Block and Tackle, But Know Your Goal

Goal LineIn a classic 1964 football game against the San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Viking Jim Marshall recovered a fumble and made an impressive 66 yard return all the way to the end zone.  Unfortunately, it was the wrong end zone, resulting in Marshall handing a free score to his competition when he threw the ball out of bounds.

In business, we’re often told that when times get tough it’s a mistake to over-think. That instead, we should just drive hard to get the ball and push down the field at all costs, but not do anything risky or think outside the box.  Just block and tackle, and play your hardest.  That’s what Jim Marshall did, and look what good it did him.

Competing is tough enough, but in challenging times it’s important not to waste energy running in circles and absolutely critical not to run the wrong direction.  Real wins come from the combination of timely strategy married with measured action.

Run Toward the Right Goals
In challenging times, many businesses contract without even realizing it, actually planning themselves into stagnation, or worse.  How does this work?  By focusing on the wrong goals.

See if you identify with the following.  Many business owners have a “set point” in their minds for the performance of their business, much like you might set a thermostat at 72 degrees and expect it to stay there.  When things slow down, they complain that business has fallen off and seek to “crank things back up.”  Those efforts are often only targeted at a return to the set point, but not on growth.  Sound familiar?

It’s tempting to set goals like preventing things from getting any worse, or returning to a level of business we’re comfortable with.  Such goals, though, can hide the change that may be needed to make a business truly viable and even thriving.

A better goal is to plan – strategy and action – around emerging from challenging times stronger, better, and poised for growth.  Anything less is like running toward the wrong goal and perhaps even scoring points for your competition.

What is your company’s vision for the year ahead?  Do you have a clear, defined, communicated vision guiding your path?  If not, why not?  Priorities, time, or do you get bogged down in the mechanics of putting a plan together?  Now is the perfect time to hold your strategic planning event and point your entire team in one direction, aiming for growth.

Listen to Your Team
I have to believe that when Jim Marshall made his now infamous dash to the end zone, more than one of his teammates would have stopped him if they could have.  The message from Vikings fans, too, would have been clear, if only he’d have taken the time to listen.

I tell stories about business owners I know making what I call the “silent walk of hope.” It’s that daily march to the mailbox, praying more checks have magically arrived, all the while trying to hide their worry from their team.  Yet those employees may hold the key to taking the company in new directions.

My practice is founded on the principle that some of the best sources for building new success and developing solutions come from within the company.  As you plan your goals and seek solutions, don’t go it alone.  Get help, and include your team in the problem solving process.  What are you doing to draw out ideas from your staff?  Do you know how?

Make the Hard Hits.  Right Now.
Sometimes it really is time to block and tackle – to make the no holds barred aggressive changes for the better of the company.  If your team is having the debate over whether you’re reaching that line in the stand, let me make a suggestion: check behind you.  You may have passed the line.  In challenging times, it’s easy to wait too long before getting creative enough, or aggressive enough.  If you still can’t decide, ask a trusted colleague, or seek help.

Reach Your Goals
Get crystal clear on what your goals for the year ahead are, and where they lay.  Elicit your team’s support in charting the course.  And take immediate action to plan for greater success, not business as usual.

In case you’re wondering, the Vikings still managed to pull out a win in their game, and with this winning formula, you can too.

Dustin Walling is Principal of Dustin Walling Associates, a Seattle-based management consulting firm providing strategy and operational consulting.  For article topics, questions, or comments, Dustin can be reached at

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Managing for Challenging Times

DeclineEvery economic cycle poses unique challenges, meaning some businesses are hit harder than others, but nobody escapes forever.  Whether it’s election year uncertainties, mortgage meltdowns, credit crises or some other scare, forces simply conspire from time to time to generate a unique blend of self-induced societal hysteria easily rivaling the effects of any Starbucks five-shot venti mocha latte in the blood stream of the average business owner.  In short, it’s easy to be left feeling frazzled, frenzied, and more than a little paranoid about how to make a business not only survive but thrive in challenging times.

The cop-out answer is to declare that you must plan, and you must start in good times.  That’s true… but isn’t a good answer if times are already lackluster.  And as the sign on my office wall points out, “Thinking is Good.  Doing is Better.  Accomplishing is Best.”  Planning by itself is nothing more than mental exercise.  The key to thriving in challenging times is establishing a meaningful course, monitoring progress, and constantly taking corrective action to get there.

Focus on an Established Outcome.
Every business owner ought to have a clear sense of business direction – vision, mission, values – guiding strategy and daily operations.  (If not, seek help and get this foundation in place.)  In challenging times, your operative word should be “anticipate.”  If the goal is to modify course based on changing conditions, a crucial first step in anticipating, identifying, and coping with change is to first fix more firmly on the desired outcome.

Then attention can turn to identifying how to adapt. The classic way to do this is to take an honest look at the plusses and minuses of the business, as well as the opportunities and challenges presented by the competitive environment.  Known as a SWOT analysis (i.e., Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats), this exercise is a standard and powerful way to rapidly identify challenges and brainstorm solutions.  Most importantly, it gets us thinking throughout the business as well as outside the business in an attempt to predict the future.

Use the discoveries of SWOT and other analyses to determine new or changed initiatives for the future based on anticipated conditions.

Set Your Goals.
The really scary thing about setting goals is as soon as they’re set, you’re underperforming.  Until you hit them! Budgets.  Quotas.  Metrics.  Words that strike fear in the hearts of many.

The simple truth is most of the issues that can be identified with a business can be grouped, turned into trackable data, and have a goal attached.  Obviously, profit can receive a goal like “up 10%.”  Less obviously, the issue “Customers are unhappy,” can be turned around into the goal, “Customer complaints down 10%.”  Even less obvious, an initiative to “Improve work quality” can be tracked as “Dollar value of re-work.”

Look carefully.  I find that a lot of people fall into the trap of only looking at financial data, but the metrics above go much further to include Customer and Quality measures.  I could go on to include other categories of measures and several within each – and you should, too.  Instead of focusing only on the bottom line, consider the things that are critical to making your bottom line happen: Productivity; Use of Resources; Client Satisfaction; Business Development.  Perfect those factors and the bottom line will happen.  Put another way, keeping watch over fiscal measures alone is nearly never enough.  Refocus on the broader perspective, or get help doing so.

Measure Performance and Correct Course.
Remember the sign that said “Accomplishing is Best?”  Correcting course is the way to get there.  As you take action on the initiatives that you think will get you to your goals, do so with two commitments in mind.

First, that you will absolutely commit to a regular, objective review of the progress you and your team are making.  At least monthly.  Get together, look at the numbers, talk about what goals have been achieved and – most importantly – what to do about those that are not being accomplished.  The purpose of this meeting is to hold each other accountable for result.

Second, commit to results, not initiatives.  Give every idea its fair chance of success.  But be absolutely ruthless in your willingness to cross an initiative off and come up with something new to try if results aren’t happening.

These commitments take steadiness and incredible objectivity, but they’re absolutely critical to making progress.

A Brighter Tomorrow.
Sometimes it’s possible to get away with simply taking a casual approach to business and seeing what each day will bring.  And trust me… I see plenty of people with that attitude.  Challenging times are the worst of times for that approach.

Hone your direction.  Set goals.  Check and vigilantly tune your performance.  And ask for help when you need it.

Dustin Walling is Principal of Dustin Walling Associates, a Seattle-based management consulting firm providing strategy and operational consulting to small and medium businesses.  For article topics, questions, or comments, Dustin can be reached at

Free Guide: Action Planning Step-by-Step
Instant Action Plan Report
Quickly and painlessly identify your most impactful issues and craft action plans using our step-by-step process.