Is It Time to Kill Your Own Company?


Are you looking for an innovative way to invigorate your next strategic planning process?  Is your current system getting too predictable?  Does it feel like you are not being very strategic, and instead focusing more on budgets?  Well here is an interesting way to challenge the status quo within your organization.  It comes from some of the research I have been doing recently on the topic of innovation.

When you think about innovation tools and methodologies, they generally are designed to help people see situations and problems through new lenses.  Forcing them to shift their vantage point can often lead to a new flash of insight than can be both creative, and lead to exciting innovation.

So how do we do this in the context of strategic planning?   The exercise is called “Kill the Company” and is described in a new book by that same title by Lisa Bodell. (Lisa is CEO of her innovation consulting company called Futurethink).

So here is how the exercise goes:

Invite a cross functional group of your colleagues to come to a meeting.  (Consider making it a diverse group not only by department, but  by functional level as well.)   The goal is to have people in the room who all see different aspects of how the company performs (sales, quality, operations, R&D, finance, etc.)  This would also work for a division, department or product line team as well with slight revisions to the assignment.

When they arrive, here is their assignment.  “Imagine you are working for our main competitor.  You have unlimited resources at your disposal.  Develop a plan for you could put us out of business (or render our department obsolete).”

Break them into teams and give them an hour to develop as many ideas as they can. Encourage them not to judge the ideas at this point (filtering them comes later).  Tell them to just write down all the ideas they can on some Post-it notes.

It may be helpful to structure your teams by functional specialty area–asking people to brainstorm ideas that are pertinent to key departments like R&D, HR, distribution, marketing, manufacturing, customer service, etc. –whichever functions you think are important for that business or product line.

If need be, you can consider seeding the groups with pre-selected lists of Killer Questions (like those used by HP’s former innovation Guru, Phil McKinney).

Give them 30 minutes, or even an hour.

After the brainstorming, we need to prioritize the ideas.   Bodell suggest using a 2×2 grid that lists, on the Y axis is the Ease of Execution (easiest to hardest), and on the X axis, the Impact on the Business (smallest to largest threat).   Ask the teams to place their Post-it notes on the grid where they think they fit best.

With this done, see what new insights come from the analysis.

You might ask your group to discuss questions like:

  • Which of the biggest threats most surprised you?
  • What could we do to strengthen our business position?
  • Do you feel we have stretched ourselves far enough in analyzing our weaknesses?
  • Are there some external events (like a recession, new technology introduction, etc.) that could make our position even more precarious?
  • What short and intermediate-term fixes could we begin to work on as a result of this new strategic assessment?
  • What structural things most stand in the way of our addressing these threats (e.g. our incentive pay systems, our hiring systems, our internal processes, etc.)
  • Are there some initiatives we are currently pursuing that we should reconsider because they may not greatly improve our competitive position?

Why Do This?

We think that most organizations tend to have an inward focus about their business.   We all tend to think we are better than we actually are, and that our weaknesses are “not that bad.” These are dangerous assumptions that can lead to complacency.   This exercise forces a kind of outside-in look at your business that is both healthy and something we don’t often do.  Generally, it is managers and executives who tend to gloss over potential weaknesses and threats.  By involving people from lower levels of the business, many of whom see the “chinks in the armor” more clearly or who are frustrated by their abilities to deliver the kind of quality or customer service they know should be possible, adds an objectivity that should be eye-opening.

Cautionary note:  You may need to brief some of the senior people who attend to be sure they project their openness to all ideas, and insure they restrain any defensive instincts.

Follow-up work:   This exercise is a good starting point.    While we would expect this Kill the Company exercise will generate many fresh and powerful insights, depending on how inward focused your group is, they may be still making a number of key assumptions without a strong base of real knowledge.  If so, here are some suggested additional activities you might consider:

  • Meet with customers. Whether you do this electronically, by organizing customer visits or creating something like a focus group, it is pretty important that your strategic planning include meaningful, honest and accurate customer feedback. If you feel you do not already have this in abundance, then we strongly urge you to go get some.
  • Competitor Research.  It is amazing what information you can gather on the internet.  Consider assigning teams of to develop a competitor profile on the key competitors you worry most about.  Look at their website, follow their press releases. Check the blogosphere and social media sites, investigate the good business and financial service databases (especially if your competitors are publicly traded), and consider talking with your own employees who may have worked for them in the past.   How many pieces of this jigsaw puzzle can you assemble?
  • Market Research.  How good is your knowledge about industry and market drivers?   If this is lacking, you can benefit by reading about technology, demographic and economic trends.  You can learn what federal regulators are working on – or pending new legislation heading toward Congress.  Consider looking overseas to examine what’s happening in other parts of the world that might potentially end up in your home market sometime soon.
  • Expand Your Employee Input.   If you felt the Kill the Company exercise generated lots of good insights, you might consider taking the top 3-5 identified threats and bringing groups together to investigate these in more detail, and develop strategies to address them.

If you need help, with any of this, please reach out to us.  If you try this exercise, We’d love to hear how it went.  Good luck!   Be brave!

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