organizational growth

This three-letter word can lead to greater business growth

Originally published on February 12, 2014 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail


If you’re one of those people who gets out of bed each morning eager to find new opportunities for your business, your commitment to innovation is alive and well.

Business is all about attitude, and the drive to make a difference to our customers, families and community. The truth is that building a business means sacrifice, risk and uncertainty. The great entrepreneurs and leaders will tell you that success comes from the heart, attitude and determination you bring to each problem, every day.

I urge all entrepreneurs and change makers to adopt an ‘and’ mindset. Be open to finding new ways to serve your customers and offer more value.

This can be difficult for entrepreneurs just starting out, surviving on thin margins. As a young entrepreneur, I remember rubbing my credit card for good luck before buying supplies, hoping I had enough credit left to buy what I needed.

I encountered a similar mindset in reading Bruce Poon Tip’s new book, Looptail. As the founder and visionary behind Toronto-based G Adventures writes: “When I started the company in 1990 with a couple of credit cards, I was living in a garage apartment and had a vision. I never thought that it would become what it has. I wasn’t given the tools from my upbringing to think big.”

As entrepreneurs, we need to build on this combination of passion and sacrifice to push for more. To make the impact we want, we need to struggle beyond our constraints to create value – something different and engaging that will inspire and capture a whole new group of customers.

Roger Martin, the innovative former dean of the U of T’s Rotman School of Management, crusades against “either-or” decision making. He says too many business leaders approach decisions in terms of choosing between two or more alternate paths. “This or that” thinking represents unnecessary compromise; it’s the easy way out. I believe in ‘this and that.’ After all, ‘and’ means more: more value for the customer and ultimately more opportunities for my business.

Mr. Poon Tip’s success was founded on this same principle of more. In his view, “there was room in the industry for a travel company offering package tours using local services – giving visitors a chance to experience a real flavour of their destinations, rather than to just stroll around a few notable landmarks.”

He had a clear vision and a burning desire to create a new level of value and satisfaction for a largely ignored segment of the travel market; those who didn’t want to be stuck within the confines of posh, antiseptic resorts. But he also recognized that average adventurers did not want to have to plan, chart and tour the more remote, exotic locations of the world on their own. With G Adventures he combined tours and local flavour, creating unique experiences that ultimately built one of Canada’s most unique and global companies.

As entrepreneurs, we need to push our teams as hard as we push ourselves, to find new ways to combine separate ideas into one new vision, a breakthrough innovation. Your success could begin by changing one simple word. But what a difference one word can make. Thinking in terms of ‘and,’ rather than ‘or,’ can be game-changing. The word ‘and’ is the jet fuel of innovative thinking.

Most importantly, this attitude generates maximum value to the customer. By focusing on it, we choose to add value, not compromise it. Challenge your team to explore the power of this simple word, which can lead to success and sustained growth.

And what more could anyone ask?

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Reimagine Your People Practices to Deliver Transformational Results

attract-retain-perform-cogsBeing a strategic people practitioner for more than fifteen years it has become clear that there are three key areas within people practices that will make or break your business.  These areas are like three integrated gears with the spokes of each gear driving the advancement of the others.  The three gears are Attract, Retain and Perform.  These gears are of varying size with an interdependence and sequence to them.

 First in the sequence is Attract.  For organizations to operate they must have an employee brand that speaks to prospective employees, draws in people that align with the company’s values and have the needed talent.  Today to be able to compete for prospective employees companies must satisfy their desire for an experience not just a job.

With the chosen employees now in place the company’s efforts turn to ensuring they stay.  Retain is the next gear in the sequence and is all about delivering on your brand promise made during the hiring stage.  Organizations must get to know their employees as individuals, what they need to succeed and provide them with the tools and environment to be the best they can be.

 The final, and in some ways, most significant gear is Perform.  While business can’t operate without having the right people in place through attract and retain, I’d argue that the largest opportunity for leveraging an organization’s results comes from this area.  Through a culture of innovation, leadership practices, team effectiveness and employee engagement organizations can measurably impact performance.

 In the coming months a more in depth look will be taken at each of these three critical stages in the employee life cycle with the goal of enabling companies to re-imagine their people practices to help organizations realize transformational results.

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Simple innovation can delight customers and save you money

Originally published as a special to The Globe and Mail, May 8, 2013.


I was recently standing on a corner in Washington DC and my Blackberry started to buzz. In came a text that read, “Cab 118 is on the way and is less than one mile away. Text WHERE to see where cab is.” How appropriate. How timely.

I had just delivered a keynote on innovation at the America Means Business conference to a roomful of new and aspiring entrepreneurs. And one of my key messages was “it’s not just the products and services that you sell, but how you deliver them that can be steeped in innovation and bring delight to your customers…and no, great customer-centric ideas don’t have to cost a lot of money!”

A seemingly mundane industry like cab service and Red Top Cab of Arlington, Virginia adopts a simple piece of technology that answers the age old question before it was even asked: “where’s my cab?” Simple, effective and certainly not cost prohibitive.

My point is that too many people think that innovation is limited to breakthrough products or services. It isn’t. In fact, process innovation – finding faster, cheaper and better ways to deliver your products and services to customers – can bring you a significant competitive advantage and substantial savings all while building brand equity, because there’s no better way to delight your customers than faster delivery of a better quality product.

Just look at Disney. They build delight into every process. When a child drops their ice cream on the ground at one of their theme parks, they turn that meltdown moment into one that delivers a happy memory. They replace the dropped treat with an upside down cone in a cup dressed up to look like a smiley face. Bad moment turned good.

Another example of innovative thinking closer to home happened when my 16-year-old son, Tommy, was still a toddler. We were shopping for groceries at Longo’s and he was having a fit in the fruit section trying to get at the grapes. One of the Longo’s staff saw me struggling and decided to cut some grapes up for him and put them into a little cup. Tommy was delighted and I was able to peacefully finish my shopping. Thank goodness Longo’s processes empower its people to go above and beyond. I never forgot it.

And the best news is that there are enormous hidden costs buried in status quo processes. Innovative thinking can be the key to uncovering and removing them. Done right, process innovation can even serve as a new source of financing.

It’s important to understand the difference between process innovation and the good old “slash and burn” method of boosting cash flow. In every organization, processes have a significant impact on costs: purchasing, inventories, reworking, downtime, lead-time, material travel time, delivery time, wasted time, and so on. All these processes add costs, which means they provide a wealth of opportunities for hefty savings. When you come up with new ways of improving throughput or order processing, or reducing wait-times and delivery times, it’s found money.

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that you should stop thoughtful, rigorous cost-cutting. But in tough times, urgent reactive cost-cutting is too often shortsighted and arbitrary, done to appease stakeholders, shareholders and short-term quarterly reports. Unfortunately the long-term consequences aren’t usually factored into the equation. It’s an accounting exercise – cut budgets, trim fat, do less or do it less well. Doing more with less is possible, but it usually comes from a strategic approach to process, not quick-fix cutbacks. Too often, companies cut their way into bigger problems as they deliver less service, reduce customer satisfaction, undermine brand value, lose market share, and sacrifice growth for the appearance of efficiency. These steps can lead in the wrong direction, and hurt the company. Of course, costs must be cut, but the real goal should be to lower costs while building customer loyalty, not disenfranchising them.

A classic example of short-sighted cost-cutting is the automated help lines many companies have adopted. Not only do they frustrate customers who would rather speak to a live person, but many companies plough their savings into outbound marketing call centres that become necessary to replace the infuriated customers they could have kept in the first place. Funny how a number of companies are back to advertising ‘live’ attendants as a competitive advantage.

The innovation challenge

It’s been well documented how American Airlines Fuel Smart program – “the employee-led effort to safely reduce fuel consumption by implementing viable suggestions from employees throughout the airline” – has saved the airline millions of dollars through such initiatives such as the single-engine taxi and use of tow tractors to move planes between terminals and maintenance hangars.

My challenge to you is to review your processes and uncover cost-saving opportunities that are hiding in broad daylight, waiting for a new approach. Realize the savings and then reinvest your newfound cash to create market-engaging breakthroughs in product and service innovations.

It’s a positive, growth-centric focus and is a far cry from myopically trying to cut your way to a better bottom-line. Process innovation can be, without a doubt, one of the easiest, least expensive and most productive ways of investing in your business’s future. Process innovation can also be easy and quick because it includes countless small opportunities seen every day that every company, big or small, can do right away.

Challenge your people to look at how your products and services are made, supported and brought to market. Empower them to share their intimate knowledge of the processes they use every day. After all, no one knows them better – their strengths, their weaknesses, their potential to transform.

Think very simple (for now). It worked for Red Top Cab and Disney and it can work for you, if you’re up for the challenge.

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