As one year closes down and a new one begins, successful companies and entrepreneurs take stock of where they are, what is going well, and what they want to see differently. If you are on fiscal year accounting then you are closing your books and assessing your profitability from this past year, too.
With all this information, you can get bogged down looking at what is. How are your margins? What is your competition doing? And is your business growing at the speed you desire? These are all good questions; however, if you are not careful they will get you into looking for incremental change and put you in a mental state of struggle. You know how it feels, you become like a hungry animal looking for ways to compete in the trenches, push your employees to work harder or do better, and searching for the morsels of business–while demand may be lacking or more competitors have entered your industry. At these times, especially when the economy is sluggish in many sectors, you may doubt your ability to be really successful as you hoped when you started this venture.
My suggestion is you learn from your assessment of this past year, then quickly move into a much more creative view of the future. Renée Mauborgne, and her co-author W. Chan Kim, call it the Blue Ocean Strategy and I like their idea. You look beyond what you are doing today for new possibilities–new unmet customers, new product ideas that utilize your existing infrastructure, new services– to create your next growth spurt. Basically, you look for uncontested markets, rather than fighting for your piece of a sliced pie.
This happened during my early days in the cellular industry. Initially, we marketed mobile or car phones to people currently using pagers–primarily doctors, lawyers and real estate agents. We were taking a piece of an existing pie. Then we began to rethink the use of cellphones and looked for new markets. One of our first new target markets focused on the safety of a women and mothers. We sold them communication on the road, especially at night, if their car broke down. (Notice we did not market the phones, but the benefit of having them.) The primary people we marketed this to were not the women themselves, but their husbands who might worry less. These men were already our customers and easy to reach to make the add-on sale. A little chauvinistic, but a real live example of a Blue Ocean approach to your business.
Another Blue Ocean market we went after in the cellular industry was selling to office buildings in Europe. The old buildings were extremely costly to refit with copper wire for major business telecom systems, yet business wanted inhouse telephone systems. Cellular technology could offer each desk a phone, without requiring running wire through the walls. This was definitely outside the pager market “pie” and changed telecommunications in the whole of Europe, long before cell phones become personal phones. In fact, this entry into Europe could be attributed to the original idea that people could just take their phone home with them, too, and the phones become personal phones.
Changing your perspective is key. If you are looking at a fish bowl, you need to step back and put the fish into the whole ocean. The options are endless. And when you are operating from creativity, rather than competition, you’ll find both you and your team have more fun.
So how do you do it? Your best approach is to gather your top management, or all your employees if you have a small company, and take time away from the office to begin your brainstorming. If you have not already done so, you will need to emphasize a desire to have a culture of innovation. Your team will need to know you value some risk taking, rather than security. You could start the meeting by giving out an unexpected award for the most creative idea of last year. Make sure the award really speaks to your commitment to new ideas.
Create a few ground rules for the meeting. I always insist on ALL ideas being valid and no contrary discussions allowed as ideas are put forth. Once you have exhausted ideas in the room, take a break. Ideally, go do something really fun — paddle board, zip line, lunch on the beach — let everyone enjoy each other and let their subconscious minds work on the problem. After your event, reconvene (later that day or the next day) and ask if anyone has any new ideas to add to your list before moving forward. This could be your most creative brainstorming session, yet — so don’t cut it short or leave too little time for it.
Once you have your ideas then break into teams and have each team work on whatever three ideas they think are the best. Again, no time is spent talking about why an idea does not merit attention — all attention is on what makes some ideas great. Each team should put meat on their three ideas answering these questions: What potential does this idea have? How can this be most easily implemented? What would be required? What are some of the positive effects it might have on other parts of the operation? What are the first things needed in order to start?
Each team will present their three ideas to the whole, giving you an amazing array of options and game plans to pursue. I always note if multiple teams pick the same idea and run with it, that is likely to be a winner. Not because it is the highest revenue maker or profit generator of the list; but because it has wide organizational buy in. People work hardest on things they believe in, so these are ideas you can take to the bank.
Your potential markets are endless and the fun you have can go up exponentially by adopting this Blue Ocean approach. Good luck with it, and wishing you an abundant and prosperous new year!