like flavour. They’ll look for high quality in a great atmosphere, where they’re served with passion and joy by an artisan. They’ll seek it out, walk further and pay more.

Customers prefer specialists. They use generalists when they value price or convenience, or when the firm is large enough to have specialists in many fields. Start-ups who don’t want to be treated like a commodity must focus on a narrow offer. “Great coffee,” not “hot-beverages” or “food and drink.”

Customers benefit from expertise. The start-up builds mastery, takes control and can charge a premium. Even more important, a focused offer is easy to talk about – and customers will tell their friends.

“I need to find a consultant.”

“What kind?”

Option One: “Someone who understands social media.”

“Good luck with choosing.”

Option Two: “Customer service through social media.”

“Oh, you should call …”

Easy to share, easy to buy

A focused proposition is stronger, clearer, more understandable, buyable and recommendable than a menu. The higher the value you offer, the more specific the offer needs to be – and the more shareable the story becomes.

Skippy Strategy: What’s your great coffee? What specific value can you offer that is memorable, shareable and will get customers to your door?

Neatly filed under Making Promises on February 28, 2015

The power of three things


Where are you heading with your project and how are you doing? The answer to this simple question is probably complex and I imagine you keep all the pieces of the jigsaw in your head.

And that’s OK if it’s a personal project with few moving parts. But as soon as you bring someone else into the loop they need to see the picture on the box and understand how you’re doing with fitting everything together.

How do you do that?

I’ve found that most people aren’t brilliant at laying out the puzzle. And even when something looks amazing, the facade can crumble under closer scrutiny.

The power of three things

When I’m asked into loops where I have no pre-knowledge, I try to find the corners and edges of the picture using “the power of three things.” It’s like Toyoda’s famous Five Why’s exercise except instead of drilling into the why of a thing, I’m looking for an landscape.

Every project needs different questions but all of them try to go three layers deep. Here’s the kind of thing I’m talking about:

  • When thinking about this project, what three things concern you the most?
  • What three things do you think of as its strengths?
  • What three things tell you you’re on the right track?
  • What three things would tell you for sure?
  • Being honest about where you are now, what three things would you like to have completed in the next hundred days, six months, one year? (That’s a sneaky three part question).
  • In three sentences, why did you get involved in the project?
  • In three sentences, what is your role?
  • In three sentences, what are the drivers behind this project?
  • What three things would you like to get out of the meeting?

I’ve used this exercise face-to-face, by email, as a break-out, as a web-form to be completed before a meeting. I’ve used it on myself. It can be tough, it’s always brings insight.

My experience: solo is better than group exercise; written answers are deeper than spoken; time to think means better answers than time under pressure; asking the same questions of multiple team members is better than only asking one; 20% of people don’t give written answers at all.

Why three things? It works. It gets beyond the obvious and opens up the veins of free thinking. Mostly thought, it’s about setting an expectation of effort.

Time in the room

It’s always better if everyone’s looking at the same picture. The power of three things is that it gets all of the jigsaw pieces out on the table so you can maximise time in the room for the real work of any project: building clarity and cohesion, testing assumptions, and working together on next steps.

Skippy Strategy: Anytime you bring someone into your project, or join someone else’s, work out where leverage is greatest and knowledge is weakest. Put together a set of three-things questions and then do what it takes to give or get the answers.

Neatly filed under Innovating on February 27, 2015

What’s the point of networking events?


The networking nightmare: that guy who thrusts his business card into your hand and without taking breath is off and running into a rehearsed pitch.

So why get out there?

There are times when you need to get out of your office that there’s nothing better than a local event. Other than that, I can think of three ways events add enough value to offset the cost of time and attention.

Three kinds of value

1. Help me do my job better, or … to go faster by thinking together

Good groups have lots of smart people who can help me do my job better. I’m not looking to outsource, just buff up my thinking. I like events full of expertise, support and feedback from fellow travellers as I explore how best to do my work.

2. Help me do more than I can do on my own, or … to go further by acting together

It’s aways a struggle to find bolt-on help at the exact time you need it. I’m always looking for people to know today so I can get help if I need it tomorrow. I think it’s worth investing time now if it gives me a short-cut to expertise and capacity in the future. I look for events that provide a way to meet like minded experts in complimentary fields so I can scale up when I need to.

3. Help me find customers, or … to do more and build business

This one’s not for me but it can’t be ignored. A lot of people treat events as business development.

In general, we buy from people we know, like and trust. Events can help with getting known, but being liked and trusted takes more than a five minute conversation and a business card bombing run. If sales is your plan, realise that building trust takes time so be prepared to first add value to the group and commit for the long term.

The payoff

Walk away from talking shops, and forget selling. Networking is a way of making connections with and between interesting people who may be useful – not for today but maybe tomorrow.

Skippy Strategy: Set some rules that help the decision about which events to go for, and which to strike off the hot list. Mine are pretty simple:

  • Service providers don’t outnumber potential service users.
  • A specific common interest that gets these people in a room together.
  • I’m not interested in a talking shop where platitudes are chewed and everyone rides their favourite hobby-horse.
  • The people in the room are half decent humans that I don’t mind sharing coffee with.
  • The coffee is good.

Neatly filed under Managing on February 26, 2015

Build a phantom


Say you invent a new x-ray machine. (No, really.) How do you test it? If you point it at a human – and these things end in human trials – it damages them. That’s what x-rays do. In an ideal world, every time you tweaked a setting, you’d point it at the same human, lying in the same position, with the same amount of air in their lungs – every variable controlled out of existence.

With something as complex as x-rays, there’d be a lot to tweak. And that’s a lot of tests and a lot of damaging x-rays. The very act of testing changes the subject, and they don’t like sitting still in the first place.

Handily, there’s an engineering answer to this deeply human problem.

An industry has evolved to build phantoms – facsimiles of human tissue that behave like the real thing but that don’t wriggle around, breath, or get damaged in a way that affects the test or bothers the … um … host.

In the world of x-rays, phantoms are substantive thinking tools.

Build a phantom

I’m not particularly risk averse but when I only have one shot and the stakes are high, I build phantoms.

As simple as role playing a key presentation – where the phantom is a candid friend – or as complex as running a manufacturing order through a new line whilst still having the time and capacity to do it the traditional way. Phantoms test thinking and stretch systems before anything gets critical. Before it counts.

In the chasm between bet-the-farm decisions that are put under the microscope, and the day-to-day don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff, there’s a place to fire x-rays at phantoms. Where a simple test will light up the sensors and show you the cracks – before you put any weight on it, and before you fall on your face.

Skippy Strategy: What are you doing or changing in the next few months that’s high stakes? Anything critical to revenue or customers or morale or regulators? How could you test it out of the spotlight? Who would help?

Neatly filed under Innovating on February 25, 2015

Stones in the road


It’s easy to sink into ways of doing things that aren’t so bad but don’t exactly work. Not falling on our faces, but stumbling. Getting by, but tripping on the same thing every time.

People, places and things

The tripping stones I’m talking about are people, places and things:

  • People who are late for every meeting, who roll their eyes and trash every initiative but never suggest an idea of their own.
  • Places like the supplier who’s never hit a shipment date and can’t tell you when they will.
  • Things like the system that takes fifteen clicks to bring up a schedule, a report generator that needs a programmer to add a new field, or a pricing mechanism only one person understands.

There’s a thousand little pebbles on every path but the tripping stones steal time, attention, momentum and enjoyment. With our eyes on the mountains ahead, we trip, catch ourselves, and forget about it until the next time.

Deal with it every day until you deal with it properly

Every time we trip or take avoidance measures, we’re dealing with the problem, but we doing it badly. Every time we let it slide, sidestep, make allowances; we’re only negotiating around the problem. It adds up, and it keeps adding up until we deal with it properly by digging it up and casting if off the path.

Some of these stones are bigger than others, prioritise anything that affects other people or that’s on the critical path – like the eye-roller and the pricing mechanism – but anything that trips you again and again is ripe for a one-time fix.

Skippy Strategy: That thing that consistently wastes time, attention and  progress. That person whose work you spend too much time talking about, that system that’s more trouble than it’s worth, that supplier who treats you like an inconvenience. Deal with it.

Neatly filed under Managing on February 24, 2015