Failing businesses can often feel overwhelmed. They have to act fast and time is often running out. Where does one start in a business turnaround situation. The following is a story of how I turned around a multimillion pound business using one neat trick. I’ve used this technique with many failing businesses. So without further ado…
The Pain Of Failing Businesses
The room was filled with tension. It had not been a pleasant meeting. The master boardroom table seemed to go on for miles. The CEO sat at the head of the table; his executive team to his right and the senior leadership team sat to his left. Everyone was looking down, trying not to make eye contact with the CEO. The CEO was not happy. The senior leadership team had run his business into the ground – and it had been going on for years. His once trophy business was now in the failing businesses category…
“I spent years building this business and what have you done?” the CEO demanded firmly. “This business was built on a solid structure. We used to do £15m a year and now you’re barely scraping 2!” The CEO looked down and shook his head. There was a long pause. Everyone in the room felt the weight on their shoulders. This business was in serious trouble.
The CEO looked up. “I don’t know what’s happened, but I know one thing – you need help. This isn’t working. I’m sending someone in.” The CEO looked towards me and fixed his gaze on me. There was a long pause. Everyone’s eyes slowly turned to me and before I knew it, all eyes were on me. I didn’t speak. I had worked with this CEO long enough to know that you speak once addressed. The silence went on and it seemed to last for minutes when it was probably only about 10 seconds. But those 10 seconds were filled with tension, desperation and a need for hope.
“Haroon, what do you think?” the CEO asked with a hint of exasperation.
“Well, Sir…” I paused. The CEO leaned in awaiting my response.
“The team is trying to do too much.” I proposed in a calming tone.
“Too much?!” exclaimed the CEO in disbelief. “They’re not doing enough!”
“I know it feels that way,” I said maintaining my calm tone attempting to curb his anger. “The problem is that the team is trying to do too much at the same time. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before. When we try to do too much, we spread ourselves thin and end up not achieving anything. My take would be to simplify the plan, and adopt the Big 3 structure.”
“What’s the Big 3?” The CEO’s tone now changing from anger to intrigue.
I went on, “It’s a structure I have taught many companies. It forces people to think and focus on the few, high-value things that will have the most impact. If you allow me, I’ll implement this in the business and I’m confident it will start to turn the business around.”
The CEO sat back in his chair and stroked his grey beard, contemplating whether this is was the risk he was willing to take. He turned to the Managing Director of the failing business. “What do you think?” he asked calmly.
“Yeah! I need all the help I can get. I think reducing the workload would help. Right now I just feel overwhelmed and we’re doing the best we can. It’s just too much. I’m happy to give it a go.” said the Managing Director, his tone very quick and desperate.
The CEO looked back at me and stared for a few seconds. You could almost hear the cogs turning in his head.
“OK, Haroon. You’ve got 3 months to get this back on track. The business won’t be turned around by then, but I want to see the numbers starting to track in the right direction.” said the CEO.
“Understood.” I said.
3 months later
We entered the boardroom and took our seats. The executive team was already sat in place and we all sat in silence awaiting the CEO. I was ready. He arrived a couple of minutes later with a Starbucks coffee in his hand. He had a stern look on his face. He took his seat and looked straight at me. There was a long pause.
“Well done,” he said, quickly turning his frown into a smile.
Here’s what happened…
3 Months Earlier
From past experience in business turnaround, I knew the best thing to do in this situation is to eliminate the team’s stress. Make them feel like they have a fighting chance at turning the failing business around.
By far, the best to achieve this is to adopt the Big 3 structure. The Big 3 is a phrase coined by Michael Hyatt in his book, “Free To Focus”. Although the book came out in 2019, the principle has been used for so many decades – focus on a few high-value things.
My first session with the senior leadership team was one of encouragement. The team looked exhausted, defeated and in need of hope.
“You need to come to terms with some truths,” I said in a warm, encouraging tone. “You need to realise that there will always be too much for you to do. Things are always going to go wrong. Urgent things will always pop up. You won’t always get your tasks done. If you can understand that and come to terms with it, then you start to relax. You start to feel less stressed about things. Right now, you guys have been trying to do everything at once, and it’s left you feeling stressed and defeated.”
“You’re totally right!” said the Managing Director with relief that someone knew exactly how they felt. “I just feel like we’re working so damn hard but we’re exhausted. We don’t seem to be getting movement at all and it’s heartbreaking!”
“I know it is. And that’s why we are going to come to terms with this truth. Instead of panicking, we’re going to be smart.” I said getting up to write on the whiteboard. “What we’re going to do is adopt this…” I wrote on the whiteboard in a big size, ‘Big 3’.
The Big 3
I explained to the team that the Big 3 is all about identifying the few high-value things at any given time, and just focus on getting those things done. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach. By reducing your tasks from 100 down to 3 per month/week/day means that you’ve done the critical thinking and have now identified the most important things that need to get done.
The Big 3 can be applied to a quarter, a month, a week or a day. It doesn’t matter. The point is that you chunk things down to the high-value things and prioritise those first. Notice, I did not say you should abandon everything else. They are still on your list but you have just de-prioritised them.
How to Implement the Big 3
Failing businesses nned to implement if they have a chance of turning things around. In this section, I’ll give you a few tips on how to implement the Big 3. Start off by gathering your team and listing down all the important things you’re trying to achieve. Use a whiteboard so it feels more like a brainstorming session and you can all clearly see.
Once you have listed all the items, ask yourselves the question, “Out of all these items, which are the most important 3? Which 3 would have the biggest impact if we got those right?”
Someone in the group will always say, “All of them,”
That’s not true. Really think about it. Every business has something called key drivers. These are activities or processes that have the biggest impact on the business. For a manufacturing business, it might be the rate of production or cost of sale. For a law firm, it might be how often you contact clients.
Whatever business you’re in, you have these drivers.
What are they?
Have you ever really sat down and thought about it? Most of us haven’t. That’s why it’s important to create some space and think.
DISCLAIMER: It doesn’t have to be 3 things. It could be 1, it could be 5. The point is you are narrowing the focus down to the most valuable objectives. Hopefully, you get the idea.
Once you have identified the 3 most important initiatives or objectives then set clear goals around each one. For more on how to set goals for your business check this post out where I give you a goal-setting formula that is super easy to implement.
How Does The Big 3 Apply In Everyday Business
With Your Teams
Do you have a weekly Monday morning meeting? Most people do. In that meeting, you should all be asking, “What is our Big 3 this week?” i.e. What are the 3 most important things we need to get done this week? What’s our focus as a team? What does good look like by Friday?
With Your Personal Work Structure
Hopefully, you adopt some kind of weekly planning. If you don’t then you need to, fast! When you plan your weeks or your days, simply ask yourself, “What are the 3 things I need to get done this week / today?”
I’ve operated off this principle for years and I’m not stressed. This simple trick has helped failing businesses turn around because they narrowed the focus and attacked the few important things that would have the most impact.
So, what’s your Big 3?…