Sometimes, to achieve dramatic improvement in a company, I'll ask the team to do something difficult: consider ways to make the company fail.
That's right, fail. We gather in one room, take a look at a problem, then spend an agreed amount of time to work quietly and alone in listing ways to make that problem worse.
This is actually a confidence-building exercise, in a sense. After we come up with a long list of no-no's, then do the real work: we consider what we must do to ensure all those failures never happen at the company.
The funny part is, when you ask a company to list all the ways they can fail at something, they find that they are actually doing some of that failure-producing stuff now. And not "sometimes find."
Let's say that you are considering improving the organization aspects of your business. How can we make the organization fail?
Well, we can hold information in silos, meet infrequently and without good meeting behaviors, and develop a culture of mistrust. We can ask the CEO to be the chief strategist, chief HR officer and chief marketer. We can have some critical positions unfilled and have two or more people sharing other critical roles. We can be gossipy and political.
Wow. That's a pretty terrible list. Let's call these items your risk factors. We agree that any company with so many risk factors will be hampered by a tortured decision process culminating in bad conclusions and little follow through. It might get to be so bad that the company loses its best people, and, yes, fails.
So the hard part is, deciding which of these poor behaviors actually come alive and slow down your shop.
That is an exercise for the strong of heart, because you have to look at yourself--or look at yourselves as a group--and be able to ask participants to change.
This part can be made easier through a simple facilitation technique: make a white board listing of each issue that can lead to difficulties.
Then ask the team to independently rank the degree to which this occurs in your company, using "low-medium-high" as the grades.
There is usually some risk of personal insult here. There is almost always some tough nut who says "Whaddya mean, we need strategy help? My strategy is perfect." Of course, with particular emphasis on the word "my."
To get by the personal risk, you either need a skilled facilitator, or the group has to previously agree to put these transitory concerns aside. Actually, you need both.
The really hard part
Now you've got to consider all the risk factors that occur in your business. To do that, rank the factors again. I would dimply ask the group for opinions. Will addressing this risk factor be "hard?" Or "easy?"
The really hard part comes when you take the next step, which is to disregard all the easy risk factors.
Not permanently, mind you. But if the factors are easy, you can come back to them.
But this far along in a failure prevention exercise, do yourself a small favor. Tackle issues that are hard. You know what makes it even harder still?
Take a long look at the list of hard risk factors, and choose one to work on. Just one.
The one that has the most risk; the most at stake; the most danger.
Because that hardest risk factor is probably the one with the most consequences for the company's fortunes.
Business experience of a lifetime
I can't tell you what to do to address your hardest risk, or who to put on the team, or who to consult with.
We can't discuss those decisions, or the timetable, measurement system. I can't tell you the monetary rewards you'll reap.
But I can tell you this: if you are ready to discuss the most difficult risk factors in your company and you pull together as a team to really figure it out, well, then, you are embarking on the business experience of a lifetime. And you are building muscles to do great things together.