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Why Knowing Your Biggest Opportunity or Challenge Is the First Step to Valuable Performance Improvement

It never ceases to amaze me – when I ask business owners and senior executives this one simple question – how few of them can answer it: “What is your biggest opportunity or challenge?”

Fully half of them just stare at me and go: “Wow! That’s a great question….”

When this happens, I think to myself: I don’t know what you do with your time during the day, but it certainly is not going to be spent on your biggest opportunity and challenge if you don’t know what it is.

Even more telling is that among those who actually have an answer, most of the time it is a “hand waving” general answer such as: I need more customers, I need more clients, I need better productivity… that is it!

Well, at least these people have a direction, but that is all they have. And, because they usually stop right there, many will stop there and them suffer overwhelm or its ugly twin, inaction, if they try to prioritize change.

Any Improvements in Performance Starts With Looking at the Performance History (& Numbers)

The first starting point for looking at performance improvement is to look at your current results in terms of value. (Some call this exercise a Performance Review, but please do not confuse it with the exercise done by those that use the term only to evaluate staff performance.) Break down your operations, sales, etc. into key tasks and look at their results.

For each key task, determine your current results and your historical best performance (this may take some digging, but it is worth it). Create some measurement systems with appropriate metrics if you need to, especially if such systems can be automated. If you do not know what your current results are worth to you, nor what a 1% improvement is worth to you, then you do not know how much time and energy you should put into improving your performance.

What happens when your improvement priority is not clear:

  • Should your improvement effort be your only focus for the next week? It should be if it is “mission critical” to your business.
  • Should your improvement effort be two hours a day? This is usually the most anyone can do on an ongoing basis, and experts agree that early in the morning is usually the best time to do it.
  • Should your improvement effort be a half-hour on Friday afternoons when you do not have anything better to do? Don’t you just wish all your challenges were this relaxed?

Those that do just this one exercise alone have made the first, most important steps towards operational excellence.

A “positive deviant” micro-case study

Occasionally, I am inspired when I run into a business owner or senior executive who can actually give me an answer to the biggest opportunity or challenge question, and attach specific financial magnitudes attached to this answer.

Let me prove to you why this is so powerful. Once, at a simple networking function, I had an opportunity to talk to a small business owner, who answered and said: here are my two biggest challenges and opportunities…with dollar figures attached to both of them.

Within minutes, we had figured out two avenues for him to pursue:

  • the first was a marketing direction that permitted him to advance his marketing campaign by a full year, and
  • the second was a way that he could work with his particular new customers in a new vertical he was breaking into and get some financing for the equipment he needed in order to do it.

All within 10 minutes. Because he knew what his biggest opportunity and challenge was AND what their value was for him.

Over to You — How You Can Leverage Your Own Opportunity or Challenge Into Real Results

So, try to answer this question for yourself: what is your biggest opportunity or challenge right now? You can have more than one, but keep working to identify the biggest ones you have AND what it costs you for not resolving that challenge or taking advantage of that opportunity – hint: determine what a 1% or 1 unit change would be worth. What would it be worth for you if you would wave a magic wand right now and solve that challenge completely or take full advantage of that opportunity?

Then ask yourself: have I spent the time I need to today in making this improvement effort a priority? Look at your past week, past month. Have you properly prioritized the performance improvement involved in resolving that challenge or taking advantage of that opportunity? If not, perhaps you have some very valuable work to do.

I wish you the best in figuring out not only what your biggest challenge or opportunity is, but how much it is worth to you to make the necessary improvements and how to then take the steps you need to take in order to make it solving or capturing it a reality.

When done correctly, using the natural priority that comes from your opportunities or challenges can be an extremely effective technique for making positive change that has the most impact possible. I have given you a very simplified performance improvement process to start you off, but if you have any questions, or have any examples of other creative ways to use opportunities or challenges to drive your business forward, let me know in the comments below!

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Trevor McAlpine

Trevor McAlpine is the President and Founder of Synergetic Management and is in charge of consulting, training, and content strategy. When he isn't devising new ways to help entrepreneurs and executives get awesome results, he likes to solve the mysteries of the universe. He also wishes he had even more time to spend with his family.