Every successful company that I've worked with as a business coach has mastered the art of setting organizational priorities on a regular basis. They realize that while they can do anything they want, they can't do everything they want. And if they don't choose a few things to align the company behind, they will see little progress and marginal success.
Each year and each quarter, these high-performance companies collect input and insights from inside and outside the business to figure out where there are needs and opportunities for improvements. Through discussion and constructive debate, the leadership teams choose a set of key areas of focus and a set of priorities for the organization.
Once determined, they cascade these down to the different departments and teams, allowing each level to define a set of more focused efforts to support these key objectives. By doing so, everyone in the business knows what to pay attention to and how they can contribute.
The challenge with this process is that there are many potential areas of focus a business can choose from. If it doesn't choose the right ones in the right order, key dependencies and opportunities can be missed. Good companies consider the following questions in the following order to figure out what they should put at the top of their lists.
1. How is your cash-flow engine running?
The first thing to consider is your core cash engine. Ask yourself, what are the key five to eight activities that give the organization momentum and put money in the bank? Look at each one of these steps and assess how it's working and what can be done to improve it.
You also want to make sure each step is reasonably balanced. If your marketing team is generating more leads than your sales team can process, you might need to beef up sales or have marketing do more work qualifying leads so salespeople are not wasting time with low-potential leads. Focus on system-level optimization, not local performance. Spending too much attention only on local performance is tantamount to worrying about your sprained ankle when you have a bullet wound to the chest.
2. Can you improve your operational excellence?
Assuming your core cash-flow engine is working well, you can start looking to key areas where you can drive operational efficiencies. At this level, you're looking for processes that either consume a disproportionate amount of resources or have frequent quality and consistency issues.
The key focus of this stage is continuous improvement and process standardization. Checklists and SOPs (standard operating procedures) will become critical tools to find efficiencies and reduce errors and omissions. Pay particular focus on cross-department handoffs and coordination of activities.
As an example, if your installation team is having problems installing your equipment because the onsite specifications are different from what was specified on the drawings, take a step back. Go and talk to the design team and site managers in order to figure out a better way of documenting the initial conditions and capturing more details. It's far better to get the information right from the beginning than to retrofit changes when installing.
One key tool at this stage is to find a handful of KPIs (key performance indicators) that will tell you how efficiently you're running. I like ones that focus on profit such as profit per employee, profit per customer, profit per delivery, etc. These get you thinking about ways to drive bottom-line results, not just reduce costs.
3. Where can you advance your long-term strategy?
Finally, once your cash engine is running well and your operations are smooth and consistently producing quality results, you can focus on strategic initiatives. These are the things you need to implement in your business that will bring the company in line with the key position you want to own in the market and the capabilities that will drive value with your core customer.
If you've created a good strategic plan, you'll have a set of priorities around key capabilities and differentiating activities that will give you a unique and valuable position in the market. Use these to assess your current situation and map out several quarters of projects and milestones. Then use these to create annual and quarterly priorities to guide your focus.
While you will likely start with things at the top of this list and move down as you work through the process to more strategic work, don't forget to keep going back and asking these questions each time you plan. Things change, and if you stay focused on strategic work and fail to see a problem with your core cash-flow engine, you could be in for a rude surprise.