Business is a ‘Game of Inches’ and not a one off event. 99% of successes come from many small, practical steps rather than the single ‘Eureka’ idea. The big idea makes a good story in a speech, but it’s hard for delegates to incorporate into their everyday working lives.
Nigel Collin, author of The Game of Inches writes about how we too can achieve business success, one small achievement at a time.
Start from where you are:
An old Zen koan tells the story of a wealthy merchant who decided to build a new, grander house. He wanted a three-storey dwelling so he could look out over his land and marvel at the beautiful landscape for many miles around – and, more importantly, because it was understood that the higher one lived the higher one’s social status.
So he contracted highly skilled craftsmen to build his beautiful new home, but being a busy man he soon left them to it and set off on his business travels. Returning several weeks later to see how the work had progressed, he was horrified to find the builders working on the ground floor. ‘Why have you not begun work on the top floor?’ he cried. There could be no status, and indeed there was much loss of face, in living on the ground floor. The builders explained carefully that it was necessary to start at the bottom before they could begin to move up to the higher levels. But he had no need of the other floors, he protested. He desired only the top floor.
One of the biggest hurdles in the way of business growth is that owners and leaders aim to get to the third floor too soon. They want it on the market now, to hit their yearly budget by the third quarter, to make a return before the product is ready. They want new employees up and running from day one. They want to skip the first part and get straight to the endgame, or when they start they want to start big, further down the track. Starting is part of the game
Too often the temptation is to seek an advantage by jumping further along the timeline and creating a new starting point. To do that you might conduct more detailed research, do more due diligence, invest more in product development, test more, try to raise more funding, contract more consultants, enlist more mentors and then, when all that is done, repeat the process to confirm everything and perhaps sneak the starting point further down the timeline. By pushing the start line further and further down the track you’re hoping that when you do launch you will have instant success. That’s an illusion, because it doesn’t matter where you are on the timeline, you still need to do something, to take action, or nothing will happen. You may have more experience and more resources than others, or you may have no experience and no resources. Either way, you will still need to start.
Starting close to the finish line means risking a huge investment of time, money and resources without the assurance that it will work. Beware of the over-ambitious idea that is too big before you even start.
Had our disillusioned businessman in the Zen koan owned a two-storey home in the first place, then he could have started from there and had his builders begin straight away on the third floor he craved. Since he didn’t, his builders needed to start where they were, on the ground floor.
Wherever you are, just begin. Once you get going, you’ll see what the market really thinks and find out if the gap you think you’ve found is really a gap at all, or is based on a false assumption. You can plan your three-storey edifice for as long as you like. You can find out everything you need to about what foundations must be sunk and what materials you’ll need. You can even check the view through virtual modelling, but at some stage you’ll have to take a shovel and turn the first clod of dirt. It isn’t sexy, it isn’t big, but it’s a start.
And it really is ground-breaking. Strangely, for many of us this term has come to mean something quite different. In business speak it is associated with a disruptive quantum leap, a massive, San Andreas-level shift. Not so. To break the ground you don’t need to bring in the dynamite, you simply need to make a start.
Wherever you are, just begin. Once you get going, you’ll see what the market really thinks and find out if the gap you think you’ve found is really a gap at all, or is based on a false assumption.
Ground-breaking also implies that the ground itself was previously unbroken. In other words, you need to dig where no-one else has dug before, or if they have it was so long ago that the evidence of their activity is no longer significant. It doesn’t mean you have to bring in a massive mechanical digger on the back of a semitrailer. All you need is a shovel to start with, and once you get going and the shovel is no longer adequate, then you can move up progressively towards that digger. But real innovation comes when the first clod of dirt is turned.
Turning that first clod may not seem a huge endeavour, but it moves your third-storey ambition a step forward in a way that poring endlessly over plans can never do. Pondering, planning, analysing and hedging simply lead to procrastination. You risk being overwhelmed if you insist on getting everything ready before you begin. So let’s simplify things and start breaking the ground, turning one clod at a time.
Find a Gap:
Sylvia and her husband Danny run a global business called Bark Busters, a company that has well over 300 franchisees in seven countries.
Bark Busters trains people’s dogs in their own homes. It’s a clever idea but, when you think about it, a no-brainer. Why train a dog in a foreign environment? The moment they get home, the rules and boundaries have changed.
It all started 30 years ago, when Sylvia was managing the RSPCA in Wollongong, Australia. When people brought in their animals for adoption, Sylvia would suggest that before they decided to leave their pet, why not let her come to their home and train the animal? She didn’t think of it as a great business idea; she was just trying to help. She had grown up with dogs, so she instinctively knew how to handle them.
Soon the word spread that Sylvia and Danny had a knack for this and other people started requesting their services. One day Danny came home with a broken arm, unable to work. He said to Sylvia, ‘Good thing you have a job to pay the mortgage’, to which she replied, ‘Well, actually …’ And so Bark Busters was born.
It’s a great story, but more importantly, it illustrates an insanely important and often overlooked rule of business: find a gap. Sylvia and Danny Wilson did just that. As Sylvia explained, ‘People were facing huge fines for having barking dogs. We knew dogs and humans needed some kind of communicator, interpreter’.
Gaps are unique and potentially lucrative business possibilities, and when you become a gap hunter, opportunities present themselves.
Give them what they want:
Successful business leaders and entrepreneurs understand this: no matter how brilliant your product or service is, if people don’t want to pay for it then what you have is a hobby, not a business. In short, business success can be summed up as ‘Give them what they want’.
Sadly, the world is full of businesses with ‘great’ ideas where the phones don’t ring, the orders don’t flow, the cash never comes and the bills mount up, and then the doors close. As Sudhir Warrier from Australian Cruise Group pointed out to me, if people aren’t at your door throwing money at you to get what you have, then you haven’t got a viable business. So give them what they want, not what you think they want!
But it’s not as simple as that. What the consumer wants needs to be understood with some nuance. A famous quote usually attributed to Henry Ford is, ‘If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse’. Henry Ford, of course, is famous for making low-cost automobiles available for the common folk through his implementation of the mass production line. Although there’s no evidence Ford actually said this, the principle behind it is clear: the effect people want and the means to achieve it aren’t always the same.
Recently I was coaching a group of executives when the expression ‘Give them what they want’ came up, which someone countered with the Ford quote. That’s understandable, because on the surface the quote implies that Ford gave people something they didn’t actually want. At the time, cars hadn’t been around very long and were still very much in the early adopter phase. The implication is that Henry Ford saw a need that consumers didn’t know they had. In other words, he gave them what they needed rather than what they wanted. I don’t buy that. What people really wanted was a faster mode of personal transport, and at the time their experience was limited to what they knew – the horse. The car solved their problem by giving them a faster, more convenient mode of personal transport. Henry Ford knew what they really wanted and understood the distinction between the outcome people seek and the means of achieving it.
Giving people what they want isn’t about the product or service itself, but what it can do for them. You don’t buy a holiday; you buy an experience, memories, an escape from the busyness of work, complete relaxation, an adventure, time with your family or time for yourself. Whatever your reasons, you buy a holiday because it gives you what you want.
Giving people what they want isn’t about the product or service itself, but what it can do for them.
You don’t buy a smartphone; you buy the means of connecting to your friends, family or customers; you buy ‘easy’, ‘fast’ or ‘cool’; you buy it because it’s the latest or the best, and that makes you feel good. The phone is merely a thing. What it means to you is what makes you want it.
Find out what your customers actually want and give it to them. That’s exactly what Sylvia and Danny Wilson of Bark Busters did. They figured out very quickly that most people didn’t want to give up their pet. What they really wanted was a well-trained dog that didn’t bark.
The Game of Inches
Why Small Change Wins Big Results
No spin, no fuss, no gurus: get the real secret to business success
Game of Inches dispels the myth that success must come from disruption, and provides an actionable blueprint for real-world business achievement. Entrepreneur Nigel Collin interviewed over 80 successful Australian entrepreneurs and leaders to learn the key factors that make a successful business; in this book, he distils his findings into a simple process of four actions governed by three behaviours that will guide your path to the top. Examples and case studies eschew the limelight in favour of those on the front lines of business doing well...