Imagine a football team that tackled its own ball carriers. Imagine a baseball team that tagged its own men out at the plate. Imagine a basketball team that blocked its own teammate’s shots.

What kind of performance-improving advice would you give these teams?

Does your company ever need similar advice?

I spoke with a senior executive the other day, with whom I hadn’t spoken for about two years. “Things aren’t going so well,” he told me. I was expecting to hear a litany of woes about the economy, the competition and of unfaithful customers. But he didn’t mention any of these external forces. Instead he lamented, “Our senior team doesn’t know where it is headed. We do a ton of planning, but then we don’t act. Our employees are starting to think management is a joke. We look like a bunch of bees flying around in every direction, but at least real bees actually get something done. We’re just creating chaos.”

I’m an advisor to companies in many different industries, with a focus on improving revenue and profits. This vantage point gives me the opportunity to speak with lots of people who have the responsibility for improving their company’s performance, including C-level executives, marketing and sales professionals, operations executives, customer service people, etc.

When talking with these people, I hear stories about the obstacles that prevent them from helping their companies be more successful. So what do I hear most frequently? What is the most common impediment people face, as they try to drive revenue and profits for their companies?

Is it price-sensitive customers?

Aggressive competitors, trashing the marketplace?

Economic factors, especially in times of economic mayhem like these?

No. None of these are the biggest obstacles standing in executives’ ways. Yes, they are obstacles but not the most formidable obstacles.

Almost without exception, people tell me that the biggest obstacles preventing them from increasing their companies’ sales and profits can be found right within the companies themselves.

I hear different versions of this story every week.:

“We can’t get out of our own way.”

“We start a project; everybody weighs in with their opinion, but there is no consensus, so the project just stalls and never goes anywhere.”

“Our projects move along just fine, until the Executive Suite figures out what we’re doing… then the micro-management starts, and progress stops.”

“If I could just do my job without the company owners swooping in like dive-bombers a few times a week to butt into my projects, I’d be able to make them a lot of money.”

“We are a company of silos. Everyone has their own perspective, their own goals, and their own priorities, so nobody cooperates with each other.”

“Everyone is more concerned with protecting their own turf than with helping the company succeed. They may not admit it, but I can see how often other departments prevent me from doing my job.”

“We start projects and never finish them because our company has a really short attention span.”

Do you see your company reflected in this list? If you do, don’t be depressed. After all, you can’t change external factors, such as the economy and the effects of your competitors, but you can fix yourself.

What are some ways your company can get out of its own way and stop limiting its success?

Well, of course, it depends on the particular ways your company erects barriers to its own success. As Tolstoy wrote,“Every happy family is alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But here are a few solutions I have seen work in many different situations:

  • Get agreement on intended results before you focus on action steps.
    • This is the first thing I do when I start working with a company whose management team is not unified. I have the team agree on what an optimal future looks like before we discuss any sorts of action steps or internal challenges. Once executives agree on the same overall results, they are more likely to collaborate in reaching those results.
  • Turn your BHAG’s into CCAG’s.
    • The concept of creating “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” (“BHAG’s”) has one major problem: The “Big Hairy” part. Many people need “Clear Compelling Audacious Goals” to help them understand what the company is trying to achieve.
  • Focus on customer behaviors before you focus on your own behaviors.
    • This may seem counter-intuitive, but it really works. As I’ve written and spoken about many times, you don’t create your company’s results; your customers do. Focus first on what actions you want customers to take, directly connecting those actions to desired business results. Then, it will be easier to identify ways your company discourages those customer actions.
  • Start worrying about your company’s internal brand.
    • Most thinking about brands is focused on creating strong customer beliefs. Turn some attention to what you want your fellow team members to believe about your company.
  • Encourage a culture where it is accepted, and encouraged, for people to point out your company’s self-imposed obstacles.
    • My first boss after business school, Jim Noyes, president of MTI Vacations, was rabid about this. Every hourly employee in the company knew that it was safe to go straight to Jim’s office to point out something stupid the company was doing. We were very good at looking in the mirror and saying, “Why the hell are we doing that?”

So what are the ways your company gets in the way of its own success? (If, on the other hand, you believe your company does not get in its own way, please call me at 847-686-0400. With the interest of a zoologist who just found a flying lion, I would like to speak with you and learn from you.)

In your efforts to enhance business performance, try to worry less about competitors and the economy and focus on how your company is an obstacle to its own success. I’m very confident that you will rapidly discover opportunities to improve your business results. Yes, eradicating these obstacles will be difficult, but the first step to healing is identifying the disease.

Take Notice

Look at the companies you do business with as a customer, vendor or partner. What have you observed? Is it easy to see when they get in the way of their own progress? What do they do that impedes their own success? What don’t they do? Has the thought, “I want to do more business with this company, but they make it so difficult,” ever crossed your mind?

How do you compare?

Now, look at your own company. What are the ways your organization blocks its own success? Be self-critical– don’t hold back as you list problems. And, don’t think only from your own, personal perspective. What might people in other departments say? What might customers or vendors say?

As you look at this list, estimate the dollar-value of each of these obstacles. For example, if you are a $5 million company, and you believe that your company’s own self-imposed obstacles are costing the company 25% of its sales, that’s worth $1.25 million in revenue. Or, if your company spends $1 million on marketing and sales, and you believe that 30% of marketing and sales efforts are wasted due to barriers the company throws up in the way of customers and sales people, that’s worth $300,000.

Try this

Look at the list you’ve made of the ways your company impedes its own success. Pick out one obstacle. Choose one that has the following two characteristics: 1) It’s costing us quite a bit of money, and, 2) it’s really stupid that we do this.

Now, describe a scenario, six months from now, where this obstacle has been removed, and the company is enjoying improved success. Describe this scenario, in writing, very clearly. Consider it from many angles. Resist the temptation to say, “Oh, we could never fix that.”

At that point, ask yourself, “What can I do differently to reduce this impediment? Am I contributing to it? Can I navigate around this obstacle more effectively?”

Then, take a deep breath, and share your description of this scenario with one of the people in your organization who is a contributor to this obstruction. Don’t accuse. Don’t point a finger. Take this approach: “I believe that one of the quickest ways for us to improve results is…” and share your perspective.

You, of course, need to be the judge of how you handle this interaction; I’m not telling you to commit career suicide or make an enemy in another department. What I am telling you, however, is that 1) Change won’t happen unless people like you instigate it, and 2) Most people are willing to hear criticism. They may not be happy about it, but, if it’s presented well, they will listen.

Nearly every day I see evidence of companies who are their own worst competitors. Even the best companies are guilty.

Go for it– be an exception.

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