Are You a "Loose Cannon" or a "Creative Initiator"?

Do you have a strategy, or do you get by on a wing and a prayer?

Loose cannon: “An unpredictable person or thing, liable to cause damage if not kept in check by others.” As a small-business owner, you can quickly “turn on a dime” with your company. This entrepreneurial freedom can be an incredible asset. After all, as an entrepreneur you can literally reinvent your company whenever you wish.

You can explore new options, diversify into new income sources or change the marketing “face” of your company overnight. Wonderful! Now more than ever, a small business needs to be able to change quickly!

But there is a dark side to all this entrepreneurial freedom. You see, all this so-called business “freedom” can sneakily translate into impulsive and totally scatterbrained decisions that in retrospect are awe-inspiring only for their stupidity!

Like many of you, I learned early on in this business that, for me, the real money (and many fewer headaches) was in the drying, cleaning and deodorization of water- and smoke-damaged structures. I wanted to leave the actual structural rebuilding to a competent contractor that would closely coordinate with me.

In return, for the right person I would use my insurance adjuster contacts to ease my chosen “Strategic Partner” into millions of dollars of re-construction work and at no charge. All I wanted was an honest individual that would cover my back on the job.

So eventually, “Charlie” and I, totally by coincidence, worked a few losses together. Charlie was a hardworking young contractor who really enjoyed restoration work. Even better, he instinctively grasped the Emotional Dynamics of dealing with a traumatized homeowner suffering from a devastating loss. So I made Charlie the Strategic Partner offer. He accepted in a heartbeat, and over the next 10 years Charlie and I worked closely on many different losses.

Charlie’s and my unwritten Strategic Partnership was highly profitable for both of us. Yet after I sold my business, Charlie eventually crashed and burned in both his personal and business life, winding up a bankrupt and broken man.

So sad, because he was a skilled, hardworking and charismatic individual. But he was a “loose cannon”! Charlie’s lead foreman put it best. He sighed heavily one day and told me, “Steve, our entire future course in business is determined by who Charlie had lunch with yesterday!”

So just how can you successfully walk the narrow line between spontaneous brilliance and rash folly in guiding your company? Are you a loose cannon or a “creative initiator”? It all comes back to ideas and how you implement them.

Write Them Down

Ideas – some great and some not-so-great – are constantly flitting into your mind and then are gone forever unless you record them for posterity and, more urgently, follow up!

Exactly how you archive these thoughts is up to you. Audio recorded “notes to self” on a cell phone, using the “list function” on your iPhone or the old-fashioned scribbling on a folded slip of paper in your shirt pocket (which I confess is still my “go-to” favorite!)

And remember, it shouldn’t just be all about you.

Foster an Entrepreneurial Culture In Your Company

Nothing beats the excitement – and ideas – of an energized and empowered group of quality individuals working toward a common goal and shared vision. Draw on the collective creativity of your employees by recognizing and rewarding initiative- even when their ideas aren’t so great!

When someone comes up with any idea, you should run with it! Here’s how:
  1. Commend the employee for his or her initiative.
  2. Write it down as you briefly interview your worker on the specifics of their suggestion. The act of you jotting the idea down is a tremendous positive Moment of Truth for your employee.
  3. Dwell and reflect on the idea, including on how it can be modified into something really workable.
  4. Get back to the employee with the results of your investigation, even if you can’t implement their idea as suggested.
  5. Always give public recognition and praise to every employee who shares their ideas with you.
Note: The more ideas you (and your employees churn out) the more likely you will have a winner! This is same reasoning that powers all venture capitalists – the more business start-ups they fund, the more they spread the risk while still looking for the big winner.

Tap Into The Power Of Your Subconscious

The old saying, “Let me sleep on it” is based on sound science. How many times have you woken from a night’s sleep with the answer to a vexing problem clearly defined in your mind?

Your subconscious works anywhere but can be more easily accessed in the absence of other outside stimuli. I get some of my greatest ideas (including the topic for this column) in the shower!

So try to give yourself some “quiet time” to meditate. Commuting time works well for many. Instead of always having the Top 40 blaring from your car radio or even learning from audio books, sometimes just drive along and think about new ideas or what you already have cooking in your company!

You’ll be amazed at what pops into your mind (be sure to record what you come up with). Remember that, up till now, you have promoted quantity, not necessarily quality, with all these entrepreneurial ideas, so now…

Run It By Your "Brain Trust"

A constant danger for entrepreneurs is, we fall in love with our ideas. Fight this oh-so-very-subtle trap by following the wise words of Proverbs 24:6: “For by skillful direction you will carry on your war, and in the multitude of counselors there is salvation.”

So who are your “multitude of counselors” candidates? First and foremost is your spouse; after all, who has more of a vested interest in your success?

You can also look to your employees for their insights. Then you should have also built an informal board of skilled professionals, such as your accountant, banker and attorney that should be consulted before any major business change. And don’t forget your friends and other family.

One last brainstorming resource? Your clients! My customers were pleased when I sought their advice, and they actually bought in even more to the success of my company. However, even if the majority of your “brain trust” counselors give your idea the thumbs up, remember…

Don't Bet The Farm On It

In other words, it is now time to test your idea. Yes, I know, books have been written about some crazed entrepreneur with a vision who sunk everything into an ill-advised venture that made him wealthy beyond their dreams. But no one talks about the countless millions who have lost it all by trusting solely in their own flawed judgment!

So before you plunge into a new diversification/marketing campaign/piece of equipment/product, etc., test it first.

With marketing programs it is essential to compare the results of your different ad campaigns. This means you will actually have to keep records on where your work is coming from and then tally these results up.

Yes, this is work. But this process is so much better than flying by the seat of your pants as you spend (waste?) your hard-earned advertising dollars!

Before buying new equipment ask if there is someone in your area that is using it. Then call them up and ask if you can do a ride-along and you’ll buy lunch!

Seeing equipment in action out in the field is much more illuminating than just running it in the show room. Or even better, ask your salesperson if there are return privileges if you just aren’t happy with the product and demo it for yourself on a few jobs.

Now the danger for Charlie (and many of you) wasn’t just a poorly chosen marketing medium or a bad piece of equipment. Instead, many of us veer between entirely different business models driven solely by our enthusiasm for a new diversification fueled by our boredom with our current company.

This “Loose Cannon Syndrome” not only wastes money, it also creates managerial dilution that can actually spell the end of your company. Next month we’ll look at some tough questions to ask before you diversify into a different part of this industry. After all, loose cannons sink ships!

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