The Cyclical Process – Plan, Build, Improve and Manage [REPEAT]
During a brainstorming session, sounds so old school doesn’t it, but if it works – which it does then why change it! Anyway, a friend and now business partner commented that everything was cyclical; in the context of the conversation of ‘process’ he was right. But whilst reflecting on our very productive session, it got me thinking. Being cyclical can be a big problem, as well as a positive. If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got.
So, how do you know when it is time for a change?
Do you wait until something has gone wrong; as most do, or do you look to continually improve at all feasible opportunity?
But there are limitations to both options. If you are constantly working hard with the same process competitors might get ahead; one day you turn around and your product or service is out of date, resulting in the loss of business.
Whereas, if you constantly reinvent, then time is your enemy and stress is certainly not your friend. You spend time tweaking, changing and realigning. Great if you are a corporate organisation with significant resource, but just not possible if you are a start-up or Small to Medium Enterprise (SME).
So, what to do? Well, we had this situation in a start -up we created some 15 years ago. Over the first 5 years of trading we built a great software data capture, analysis and reporting tool. We regularly updated it and increased its efficiency and effectiveness; eventually we created a tool that our competitors, even big corporations, wanted to mimic.
Then our core business started to grow rapidly, a new account after another and our time was taken up with developing specific software modifications for specific accounts, so the core system was modified out of recognition and began to creak at the seams.
Then, before we knew it, the industry had moved on with the introduction of sexy front end graphics. Our system was proficient at what it did, but not as pretty as those that had become available. Customers had become used to getting what they wanted and made it very clear that they required a piece of this new reporting graphical experience. So what did we do?
We didn’t have the developer resource, or the expertise, to reprogram the platform from base-up; cash was tight, as the growth of the business was using all available cash to fund the working capital. So what to do? Well, we developed two plans to run parallel.
Firstly, we looked for a software partner to work with us, or a simple to integrate graphics pack to add to our system. We were lucky enough to find a graphical software module which could be integrated with our current system and at a very reasonable cost. This was more of a sticking plaster than a long-term solution, but it did give us what we needed to appease customers and learn about what we truly needed to deliver in the medium-term.
Secondly, we assessed our need, our customer’s needs, compared it to outsourced software systems and took time to compare/analyse findings. This was possible as our first plan was very much in play and our customer base was very happy with the system and what they were getting from it. We took time to consider the options open to us and understand what the future requirement of the customer base might be.
This took some 8 to 10 months to fully comprehend; during this time, the development team had capacity which was soon filled with customers wanting more bespoke add-ons, one of which was the ability to measure Return of Investment from a massive set of data. This was a mammoth task; the programming team were more than equal to it. We developed a great piece of software that would take sales data from various sources such as retailers and sales teams, conduct analysis and pump out a tangible ROI number, which was a true measure of productivity: Quite an achievement.
After all this research and planning we decided to ‘do nothing’, and yes it is a choice…Whilst all this planning and creating was taking place we watched the customer focus change.
This happened really quickly. Over the period of months a new integrated Customer Relationship Management (CRM) piece of software entered the marketplace at a rate of knots: Salesforce, a nice piece of sales software developed with a very specific focus of turning contacts into sales, oh and backed by an organisation which appeared to have infinitely deep pockets for marketing and sales development.
Once again, the market had moved-on but this time on a different trajectory; the credit crunch had happened and now everything was about turning customer inquiries into sales, not just customer specific data as per the previous requirement. One of our main customers required the ability to manage the new process on a European basis, something we weren’t able to do at the time. So they ended up going with Salesforce [but keeping our sales teams]. You must remember, that the software solution we provided was not a core product of ours, but a value added ‘Competitive Advantage’ associated with the deployment of our field based teams. This was a bespoke system designed to deliver results tailored to our customers need and not designed to take Salesforce on head to head.
So the learning, we reacted to customer need at every step (tick), we investigated our options, analysed the market and competition (tick), we developed new features – steps towards measuring true ROI and using this data to influence sales, in-line with current trend/thinking (tick) but we were behind the curve when it came to a change in trajectory to an integrated CRM/Sales tool (cross), which Salesforce filled.
OK, the world moved on and we were behind the curve once again. Software development moves so quickly that it is a challenge to keep-up, let alone lead the sector.
So, after intense review and discussion the decision was made to not develop the solution further, but to opt for a third party solution to service the company. The decision to outsource has allowed the company to refocus on other areas where it can create competitive advantage once again; field marketing, recruitment and logistics. This strategic decision was not an easy one to make and it involved a lot of soul searching. But the importance of stepping outside the loop when you don’t feel you can compete any longer is an important one. Breaking the cyclical process when necessary is as important as delivering the Plan, Build, Improve and Manage process effectively.
The management board felt that the only way the organisation could develop at the necessary speed to lead the industry was by setting up a company with that specific purpose.
So that is exactly what we are doing; Freeform Europe Limited [trade as Freeform Software] was created in January 2016 with the aim of continuing the development of this software proposition, but totally separate from the current business. Initial planning has been extremely fruitful with ideas and concepts being explored that we would certainly not have considered if it had remained an add-on service. So, having time to review exactly what is needed and then develop it is important to staying ahead.
Cyclical process is important – Plan, Build, Improve and Manage (or similar terms) is key to effective delivery, or the process and evolution of systems etc. but sometimes you need to make a conscious decision to stop and think, Is this still relevant? Would our time be used better elsewhere, perhaps in creating a new competitive advantage elsewhere? Could we deliver what we need in a better way? Whatever you think, one thing is for certain, keep checking that what you are doing is relevant to the organisations purpose and that it is valued. It is never easy to let go of things you have relied upon for many years, but sometimes it just makes sense to do just that.
*All comments are based on my personal experiences and given freely. That said, you need to make your own choices. I can’t and won’t accept liability for you employing any recommendations. Business is all about risk. It’s your choice.
Nigel stone has, over the last fifteen years, started, led, consulted and nurtured both UK and European businesses to achieve quite outstanding results. please feel free to drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org