Leaping Ahead: Courage or Discipline?

January 08, 2008

Case categories include: Leadership   Strategy & Planning   

By Robert Sher
Can you imagine if you had been an early user of search engine optimization (SEO), where you always came up on top because most of your major competition didn't know about SEO?  Mark Denham did.

Can you imagine if you'd used bulk e-mail early on, when people eagerly opened all the e-mail they got?  Mark Denham, CEO of 24/7, an online furniture retailer, did.

Can you imagine if you identified a major industry shift – like importing furniture from China at incredible prices – and jumped in first?  Mark Denham did.

Mark Denham built his business by having both the discipline and the courage to leap ahead.  He dove into an old business with new ideas gleaned from his other passions, and bootstrapped his firm to $18 million in revenues since it started.

Leap wisely.
Too many CEOs go polar on the issue of leaping ahead.  Some never take the leap, wondering why, while over time, competitors move ahead.  Others gamble heavily on what seemed like a great innovation, and often lose so much that they never recover.  The ideal path lies in the middle. 

Just thinking about new ideas won’t do it.  A disciplined approach is required, where you spend consistent, solid blocks of time deciding, understanding, and executing on new ideas.  Most companies aren’t big enough to have a strategy department, so you’ll have to settle with allocating, say, four hours per week to focus your mind on the next leap forward.  This is clearly CEO level work, although if your firm is big enough to have another strong leader on the top team, they can certainly be a part of the process.  Mark Denham did his “leap planning” late in the evenings, often on the Internet.  This work should be fun and exciting for you.

Not coming up with many amazing ideas?  Dive into some passions outside your business.  Have friends in different worlds and industries that don't share your predispositions.  Mark is a member of the Alliance of Chief Executives, a peer group of CEOs that meet once per month.  He gets to hear the strategies of CEOs not in his industry, and that helps bring in fresh ideas that have been tested in other industries but are new to yours.

Commitment is necessary.
New innovations that will make a big difference to your company will not come for free.  Be willing to invest a real chunk of your resources, and as it grows, you’ll need to put some of your best people on it.  It can’t be a stepchild.

But don’t bet too much.  Most new ideas fail.  Find ways to validate the idea as you develop it.  Start small so when you discover whether you’re right or wrong, you can make changes as quickly as possible.  Most of the time, it takes a few tries to figure out the best path to a new activity – so keep resources in the reserve for the second or third try.  Just because you’re excited at the start doesn’t mean it will work.  Budgeting is a great idea, allocating a certain amount each year to spend on new ideas that could give your firm a leap forward. 

Don’t try the new ideas as they occur to you.  Instead, collect the good ideas and spend a bit on clarifying the opportunities. Then, perhaps twice per year, make all the new ideas compete for attention, and choose to execute only the one or two that win the competition.  There is never enough time or resources to execute on all the good ideas – only the exceptional ones.

So answer me these four questions, and write down your answers.
1. How many hours a week will you spend focused on generating and developing new ideas that will make your business leap forward?
2. What percentage of your annual revenues will you spend to develop and test the new ideas?
3. How many new ideas that could significantly change your business will you develop each year?
4. What technique will you use to uncover innovative ideas well before your competition?

Post your answers where you'll see them, and keep yourself on plan.  Actionable ideas will start developing, and a few of them, over time, will help you leap ahead, just like they did for Mr. Denham.

Takeaways:
• Leaping ahead takes more than courage – it takes structure, discipline, time and planning.
• Pursue other interests, surround yourself with other leaders from different backgrounds, and seek out fresh ideas. 
• Come up with a game plan. Learn how to validate ideas as they come, and budget your resources and time wisely.

Robert Sher is principal of CEO to CEO, specializing in assisting CEOs and business leaders as they navigate critical passages.  He is the author of The Feel of the Deal; How I Built a Business through Acquisitions.  He may be reached at Robert@ceotoceo.biz.

Company and Case Facts:

Company: 247 Workspace
Person: Mark Denham, CEO
Alliance Member since: 2006
Business Founded: 1998
Service: Online retailer, designer and importer of office furniture.
Headcount: 23
Typical Customer: Small and medium businesses in North America.
Written: February, 2008
Address: 18675 Madrone Parkway Morgan Hill, CA 95037
Website: www.247workspace.com
Phone: (408) 438-9050
E-mail: mark@247workspace.com