I recall when, back in 1989, I was a few years into the growth of my first software company. Having bootstrapped the business, and eked out survival through the first year or two, things were beginning to take shape. Each year I grew revenue levels over the previous year – but, not by a lot. I used to approach planning from a position of “Where am I now, and how can I improve on this?” The result was steady, but not spectacular, growth.
As I was entering my fifth year I was struck by the realization that with this growth curve, it was going to take me a long time to create a company of any real mass or substance. I was in my twenties, and obviously still had a lot of time, but I was impatient. I didn’t know a lot about much of anything – though I didn’t appreciate that at the time. However, this blissful ignorance, enabled me to think about things in perhaps non-conventional ways. I read Drucker, Townsend, Peters, McCormack, Kotler, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Porter, De Bono, Iacocca, and other topical and non-topical tomes of business development, strategy, corporate lore, thinking, leadership etc. I was struck sometimes by how insightful some of these authors were, and in the haze of boundless self-belief only found in youth, I favored those whose views echoed mine. However, I must have learned something along the way, as I still remember the day my growth challenge epiphany occurred.
When I changed the question from “Where am I now, and how can I improve on this?” – which invariably translated into 20% increase in revenue – to “How can I achieve 200% growth this year?”, a fundamental change happened. In hindsight, and with the benefit of many years experience, I now know, as you do, that this ‘goal-oriented’ or ‘vision-oriented’ is well understood. As a paradigm for growth strategies it is a method by which you can stimulate creativity, momentarily suspend reality, and remove constraints or guardrails, to release your unfettered potential, untrammeled by the stifling boundaries of ‘What’s reasonable?’ or ‘What do other companies do?’, or ‘What’s acceptable?’
I was reminded of this recently when I was speaking to Tom, a successful sales person, who when planning for 2010, asked my opinion on his sales plan. He had closed about $2,000,000 in 2009, and was among the top performers in his company. His plan was well structured, clear, and very focused – and his personal target for 2010 was $2.2m. When I inquired as to the basis for that number, Tom cited 10% growth on his previous year’s achievement. We got to talking about potentially taking a different approach. We discussed what he would do differently if he had to achieve $4m.
I had little value to add to the conversation, as I did not know Tom’s business, but he took a “I think that’s crazy, but let’s brainstorm it a while,” approach. The following hour was peppered with comments like, “What if we .. not that wouldn’t work”, “But I’d need help from .. there’s no reason why that shouldn’t happen.”, and “I wonder if … no I knew you were crazy”, and finished with “Now that I’ve thought about it that way, I think maybe $2.8m is achievable.” As I said, I didn’t add any value to the planning, but Tom – who to his credit was open enough to indulge my questioning – stretched his own thinking and created more of a vision for success, than a plan for incremental growth.
I’ve tried to put some structure around this approach for myself, and for others with whom I work. To make it easy to remember, I use an acronym – V.I.T.A.L. and it goes something like this.
- V – Vision – this need to be very ambitious, but not ludicrous, and is a quantifiable statement of the ultimate goal for the time-frame in question.
- I – Implications – the things that would need to fall into place, the activities required, and the resources needed to support the vision.
- T – Test Reality – while still keeping the bar quite high, exclude elements that are entirely impossible, but keep those that are merely a real stretch.
- A – Aggregate – now, as if, the goals remaining from the reality check are the baseline objective, figure out how to achieve each of those, aggregate of the identified initiatives and associated resource required, and create a two dimensional high-low map of reward versus effort, so that you can prioritize where to put your effort.
- L – Laser Focus – Now put your new ideas into action. Stop things you were planning to do ‘because that’s what we always did’ but don’t bring high return; Keep on doing the things that you know work very well; and Start doing those new things you’ve identified that can add significant incremental value.
None of this is easy, and while it’s important to plan and question, and question your plan, once you’ve done it you need to commit to it, and follow through. As Jack Nicklaus said when asked about his incredible shot-making ability:
“I start by assessing where I am, looking at the lie of the ball, figuring out the terrain, gauging how far I am from the hole, and thinking about the wind and other elements of the weather. Then I decide where I want the ball to land so that it ends up near the hole or at the right place on the fairway. Next I visualize the flight-path of the ball and see in my mind the kind of swing I’m going to have to make to get the ball to travel on that flight-path. Then I commit to that swing.”
So, go on, pick a club, create your own vision, and make that VITAL swing.