Have you ever wondered why some companies consistently do well during rough times as others flounder?
I have to admit there is no single answer. However I have looked over quite a few winners recently to see what they did have in common. It was driven home to me after I watched the American footall’s NCAA championship game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Texas Longhorns. Nick Saban, the coach of Alabama, was asked by one of the sports journalists after the game how he has become the first coach in history to win a national championship with two different teams. (Nick Saban won his first national championship coaching another team, Louisiana State, a few years ago). His answer wasn’t sexy. In fact, it was very cut and dry. “Set up your processes and keep to the game plan.”
What is the wisdom in that? It makes success seem too simple, doesn’t it?
Actually, no. Sticking to the game plan is often the hardest thing to do. For instance, are you a multi-tasker? Do you easily get diverted to phone calls and, my Achilles heal, e-mails? Do you have trouble focusing on a single project for a chunk of time? Well, this is something you have to do in order to win. Or even in order to have a better life for yourself.
Early last year I read the book The 4-Hour Workweek by author Tim Ferris. Since then I have been quite interested in following up with this author whenever I had the opportunity to hear him speak or see him interviewed. The one thing that he constantly drums into you is that in order to be efficient you have to be able to cut back, cut down or cut out just about everything. In order to do this you have to set up processes to streamline your business.
There is a very key point that brings together both Nick Saban and Tim Ferris. You see, systems are only set up for their outcomes. If you get the wrong outcomes all the time then there is something wrong with your system.
Nick Saban’s system produced him two national championships and Tim Ferris’s system produced for him a four-hour work week. Whether you know it or not you are living a process on a daily basis. The outcome of your life right now is the sum of what you do every day. Are you successful? Healthy? It is because of how you manage your system. The key to managing is being able to look at your system to make the changes that rights the vessel and sails it to where you want to go.
One of the best stories I know of about righting the vessel was about the late Katharine Graham, former owner of the Washington Post. Katharine Graham inherited the Washington Post from her husband after he died a tragic death. She had zero business experience. None. But at the same time she didn’t want to sell the newspaper as it was a family heirloom. She also didn’t want to leave the management to strangers. What did she do? She asked questions. Katharine started her newspaper management career by holding meetings with each department and asking everyone from top to bottom two basic questions: 1) What is wrong with how we are doing things now? And what do you think we should do to fix these problems? Most often the recommended tweaks were not drastic changes – only modifications of the system. During Graham’s more than two decade stint as president of the Washington Post the newspaper went from being a mid-level regional paper being highly profitable and becoming, with the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, one of the three most respected newspapers in the country.
Systems are simply the implementations of plans. When you hear that someone says “that system was designed to fail” what they really mean to say is “the processes that system uses will give you an unintended outcome.” So as a manager if things are going wrong one of the hardest things to do is to stop, have an objective look, and tweak your processes. If you plan to be an entrepreneur or if your company is launching a new product you might want to spend most of your thinking time on properly designing the process.
Of course, processes aren’t 100% of success because the world around you changes. If the system was enough by itself then Nick Saban’s teams would win the championship every year. There would be no other competition. But when things go wrong and you have spent the time to build a proper system with well defined processes you will at least have a much easier time knowing what to fix. And when it goes right you will be unstoppable!