Olive Breadsticks

Business advice is often harder to put into practice than it sounds.

I have just spent a couple of weeks working in the United States and even though I was struggling with jet lag I managed to stay awake long enough last night to catch up with one of my favourite TV shows, The Great British Bake Off.  I just love cooking programmes of any sort and in this one Paul Hollywood, the blue-eyed doyen of the once humble art of baking, was showing off his breadsticks. As she watched, Mary Berry, his UK co-host, said that they seemed easy to make. Her remark resonated with the very similar sentiment I hear all the time from business owners about how simple and obvious the best business advice can seem; the apparently simple recipes for business success that everyone seems to understand, but so often fail to execute.

Of course Mary is an expert baker and to her the olive breadsticks Paul was demonstrating would be a very easy thing, but is that really true for the rest of us? I’m sure if she was just asked to go away and make some without a recipe she’d do a fine job, but I might need a little help to get anywhere close to what Paul baked. I’d probably do a little better if I had a detailed recipe, a list of ingredients and a method statement for how to bake them. I’d probably do better still if I watched a recording of the show a few times too and applied some of the more subtle tips for this simple bit of baking, like the use of semolina, or the care needed to develop the gluten, or to  preserve the gas in the dough. If Paul was standing beside me I’m sure I would do even better still.

Over the years many people have asked me for advice and I’ve told them that they need flour, yeast, water, and olives to make olive breadsticks and they have smiled as if that was so obvious that they not only knew that already but also they knew how to make them all along and they were only asking me out of politeness. Of course, I’m a simple business advisor not a baker, so they were asking about funding, business strategy, marketing, or how to deal with some competitive threat, or growth challenge, but I hope you see where I’m gong here. People often ask for my advice and in the course of any initial meeting I tell them directionally what they need to be considering and they sometimes go away thinking that they have saved themselves a few dollars by not employing me because it sounds so easy that they can do it themselves.

The thing is that, a bit like making olive breadsticks, there is more to business advice than it seems and it is very often much harder to apply than you might think. Business advice is often harder to put into practice than it sounds because there are a lot of implementation questions to resolve as you go, like how hot the oven should be, or whether to grease the baking tray or not. To an expert the answers are simple and obvious but to someone who is entering new territory with their business it just isn’t so simple and the wrong answers can have a profoundly negative effect on outcomes. One of my 5Secrets of Business Success is to “know what you don’t know” and to know when you need help from someone who has hands on experience of baking olive breadsticks, if that is now what you need to do with your business, because if you do you will simply end up with a better result.

I have a little rule to apply when you are faced with important decisions in your business which you haven’t made before. It may be about anything, but the more strategic and therefore important and potentially valuable to you, the more important it is to apply this rule: I call it my Circle Rule. If a simple circle represents all you need to know to make a good decision of a partially type, the chances are you will have most of it if you have made this sort of decision before so with a little updating of facts you are going to be well equipped to make a good job of this sort of decision. However, if you haven’t made this sort of decision before you won’t have much more than a small segment of the information in the circle and you are not best equipped to make this sort of decision. The great problem is that many people,  particularly the bright and successful ones, sometimes think that they know most things about a particular decision when in fact they know very little; it’s just outside their experience to date and very often doesn’t work out too well. The solution is so deceptively simple that, as you may have guessed from the above, people often dismiss it out of hand: if you are making olive breadsticks for the very first time, or perhaps more important decisions about your business that you  haven’t made before, get help from someone who has.

Mark

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