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A Little Radical Thinking

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In my company, this time of year we do our annual planning. While January is the beginning of the calendar year, it often seems natural to sit down at the end of summer to get a good fix on the year ahead. In this year's planning session, I'm going to challenge myself and my staff to do a little radical thinking -- but just a little.

Here's what I mean by radical thinking:

In most systems, including businesses, national economies, even human beings, there are two kinds of growth:

  • Incremental growth -- progressive, steady growth that occurs in small increments, building on the existing foundation
  • Radical growth -- dramatic, extraordinary growth that occurs in spurts, significantly transforming the existing system

If you want to see what radical growth looks like in a national economy, look back to the heady times of the late 1990's. New technologies were transforming businesses and lifestyles; new companies grew seemingly overnight, and the stock market was in overdrive.

Some big corporations -- even great corporations -- rely on radical approaches for long-term growth. I spent some time at 3M doing research for one of my books. Top management there challenges each department to come up with transformational products every few years. The way they describe it: invent products that "change the nature of competition." That's the kind of thinking that originates break-through products, whether it's masking tape, PostIt notes or medical products. But 3M's motto is "innovation." That's not a sustainable strategy for most businesses.

In fact, I'm not a big believer in radical growth for small businesses. It's too disruptive and too expensive. While big corporations might be able to afford making big mistakes, small companies can't. And for many entrepreneurs, an ideal goal is to have a steady, comfortable income, maximizing their flexibility and minimizing their stress. Let me say clearly: I support those goals!

That's why small businesses should primarily plan for, and rely on, incremental growth.

But if you want to grow your company to a whole new level, if your exit plan is to have your company be sold, acquired, or go public -- than you need to spend some time thinking about your business in a whole new way.

That's where we are with my company. So this year, in one part of our planning session, I'm going to challenge myself and my employees to imagine what it would take to reach a much higher level.

We're going to have a brainstorm session that I'm calling "The Big Leap." Here's how it's going to work:

After we do the initial part of our planning session -- which consists of us reviewing the goals we set last year and assessing our progress, I'm setting aside two hours to generate ideas to answer the question:

"What would it take to reach x dollars in sales (a substantial increase) in three years?"

The basic rules of this brainstorming session are these:

  • we can NOT change our fundamental mission statement, our core competencies: that's the business we know;
  • we can change just about any thing else;
  • we don't think about how realistic it is -- yet.

Next, we ask ourselves:

"What does that level of sales mean in terms of generating income? In particular, what would we have to create in the way of

  • new products?
  • new distribution channels?
  • new pricing models?

We think wild thoughts. During this brainstorming session, we don't concentrate on how we'd execute our ideas, just on what it would take to reach a whole new level. We get ourselves, to use a badly-overused term, "to think outside the box."

The goal is not to radically remake our business -- which, after all is growing nicely now -- but to keep our thinking fresh, to find ways to improve and enhance, not just innovate. We go far out, and then reel ourselves back into reality. We're going to engage in a little radical thinking -- and a whole lot of discipline.

So though Donald Trump isn't one of my idols, at our planning meeting, we're going to spend some time being guided by one of Trump's famous quotes: "If you're going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big."

Copyright Rhonda Abrams, 2003

Rhonda Abrams is the President of The Planning Shop and author of The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies. Register to receive Rhonda's free business tips newsletter at www.planningshop.com




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