Asking the ultimate questions

Hail the New Year! A time when our minds are full of exciting possibilities for the next 12 months. But will the possibilities see the light of day or will our businesses look pretty much the same by year’s end as they do now?

If you really want 2011 to be different to 2010 then you have to give the “difference” some substance. Often business owners ask themselves the question: ” How will the business be different on December 31, 2011?” and respond with a simple measure of revenue or profit, such as, “We will have increased revenue by 20%”.

But the financial numbers are just the outcome of the changes that you make in the year, so you need to dig a bit deeper and ask what you are actually going to do differently.

I think a better question to ask is: “What are we going to change in our business this year so that it looks and feels different on December 31, 2011?”

This question allows you to rein in the endless possibilities and helps to paint the picture of the business at the end of the year with some definition.

In answering the question I suggest that businesses actually respond in five to 10 short sentences, each starting with: ” Our business will be different at 31 December 31, 2011 because we will have…”

Recent examples from businesses that have done this exercise include:

“Our business will be different at December 31, 2011 because we will have hired 10 more employees.”

“Our business will be different at December 31, 2011 because we will have shipped the new product.”

“Our business will be different at 31 December 2011 because we will have outsourced our warehouse.”

I would get these short sentences printed up and posted around the office (a great place – though it sounds funny – is on the inside of toilet cubicle doors!). Keeping it to a few simple numbered sentences makes it very memorable and understandable. And keeps you accountable – now that you have publicised the changes you intend to make.

The question: “What are we going to change in our business this year so that it looks and feels different on December 31, 2011?” has a very important buddy, and it is: “Which of the changes that we are going to make to the business this year is the one that absolutely has to happen?”

This final question is great to debate (you will be surprised at the different opinions among your management team) and in answering it you elevate one of the initiatives to number one status.

This is the change that, come what may, and in the face of competing priorities, you will absolutely commit too. Deciding this gives you great clarity for a fast start to the year.

Julia Bickerstaff’s expertise is in helping businesses grow profitably. She runs two businesses:Butterfly Coaching, a small advisory firm with a unique approach to assisting SMEs with profitable growth; and The Business Bakery, which helps kitchen table tycoons build their best businesses. Julia is the author of “How to Bake a Business”  and was previously a partner at Deloitte. She is a chartered accountant and has a degree in economics from The London School of Economics (London University).

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