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5 Ways to Find Out What You're Doing Wrong

Are you giving away profit because of habits, attitudes, policies or procedures that irritate and alienate your customers or clients? Here's how to find out.
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Questionable fashion choices, braying laughter, supporting the Mets-- we all have our blind spots, right? There are things we just can't see for ourselves, even if the world is telling us otherwise. 

Businesses are exactly the same. Every business has its own blind spots: The effective or inefficient activities which, unlike personal blind spots, cost money. In fact, I've yet to work with a single organization that wasn't giving away profit because of habits, attitudes, policies or procedures that irritated and alienated its employers, customers or clients. 

Of course the conundrum is, how to you "see" a blind spot? As a leader, how can you know what you don't know?

The trick is in reframing your perspective. Catching a glimpse of your business from a new perspective can reveal wrinkles and blemishes.

Here are the five most effective ways to see your business in ways you've never seen it before:

1. Play musical chairs. Pair up your senior leadership team (including yourself) and have them each swap jobs for two days. If you're up for it, have everyone swap at the same time. Then watch and learn. (If you're a little queasy at the thought of what might go wrong, only swap one pair of executives at a time.) There is no single activity that will yield more insight into your organizational blind spots than pulling everyone out of their comfort zone and having them run a part of the business from a different perspective.

2. Talk to your supply chain. No one sees your blind spots better than the organizations in your supply chain. They interact with you all day, every day. So why not get their perspective? Don't waste your time with questionnaires. After all, you're dealing with blind spots, so you won't know what questions to ask. instead, identify your largest supplier and your smallest customer (they're who you probably struggle most to please), and invite them in for a day. Give them a tour, set up meetings with key personnel, and ask them what you can do better. Then listen. Hard. 

3. Visit same-size companies in other industries. Most organizational blind spots are size-related, not industry-specific. In other words, your blind spots will have more in common with other businesses of a similar size and age than they will with other businesses in the same industry.

Find a willing, non-competing business that's approximately the same size and set time aside to get to know each other in more depth. Act as peer coaches. Reflect back what you see in each other's businesses that's good, bad and indifferent. Watch for dramatically different attitudes and practices from yours, and cherry pick those that will benefit your business.

4. Become a case study. Business schools are full of bright, enthusiastic individuals-- both the faculty and the students-- who can bring a wholly different perspective to your business. Why not volunteer to be a live case study for a semester at your local university or college? If you baulk at the idea of untested students giving you advice on your business, talk to the executive education department. They work with seasoned executives who attend shorter summer courses.

5. Take a sabbatical. There's no better pair of fresh eyes on the business than your own. The catch, of course, is achieving the fresh part. The easiest way to refresh your view is to take a sabbatical. This doesn't have to mean months away from the business (a non-starter for most business leaders). Your annual vacation can, if you plan it correctly, reframe your perspective substantially.

Most executives I know lose the potential benefit of their vacation by remaining closely in touch with the business. They use the time to catch up with business-related reading or research, returning in much the same frame of mind as they left.

Try this instead: Vacation as a complete break. Do things you wouldn't normally do, and let your brain rest entirely from work. (I know, I know, easier said than done, but no one said reframing is easy.) 

Don't think of your no-work vacation as ducking your responsibilities. Instead, see it for what it is: An opportunity to reframe, a vital element in your leadership toolkit. 

Last updated: May 9, 2012

LES MCKEOWN | Columnist

Les McKeown is the President & CEO of Predictable Success, a leading adviser on accelerated business growth. He has started more than 40 companies and was the founding partner of an incubation consulting company.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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