Put an End to Backwards Thinking

I was fresh from 4 years as the owner of Café Aurora when I established my consulting practice in late 1999. Café Aurora was a small business in Alexandria, VA serving restaurant quality food for carryout. Over the years we had attracted hundreds of repeat customers because of our extraordinary customer service as well as our fresh food.

So I offered consulting on “How to Sustain Great Customer Service.”

It wasn’t too long before I realized that I had been thinking backwards. Why? Because customer service was all about one single input to a business. Instead, my clients needed to begin by articulating their desired outcome or success.

In my world, ‘desired outcome’ is not a sales or profit goal. Desired outcome—success–is what the business is known for and is the accumulated value of the company over time.

Once the desired outcome is articulated, we can ask “what would have to be true to reach this outcome?’ and then focus on the inputs that are needed to achieve the outcome.

I come across the error of focusing on inputs rather than the outcome all the time. Perhaps you’ll recognize these:

Backward thinking example #1: Process that is slanted in favor of the creator’s bias and area of expertise. A sales benchmarking firm whose business is all about collecting sales data advises their clients to base strategy formulation on market research. They’re saying “stick your finger in the air and once you know which way the wind is blowing, formulate your strategy based on that.”

Forward thinking: Apply neutral processes that are universally valid. Formulate strategy based on the company’s driving force, their positioning goal and their resources. Then use marketing data appropriately.

Backward thinking example #2: Professional service firms say “We have expertise in X (law, accounting, IT, and many other IP-based fields) so they start by saying “we’ll be a law/accounting/IT firm.” That leads these companies to focus intently on inputs. They build a menu of services which they sell one at a time.

Forward thinking: Articulate a vision of the firm in ten years time. Choose inputs that get you there.

  • CPA: “Our clients have consistently grown owner wealth at a rate of 10% per year.”
  • Law firm: “Our clients protect their intellectual property to the maximum extent allowed by law consistent with their business goals.”
  • IT Services: “Our clients grow their companies with the best use of IT consistent with their business goals.”

These firms will then choose inputs that move them forward.

Backward thinking example #3: “We’ll bring in outside experts when we’re ready/when we have time/when we have extra money.”

Forward thinking: We will bring in outside experts now.  You realize that the time will never be right (what does that actually mean?) and that you could always find something else to do and something else to spend money on, so you look at your desired near term outcomes and get the expertise you need to start working on them today.

Backward thinking is usually unintended. It often seems to “make sense.”

Take the time now to ask if your company exemplifies any of these examples of backward thinking. And also ask yourself “What is forward thinking for us instead?”

DIY–do it yourself–is such a strong inclination in business owners and entrepreneurs. Yet, too often you try to do yourself what you’re not really capable of doing.

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