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40. Tom Peters searching for small business excellence in tough times No 2

Peters & Waterman’s first theme which characterised successful businesses from their study of 43 ‘successful’ US businesses was:

A bias for action. What they meant by this was that they were companies that did not generally feel the need to spend years studying any development and months contemplating any action. They tended to get on with it, and particularly in the face of competitive action, changing market circumstances or new opportunities, they were more likley to do something quite quickly even if they were not sure it was the perfect solution rather than let the ‘window of opportunity’ pass them by.

The tendency in large organisations for action to be slowed down by the need to research and prove every case in detail, and find solutions that will satisfy a wide variety of stakeholders makes them prone to move slowly. And all large businesses are also bureacracies, and these always tend to move slowly. For managers too the risk of doing something and getting it wrong (and hence getting fired or losing promotion prospects) tend to outweigh those from doing nothing and being accused of missing an opportunity. Peter’s wrote his book when the pace of change was accelerating, Japanese industry was moving ahead much faster than US industry, and the large US corporates still tended to believe that they were powerful enough to win in the end – even when they moved more slowly than their Japanese counterparts.

Most small businesses, however, naturally have a ‘bias for action’. There are some that are so caught up in the day-to-day that they do not see the problem or opportunity; and there are some that, when they see it, are mesmerised or confused by the options so that they become ‘the rabbit caught in the headlights’.

However, for most small businesses the risk tends to be rather more that they react too quickly without thinking the issues through fully and make the wrong decision or miss the opportunity – the driving equivalent would be manoeuvre-signal-mirror. Acting quickly does not have to mean acting without research, or without considering the options or without proper planning.

How do you avoid falling into one of the two traps of either not moving quickly enough or mosing without due care and attention? Difficult to get it right, but I believe it is a combination of staying close to your customers and hearing what they are saying with real understanding, and staying in touch with the market around you – using your networking contacts to do reality checks for instance. And taking advice, finding that business advisor, mentor or colleague who can give you an alternative point of view, who can play devil’s advocate, stimulate alternative options and keep you at your best and sharpest.

Not easy, but in the approaching difficult times when many markets will be affected by sharp changes in demand and new patterns of buyer behaviour, when new competitors will seek to enter your market from other sectors that are under pressure, it is more important than ever that you take action, but not without forethought and a deep understanding of the causes and possible consequences.

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