So often we speak of needing more hours in the day and yet there is also the adage of “if you need something doing, ask a busy person!” We moan about it and yet we thrive on it too! I think it is worth reflecting on the issues arising from the daily juggle of multiple projects and the how my business and clients benefit from it.
I am currently working on three projects. I am managing the Local Growth Fund projects for the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership; I am working with Central Bedfordshire Council to gain approval for their ERDF project Innovation Bridge which will deliver innovation to 350 enterprises across 3 LEP areas; and I am working with Innovas to deliver the growth plan for the sports and physical activity sector in Leicester and Leicestershire LEP. This week I have also contributed to the Aldwyck Housing Group Service Delivery Committee where we are grappling with the challenges of upholding customer service in tightening financial times of the social housing sector.
So what are the challenges of this juggling? Keeping abreast of all the issues is a challenge and does need a clear head and some time spent reading up and staying up to speed. I need to ensure quality on all commissions and need to manage time carefully to allow time and attention on all projects. That requires careful diary management, focus and application as well as keeping on top of emails! Taking breaks, family time and exercise is also key to ensuring I stay fresh enough to see the wood for the trees and think strategically and operationally about each activity.
So why do it? Would it not be easier to just do one project at any one time? Possibly but I thrive on the variety and enjoy working with so many different clients who are taking forward exciting initiatives for the benefit of local communities. It also makes business sense as I increase my knowledge, my expertise and reduce the risk of being without opportunities in the future. Each current project brings the potential for further work so it is also part of my marketing plan.
The connectivity is also beneficial. I always have an eye on confidentiality and conflicts of interest but I believe the learning from each project is helpfully shared with my clients so they learn what others are doing and how they are progressing. This best practice sharing is part of my offer to clients. I can connect projects and people and offer some added value to the commission.
Multiple projects allow me to develop and reinforce my own skills – for instance, as I continue to do direct business and stakeholder engagement in Leicestershire, I am providing at financial and output programme management for SEMLEP. I am always learning and strengthening skills.
It is a challenge but that is necessary to reach the a higher level and think what the next steps are for my business. I have a meeting next Thursday to do just that so watch this space for the latest updates on business development and carry on juggling!
At the start of a new year, we all start talking about planning in our professional and often personal lives. It is something many of us intend to do but then put off as it seems too hard. In planning my workload for the next few months and how I aim to achieve my business objectives, I have developed the following guiding principles. Let me know what you think…
- Time – you need quality brain time to review your business and workload – if you work best at 10am then that is the time to act – not when you have done your ‘to do’ list but as the top priority on the ‘to do’ list
- Share your ideas – 2 heads are better than one and a business colleague or associate may be able to offer some sound advice and help you think through your ideas and plans. It is not one for the darkened room!
- Background information – you don’t have to start from scratch and you may have last year’s plan as a basis for this – alternatively there are templates out there for everyone to access. you may need the project and work plans for your workload and need to factor this in from the beginning. Also don’t forget that Easter holiday you have planned!
- Milestones and targets – make sure you set some goals and plan how to celebrate success when you achieve them!
- Stakeholder engagement – who else needs to be involved and with whom does the plan need to fit in? If there are some key changes coming up, then factor those into your planning. Consider local elections and Government reviews if you work with public sector partners.
- Timeframe – you may wish to plan over the next 6 months, a year or longer but focus on the timeframe that is most achievable while remembering the long term plan. It may only be headlines for future years at this stage.
- Taking action – What are you going to do to make this plan happen? Start taking action now and set aside time to bring the plan alive.
- Tell people about it – when you have written it, make one of the actions to tell people about it – your colleagues and associates will support you and hold you to account – this will keep you on the straight and narrow!
Which are the best questions to ask to add value? Through Inspiring Partnerships, I am committed to offering a new insight or connection at each meeting. As an external partner, organisations are seeking new insight and expertise from me. The best value from my recent coaching experience with Bird Table is the fellow participants and coach asking me challenging questions. I hope, that in economic development, I offer information and insight but so often the best way to work is to ask the right questions and the staff, within the organisation, are then empowered to find the solutions to their dilemmas and ones that they are best placed to implement.
The trick then is being able to ask the best questions and often that is about having a fresh perspective. It is also about really listening and immersing yourself in the topic and your client’s issues. I am developing some key content to ensure I explore all bases with clients and ask the best suite of questions to provoke thought and new solutions. I’d be keen to have your feedback as the definitive list emerges. The current questions are:
- Engage positively. To have a external partner look at your work is a challenging process and can be uncomfortable. To make the most of the feedback, any officers engaged need to be thinking positively. Recognise the effort that has already been applied, use respect, humour and teamwork to move the content forward.
- Understand the story first – ask the officers to summarise the work so far. The story from their perspective is critical and the element they are aiming to deliver. This gives them the opportunity to share ideas and lead the discussion.
- Always ask open questions – don’t ask questions that require yes or no answers but ask why, how, when will that be delivered? Challenge the participants to think really hard about the activity they are planning.
- Challenge assumptions – how did you reach that conclusion? Can you develop that further? What is the natural conclusion of that? What is the impact?
- Ask, don’t tell! Avoid giving solutions – help the the participants find their own solutions. How can you solve that? What is the first step? Who needs to be involved to move that forward?
- Don’t feel pressure to fill the silence. Thinking time is vital. Let people answer the question and don’t fill the void. The question is a tool to provoke an answer that is owned by the person developing that answer. It may take time.
- The stupid questions are great – they are often the questions that need to be asked. Why do you do that? “Because we always have” comes the answer. It needed to be said but only someone external can say it.
- Being a devil’s advocate is another route? Ask the “what if” questions to really stress test a proposal. If that wasn’t funded, what would happen? If you can only do half of that project, what would you do?
So that’s my 8 tips on questions to get the best value from a discussion. What do you think?
Research is showing that skills and particularly leadership and management skills are a more significant barrier to growth than access to finance.
This week I read the ACAS paper Building Productivity in the UK which provides some excellent analysis, evidence and recommendations for action on this agenda. It has application in businesses big and small and is well worth a read http://www.acas.org.uk/media/pdf/7/9/Building-productivity-in-the-uk.pdf
The Institute of Fiscal Studies stated in 2015:
- UK labour productivity has been exceptionally weak since the 2007-8 financial crisis
- UK productivity is 17% lower than the G7 average
- Growth is being generated by long hours not efficiency
Instead of adopting the ‘high road’ economic model where skilled workers deliver high specification goods and services based on quality and value, The UK seems to mostly choose the ‘low road’ model of a workforce producing standardised goods sold on price, where firms are attracted here because it is cheap place to do business. This oversimplifies a complex picture but overall if we favour a low road model, we reduce the incentive to invest in workforce development and see lower productivity. It impacts on the current political discussions about a move from ‘low wage, high benefits’ culture to ‘high wage, low welfare’ approach to reduce tax credits and the overall benefits bill. This approach would be best supported by a more productive high road model.
So what can we do to make progress? ACAS set out 7 levers:
- Well designed work – jobs and work organised to increase efficiency and make the most of people’s skills
- Skilled line managers – with the confidence and skills to lead effectively
- Managing conflict – reducing the likelihood of problems and dealing well with issues when they arise
- Clarity about rights and responsibilities – where everyone understands their rights and responsibilities
- Fairness – ensuring employees feel valued and treated fairly
- Strong employee voice – when employees are listened to and contribute to decisions
- High trust – when employers share information at the earliest opportunity
Sounds simple but the costs of not doing it are massive. In 2012, BIS estimated that the cost of ineffective management to the UK businesses was over £19B per year. By contrast, the gains from changes are substantial: best practice management development can result in a 23% increase in organisational performance. Output can rise as if extra employees were recruited or investment was pumped in.
The report is accessible and has lots of examples of when businesses have seen a difference from improvement. Money can always be a break on investment and is quickly identified but maybe we can all agree with Brendan Barber, the ACAS chair, “it’s hardly possible to conceive of a business or organisation that can look at itself and conclude there is no room for improvement” within our workplaces. With these 7 levers there are excellent prompts for micro, small and larger businesses to make quick progress.
Grants4Growth is a capital grant scheme which is being delivered across the East of England. It is funded by the European Regional Development Fund and comes to an end in March 2015. As the Bedfordshire Business Broker since August, I am trying to reach as many businesses in Bedfordshire to maximise the local impact. Bedfordshire has not received as many grants as the other counties so I am trying to get the word out there and get grants to businesses investing in growth here.
So what is this Grants4Growth? It is a capital grant that can cover up to 28% of a total investment in equipment. It excludes ICT and agricultural equipment but includes business vehicles, lighting, kitchen equipment, heating and production line tools and equipment. Who can get the grant? Any independent SME in Bedfordshire and Luton that is investing in their business are eligible. It includes start up businesses and community and voluntary organisations that undertake economic activity. Businesses need to generate growth, create or protect jobs and enhance resource efficiency through the investment. So what is the process to get a grant? The grants are funded by European Regional Development Fund supported by SEMLEP – the Local Enterprise Partnership that covers Bedfordshire and Luton. There is a simple enrolment form and 5 page application form – accounts and quotes for the investment need to be supplied with the form. My help as the Bedfordshire Business Broker is available to smooth this along and then the application is considered by a weekly grants panel. How is the grant paid? The grant is paid by a cheque according to the terms in the offer letter. It is only paid once the business has made the payment and received the goods. Claims need to be made by March 2015. So who is getting the grant? – in the last few weeks 3 companies have received awards:
- A golf club has received funding for a log cutter to use fallen trees on the golf course for log drying and sales – this will protect ground staff jobs over the winter
- A hair salon has received a grant to allow growth into bigger premises to meet growing demand – new staff will be taken on in all parts of the hair and beauty business
- A manufacturer of high grade pipes is investing in a new production line to meet demand for a particular specification of pipe, leading to new jobs and potential 24 hour production.
There are 5 other applications in development – could your Bedfordshire or Luton business be the next one? Do check out the Grants4growth website www.grants4growth.org.uk/register or call me on 07960 224568.