Fans of Stephen Covey's work, "7 Rules for High Successful People" should recognize his last rule - Sharpen the Saw. For those who have not read it, his last rule relates to the quote often incorrectly attributed to Abraham Lincoln: "A woodsman was once asked, 'What would you do if you had just five minutes to chop down a tree?' He answered, 'I would spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.'”
I always understood the rule as it applied to individuals. Balance hard work with healthy living. Being better people helps us to be better at work.
But I always thought the rule applied just as well to our professional lives. As a Dynamics, BI and Analytics consultant, I am always on the leading (and sometimes bleeding) edge of technology. I am constantly reading, training, and pushing myself to learn the state of the art in my field. And when I look at the most successful people around me, the same is pretty much universally true. Professional success comes from balancing 'doing the work' with building, and improving on, the skills necessary to 'doing the work better.' That is sharpening the 'professional saw.'
Now, apply that same thought process to company success. How can a company Sharpen the Saw? How can a company keep its edge, and build a balanced, and forward moving approach to continuous improvement? I propose that Business Intelligence, and in particular, Self-Service Business Intelligence (SSBI, as described in previous blog post), is a core part of the answer. Here are some examples from Sales to help illustrate this.
Think for a moment about managing sales pipeline. In a robust, long lead-time outside sales environment, having a strong and healthy pipeline is the key to long-term success. But how do I know my pipeline is as good as it can be? Do I know I have good quarterly coverage? How am I performing relative to the others on my team and company? What part of my pipeline is at risk and how do I attack these risks? And how do I know if I am prioritizing my opportunities correctly? What variables (known and unknown) are out there impacting my pipeline, and how do I both understand and deal with them?
For the questions above (and there are many more we could contemplate), there are two divergent options. One option is selling, and more selling, and nothing but selling, without pausing to learn and reflect. This is the 'Just Keep Selling' approach, where the activity of selling (dial, smile, and repeat) is so all encompassing, the sales staff don't have time to reflect on what is or is not working best in any real detail.
The other option is what we can call 'Selling Smarter' and this is the place where the saw gets sharpened. For Sales and Pipeline Management, Selling Smarter means knowing which accounts are most likely to buy, and why. It is knowing which current accounts are at risk of defecting, and again, knowing why. Selling Smarter is having a multi-layered plan that addresses the various eventualities that can arise from all the different actions that key accounts might take, and then monitoring to see which of those eventualities come to pass.
For Selling Smarter, I want you to think about the following example. Think of a new pursuit for a totally new prospective client. Do they look similar to existing clients you’ve sold to? If so, it could be beneficial to see which pursuit approaches were most successful and then repeating the sales process. And with the real time feedback Selling Smarter entails, you can continuously make adjustments to the selling process to reflect real-time changes in buyer behaviors. This Smart Pursuit approach can be a game changer in helping to smooth out the sales cycles.
At its heart, Selling Smarter is having a set of tools that can help sales people to answer these questions for themselves, while also giving them the tools to know what the next best steps should be. This comes from having a culture that embraces, and drives, the Selling Smarter approach with the right tools and training to help them get there. Think of it this way, if the sales process is the saw, then good data, analytics, and training are the whetstones used to do the sharpening.
This takes us full circle back to our SSBI discussion. All the technology and training in the world will not prepare an organization to be as smart as possible. First and foremost, it requires the organization to create and maintain a culture of learning. It requires the organization to make a commitment to help their employees to do their jobs smarter. And to do so with the right technology. And to do so with training.
Success is built on a cultural foundation of learning, and risk, and a willingness to let employees sharpen their own saws.