IN THE WORLD of business, it is important to be seen to be moving with the times. That's because a big part of running a successful enterprise showing shareholders, clients, employees, partners and potential investors that the organisation is up with the best, forward looking and always in search of improvement.
One aspect of this is that executives - a bit like teenagers - must be adept at learning the latest jargon and be ready to use it whenever they have the chance. Managers have to also be fast on their feet in adopting the management practices and business thinking most in vogue. So, they may go from focusing on total quality management (TQM) to corporate re-engineering designed to create a flatter internal structure or bring them closer to their customers.
Each such change is influenced by general economic circumstances but also by a desire to keep in step with business fads. Sometimes, that makes perfect sense, if it leads to higher sales, clearer communication, greater efficiency, or better use of new technology. Too often, though, it amounts to little more than a short-lived initiative that looks and sounds good, but peters out leaving little or no lasting impact on the organisation.
A key element in developing business acumen is being able to identify - without a time-consuming process - what will work for the company and what is best avoided. That is not the same as resisting change, deferring decisions or stalling investment. It means applying critical faculties at every juncture and not assuming that whatever is touted as the next big thing in management thinking will bring tangible benefits to your company.
Whatever problems you face, or whichever options you are considering, the objective must always be to come up with the solution that works best. That might seem obvious, but too many executives make the mistake of trying to apply solutions that don't fit the given context. They see their 100-person firm as a mini-Microsoft or address the Monday sales meeting with lines they stole from the latest Hollywood depiction of corporate life. The priority should be to run their own business effectively, not to ape someone else, and to adopt methods and solutions that make sense to staff and which they will be willing and able to implement.
Although some managers might bridle at the suggestion, that does not mean looking for the best solution, but for the best solution given the circumstances. Every team works with known limits on manpower, time and financial resources, so there is no point coming up with proposed solutions or excuses that disregard these restrictions.
Sales managers commonly claim they need more staff for better market coverage, then admit the team hasn't contacted target customers in the past three months. Finance directors demand a new system to produce faster reports, while knowing that the company's cash position can't support the expenditure. And vice-presidents demand a 10 per cent increase in annual turnover, ignoring the fact that their industry is in its worst trough for the past 30 years.
The key to tackling problems is to "keep it real" and to have a systematic process to identify the best solution as things stand.
The three recommended steps are:
1. Understand the problem
This step may require a high degree of analytical thinking to understand constraints, achievable targets, alternative tactics and desired results. Several common mistakes made at this stage include defining the problem too broadly, jumping to conclusions, failing to distinguish separate problems and focusing on symptoms instead of causes.
To avoid those errors, it helps to define the problem in no more than a sentence or two. This might say: "The recent staff survey showed employee morale is at the lowest level for three years. The company's financial position does not allow for salary increases." The aim is not to describe a solution or outline a course of action, but to focus attention on the issue at hand.
When dealing with more complex problems, you may also want a short statement setting down the desired goals, direct and less tangible. This might say something like: "Aim to achieve 85 per cent satisfaction in the next employee survey, while improving communication and teamwork between business units."
The first part is tangible, the second is less so, but can still be gauged through comments and observable actions. Although it is tempting to jump straight in with ideas for possible solutions, the better approach is to be methodical. Using a tool known as "force field analysis" helps to pinpoint all the factors at play in a given situation, in addition to possible barriers and obstacles. It involves no more than creating two lists, one of forces that will assist in reaching the goal, the other of forces probably working against you. You might have items such as concerned management, good benefits and pleasant work environment as against things such as long hours, budget cuts and recent organisational changes.
2. Identify all possible solutions
During this stage, there is no need to be analytical or strictly logical. The emphasis is on creativity and coming up with diverse ideas relevant to solving the problem. This can be done individually or, preferably, with members of the team to spark new ideas through interaction. It works best if all the ideas are recorded as they come up and only examined in more detail later on, so as not to inhibit the flow. It helps to pose specific and hypothetical questions. What have customers been saying? What if we do nothing? What if the budget cap was relaxed? What if I owned the company? There may be no one right answer or route ahead, but with a wider range of possibilities, you will be better placed to decide.
3. Select the preferred solution
To narrow the options, you must return to a more logical mindset. For this phase, a useful tool is the "decision matrix". It allows you to evaluate the different ideas by placing them on a matrix according to a clear set of criteria. One axis represents the scale of effort required to implement the idea (from a few individuals to one department to the whole organisation). The other represents the overall outcome expected, from minor to major improvement.
The grid can be split into four main sectors showing ideas that are easy to do and should yield a big improvement, or those that will be hard to implement and give comparatively little gain.