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Want to grow faster, and smarter? Adopt the New Rules of Fearless Growth

friendship-2366955_1920Growth has always been fundamental to business success, but it’s never been more critical than it is now. Rapid changes in technology, shifting customer expectations, disruptive business models and quickly evolving regulations force organizations to innovate quickly and invest in new lines of business that will fuel future growth. The problem is, the same forces that make growth imperative also can make it incredibly daunting.

I see business leaders wrestling with some tough strategic dilemmas: should we disrupt our own business before someone else does, or focus on protecting it? Do we develop new capabilities internally or partner externally? Do we craft a careful plan or simply plunge right in? If you aren’t careful, these uncertainties and doubts can slow you down, while the competition speeds by.

To be able to respond quickly and intelligently to the fast pace of change, all levels and functions in your businesses need to be creative, responsive and agile. You need to follow the new rules that fearlessly growing companies live by. Here’s a quick summary:

Rule #1: Embrace uncertainty. People are wired to fear uncertainty, but it’s important to capitalize on uncertainties in your market, rather than letting them slow you down. Companies that grow fearlessly know that highly predictable markets often create situations in which all competitors look alike, and margins are thin–thus, market uncertainties can create new opportunities for them to differentiate themselves. These companies are willing to take prudent risks and know how to manage risk. In short, they operate confidently in uncertainty.

Uncertainty creates opportunities to pull ahead of the competition. Having the right risk mentality and moving quickly gives you an advantage over competitors that are slower to respond. In fact, the faster and more surprising the market change, the greater the advantage for companies that can move quickly. Take a cue from the film industry and try placing multiple small bets. Repeat past successes, and keep budgets realistic and proportionate to projects. Proceed even when there are risks, but be proactive and disciplined in managing the risks.

Rule #2: Get in sync with your customers. Your customers are a powerful yet often underutilized source of ideas for new products and services, improved current offerings, and new ways to do business. In fact, they’re often willing to contribute by giving product improvement ideas, technical support for other customers, videos, reviews, referrals, content related to your products, and other marketing value. All of this helps you stay in sync with their changing needs, so you’ll be prepared for whatever the future brings.

Even top executives can stay in sync with customers, by observing and interacting with them. For example, Home Depot executives work in the stores, helping customers and providing advice just as a typical store associate would. Other companies that I work with have set up joint development environments with customers, invited them onto customer advisory panels, or collaborated with, observed and learned from customers in other ways.

Enabling customers to customize the products and services they buy is another great way to learn  about their evolving needs. This gives you the information you need to innovate new products and services, which stimulate growth. And, don’t forget to observe and cater to your “outlier” customers—the ones who use your products and services in unusual ways—to gain insights. They can provide you with a window into emerging market trends and ideas for new products and services.

Rule #3: Partner, borrow and share. In the past, businesses needed to own or take responsibility for every aspect of their value chain, from research to development, to operations, to sales and marketing. Not anymore. Today, businesses that grow fearlessly crowdsource, outsource, and make use of freelancers, bloggers, microbusinesses, individual innovators, and myriad partners to achieve far more than they could on their own.

You don’t need physical assets to grow huge in terms of reach and value. We see examples of this everywhere we look. Alibaba is the most valuable company in Asia, but it has no inventory. Airbnb has a greater market capitalization than Marriot, but owns no hotels or real estate. Uber is the world’s largest car service, but owns no cars.

By outsourcing non-core parts of your business, collaborating with outside partners, and bringing in new ideas from outside your organization, you can grow in ways you would never be able to achieve on your own. And in the process, you can strengthen your own internal people and capabilities.

Rule #4: Connect and strengthen your ecosystem. When you create the right ecosystem for your company, it will take on a life of its own and grow itself.  Look at Airbnb: before they came along, staying in someone’s home was risky business because guests did not know who to trust. But Airbnb solves this problem by creating a platform for guests and hosts to score each other. And many guests enjoy making friends with their hosts, and having access to advice about local haunts, great places to eat, and how to escape the tourist trail.

Once an ecosystem gets going, it becomes self-sustaining and enables fearless growth. Figure out who’s already in your company’s ecosystem, and whom you would ideally like to have there. Then determine what value you would like each member to both give and receive. Consider creating a technology platform to enable richer interactions between ecosystem members, and facilitate and nurture their real-life relationships with each other as well. Building the strength, size, and participation in your ecosystem can fuel growth, enhance customer loyalty, and insulate your company from market upsets.

Rule#5: Open the floodgates of employee creativity. Employees want to be engaged in their work, and want to contribute to something greater than themselves. Too often, however, employers squander their talent by over-measuring, micromanaging, and failing to inspire. They may even punish employees who get too far ahead of company management, instead of rewarding them for their initiative. It’s important to facilitate employees’ natural desire to collaborate with others, and to grow their own skills. By giving employees the freedom, knowledge, and network they need, you will unlock vast power.

There are many steps you can take to get the best from your employees. First, don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know.’ Revealing your own ignorance welcomes people at all levels to share their opinions and perspectives.

Continually pose new questions and challenge assumptions by introducing competition or games to stimulate new ways of thinking and free people to take risks. Allow new ways to work by encouraging collaboration and forming project-based groups, rather than top-down structures. Finally, communicate your purpose and values clearly and frequently, so employees know what you expect, even when no one is looking.

Rule #6: Learn fast and fearlessly. Fast learning, coupled with an “experimentation mindset” is the most valuable competitive advantage a company can build. For example, UPS knows that regulations may someday require lower emissions and fuel efficiency, so it has a “rolling Laboratory” of 11 different types of alternative-fuel and advanced technology vehicles in use today. UPS is ahead of regulations in learning how to optimize each vehicle for the various driving conditions; from dense urban driving to remote rural driving.

Keenly observing the business environment, taking action before you feel fully ready, and incorporating what you’ve learned immediately into your strategy are all tickets to play in today’s fast-changing global economy. Make sure you are constantly experimenting, learning from successes and failures, and applying your knowledge. Anticipate the changes in your business environment and set specific learning goals based on those changes.

Rule #7: Build trust into all you do. When employees, business partners, customers, and others in your work community trust each other, they can move faster, and more efficiently. When you trust that your colleagues will do their part, you can set more aggressive goals, place bigger bets, and have a bigger imagination about what may be possible. When there is trust between coworkers, everyone feels comfortable engaging in the debate and disagreement required to make sound decisions. There is more innovation. Trusting your business partners means you can move faster together, navigating uncertain terrain with greater confidence.

To begin building trust, work to neutralize fear in your organization. Help employees feel safe when voicing their ideas and opinions, or when trying new things. Foster and expect creative conflict by encouraging employees to disagree and challenge each other. When you give people challenging but realistic goals, act in a transparent way, show vulnerability, grant people discretion about how they do their work, and show appreciation for work done well, you’ll be amazed how much your team can accomplish.

Pick a few areas and get started now

If you’re starting to get the picture that the old ways of doing business no longer work, you’re exactly right. It’s time to throw out the old rule book and start fresh with approaches that make sense for the new economy.

However, the seven rules above cover a lot of ground, and no company can effectively focus on all seven areas at once. So, choose one or two of these areas where you believe you can have the greatest positive impact over the next few months.  In these one or two areas, set explicit goals for what will be accomplished, when, and by whom.

While you don’t need to plan your entire transformation in detail, you do need to get started immediately. Set very specific and measurable goals for the next six weeks (or an even shorter timeframe!). Go ahead and schedule a call or meeting, six weeks out, at which you will review the results of your short term actions. At that meeting, take stock of what you accomplished, and what you’ve learned. Then, re-focus your efforts, and decide on goals for your next “six-week sprint.”

You might be surprised—making one or two high-impact changes often results in a dramatic cultural shift that can open the floodgates. People like what they see. They jump on the bandwagon, and the movement builds momentum and takes on a life of its own.

What you can expect

Implementing these new rules can feel risky at first. However, once you hit your stride, adhering to these rules reduces your risk by improving your ability to weather market upsets. You’ll have greater insight into customer needs, and will find it easier to spot and capitalize on market trends.

You’ll have more flexible capacity and capability to pursue revenue growth opportunities. You will have more people—partners, employees, customers, and others—to rely on. You’ll be faster at making decisions, and more adaptable in executing your strategies.

When we commit to fearless growth we embrace the inherent risks of business—and of life itself—and immerse ourselves in a new way of working, leading and interacting. That way is far more exhilarating and effective than the so-called “safe” alternative we might have otherwise chosen. Whether we win or lose, fearlessness is its own reward.

Learning from Elon Musk: Manage uncertainty by avoiding these three mistakes

Falcon 9 DSCOVR Launch

Falcon 9 DSCOVR Launch

Not long ago, I stood on a pier near Cape Canaveral, Florida and watched a SpaceX rocket launch.

People were wearing SpaceX t-shirts and talking excitedly. SpaceX has brought the thrill back into space exploration.

Founder Elon Musk figured that by developing a way to reuse rockets, just like airplanes, he could reduce the cost of travel to space by a factor of a hundred.

He’s well on his way to achieving that. The company created the first commercial spacecraft in history to shuttle cargo to and from the International Space Station, and has already cut the cost of launching into space to less than a tenth of its prior level.

His ultimate goal, however, is to colonize Mars, making human life inter-planetary.

How’s that for a bold vision statement?

Ten minutes after we watched the rocket launch that day, SpaceX attempted a precision landing of the spent first stage onto an unanchored ocean platform.

Though the SpaceX team judged the odds of success of landing on the platform as “50% at best,” they viewed the attempt as part of a learning journey—one step in a series of tests that would ultimately result in a fully reusable first stage.

No matter what business or industry you are in, risks exist. Competitors enter the market, customer tastes change, new technologies appear, and market prices can take dramatic and damaging swings.

The future is never certain; but in some industries—like space exploration—it is profoundly uncertain.

Good strategy nearly always involves a bet, so as leaders, we need to become comfortable making decisions when we have less information than we’d like, and when the future is highly unpredictable.

Musk has avoided three mistakes that I’ve observed other companies make in managing risk and uncertainty:

Mistake number 1: Taking no action. 

Executives often fail to make a strategic move because they are uncomfortable with the risks or can’t agree on whether it’s worth the potential reward. When the rest of the smartphone industry moved to touchscreen technology, BlackBerry (then called RIM) stuck with keyboards for far too long. BlackBerry’s market share plummeted as a result of this and other missteps, and the company found itself struggling to survive.

Just like SpaceX has designed a series of tests to learn how to reuse rockets, to bring the cost of space travel down, figure out what action you can take today to begin your learning journey.

In uncertain environments, place several small bets, then adjust your strategy based on the outcomes of those bets. For example, test several different versions of a new product or new advertising message. Watch how customers respond, then eliminate the unsuccessful versions while  building upon the successful versions.

Mistake number 2: Engaging in “me-tooism.”

This happens when a company takes the “safe” route by waiting until a competitor has succeeded with a new strategic choice, then follows the competitor’s moves. Almost every industry has a few companies that subscribe to this fast-follower approach. They avoid difficult strategic decisions, but find themselves with an undifferentiated offering and mediocre results. For example, auction websites auction.com, eBid.net, ePier, and others like them have not attained nearly the level of market penetration nor success as eBay—the company that pioneered online auctions.

Break out of the horse race by figuring out what you can do differently (and smarter) than the competition.

Mistake number 3: Assuming everything will go right.

Companies make a bold move, but fail to adequately identify and manage the inherent risks. They want to invest and grow, so their financial projections assume that many things will go right. I see this when companies enter new markets but fail to manage the risks, such as customer and channel acceptance. Hewlett-Packard’s failed introduction of the TouchPad tablet in 2011—a product it pulled only forty-nine days after launching it—provides an apt example.

Though one of the most innovative and courageous leaders of our time, Musk retains a grounded sense of what’s doable.

In David S. Kidder’s book The Startup PlaybookMusk was quoted as saying, “Wishful thinking is one of the most profound human failings, and the major reason why people adhere so strongly to wrong ideas. This doesn’t mean that you can’t be optimistic. You simply have to be realistic as well,”

To be realistic, you must assess your odds of success, then identify and address the risks head-on.

Avoid these three costly mistakes—paralysis, me-tooism, and wishful thinking—and you can manage successfully even in the most uncertain of business environments.