The 5 Most Important Questions in 2017 for True Sustainability
With the holidays setting in, let’s talk toys. Which one has sold more than 300 million units, been around for 70 plus years, and trips you when racing down the stairs? Answer: the Slinky. The wiggly, wiry springs netted the equivalent of a $1 billion for inventor Richard James and his wife Betty by end of year two. Today, the Slinky boasts a 20 percent annual growth rate. (A recent infusion of cash from a private equity firm means a growth strategy is underfoot – no pun intended).
How do you become a veteran darling in the marketplace? Here are five questions to ask in 2017 for true sustainability inspired by, you guessed it, the Slinky.
1. Are we focusing on what sets us apart?
One thing Richard and Betty James wanted was to keep their product simple – from production to packaging to marketing. It’s a differential that endures with the product line today. The point: “Nail it before you scale it.” Focusing on your key differentials instead of trying to be all things to all people clears a path.
- Gather your leadership team. Talk about what makes you different. Discuss the key problems you solve, then figure out how you solve them better than your competition.
- Make a list with these columns: “Our Major Points of Difference” with each matched up with “What Our Customer Sees.”
2. What are our business values?
When the Slinky first came out, the price was a dollar. The James’ philosophy was to make a fun toy affordable to many. Decades later, the price is still under $4. In 1996, Betty James said in an interview with The New York Times: “So many children can't have expensive toys, and I feel a real obligation to them. I'm appalled when I go Christmas shopping and $60 to $80 for a toy is nothing." Here’s a great example of a business decision clearly based on the company’s values – which held strong decade after decade. Know what you business stands for.
- Ask: “What matters most to me as a business owner?” Make your list.
- Then go line by line and ask “What does this mean to me?”
- Choose the higher-level values that are most important to you and your business. Then commit to them in how you do business with customers, vendors, employees and colleagues.
3. Are we open to new possibilities?
Here’s the story. Richard, an engineer by trade, witnessed a torsion spring accidentally fall on the deck of a ship and shakily travel down a few steps. He was fascinated at how it tumbled on end and spent the next several hours watching it do just that over and over again. In this generation where information on demand is immediate, it’s tough to remember that discovery is a beautiful thing.
- Give yourself and your team permission to create and to fail. If you always stay within the lines, your greatest risk will be missing THE one big idea.
- Look back on 2016. What is your highlight’s reel when it comes to innovation? Now look at your 2017 highlight’s reel. What do you see that would be spectacularly new and innovative and what sets your heart racing?
4. Does our culture, our leadership team and our mission align?
It’s funny that the most common sense idea can be so illusive. But, there it is. How many companies do we know where top leadership skips out on Fridays or where the people doing the work tip the company ship one way compared to those who lead it. This question is one of the most important and gives organizations an opportunity to realign and fill in the gaps. Imagine a Slinky with even one bent coil. You guessed it, it won’t go anywhere.
- Survey your employees and get a pulse on culture. Make it anonymous. Give everyone the freedom to share their thoughts.
- Ask: Do you expect the same level of work ethic and performance from your leadership team as you do from others?
- Define your one true mission and consider if your culture and leadership team supports it or holds it back.
5. Are we crisis-ready?
It could not have been easy for Betty James in 1960 when her husband suddenly left her with six children and a business to run so he could join a religious cult in Bolivia (hard to believe no movie has been made about this story!). However, she faced the adversity with courage – and good common business sense. She won many awards for her business achievements and served as president and CEO for 40 years until the company was sold in 1998.
- Conduct a brainstorming session with key team members about possible crisis scenarios.
- Plan your response to each situation and assign who will take ownership of that initiative.
- Educate your staff on your overall crisis plan. Make sure they understand their roles – from identifying computer viruses to getting the next level up ready to take on responsibilities if someone suddenly leaves.
Thomas Friedman, in a recent lecture at Aurora University in Chicago’s west suburbs, said: “Nothing that you download will endure.” True. So build sustainability intentionally into your business with traits that last: the things that make you different today and in years to come, your values, your sense of discovery, the culture of your organization, and your readiness to take on adversity.