Fred Dunayer: Welcome to the SCORE Small Business Success Podcast, Been There, Done That. To get free mentoring services as well as to see the wide variety of resources available for small businesses visit our website at www.score.org or call 1-800-634-0245. Now here’s your host, Dennis Zink.
Dennis Zink: Episode Number 14, How to Know What You Don’t Know.
Fred Dunayer joins me today in our studio as co-host, SCORE mentor and our audio engineer. Good morning, Fred.
Fred Dunayer: Good morning, Dennis.
Dennis Zink: Our guest today is Bonnie Seitzinger. Welcome to Been There, Done That.
Bonnie Seitzinger: Thank you.
Dennis Zink: Bonnie Seitzinger is a CPA, business coach with Focused Management Services and a SCORE mentor. After years of navigating the waters as a technology segment operations leader with a global consulting firm, Bonnie pivoted from big business to small business. Bonnie received her MBA from Lehigh University and her involvement with Lehigh’s Small Business Development Center planted the seeds to grow small businesses to be the best they can be.
Bonnie believes in the simple yet powerful mantra you get what you focus on. In working with small businesses since 2002, Bonnie understands how to grow small businesses from just surviving to thriving. Through rigorous focus on well-defined business outcomes, she succeeds at what she does.
Bonnie, let’s start off with a question that may be obvious to some people. Why should business owners want to know or learn what they don’t know?
Bonnie Seitzinger: In my view, this is one of the key factors in growing a business. As business owners, we want to prevent problems before they happen. I use the analogy the way we treat our bodies, we eat well, we take supplements and exercise as preventative measures to developing long-term health conditions, it’s the same with our businesses. We need to learn as much as we can about what it is we do not know so we can prevent problems before they occur and take action to change things before the environment or other factors changes around us.
We can’t know everything with absolute certainty, but we can feel confident about certain things. Now I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the majority of businesses fail because business owners have a mindset of knowing more than they really know, whether the problem is undercapitalization, lack of quality or even lack of human resource knowledge, all examples of things we may have felt we knew but perhaps we were not open enough to learn what we didn’t know.
There are many important principles to sustaining and growing a business. It’s human nature to gravitate to learn about what interests us. We don’t always take the steps to learn what we don’t know beyond our interests. A common example of this is business owners generally stay technical in their industry, Their passion, background and how they got started in business may be what they concentrate on; that may however not have them up to speed in other aspects of their business. That brings about the need to know what you don’t know.
There’s a learning model developed in the 1970’s and it describes the four stages of learning, going from incompetence to competence. The first stage, unconscious competence, is not knowing what you don’t know. The next stage is conscious competence, which is knowing you have a deficit and knowing the value of developing skills to address that deficit. What we want to talk about today is both the not knowing as well as developing the skills to be in the know.
Dennis Zink: Where should someone start when they decide to learn more about what they don’t know?
Bonnie Seitzinger: We have a broad range of possibilities. What I always like to see is a mindset of continuous improvement. One of the success principles in Jack Canfield’s book refers to commit to constant and never-ending improvement. This never-ending improvement can be in many forms, in both tangible and intangible ways.
Today it’s easier than ever to absorb the latest leadership and management thinking as well as so many other business topics, from finance to HR to process improvement. It’s all out there; YouTube, totally no cost; there are such fabulous books read by their authors. We have TED talks and university lectures, all online.
I highly recommend listening to these, primarily YouTube, in lieu of listening to the radio in your vehicle. We all drive quite a bit in our daily work, or many of us do, and that’s time well spent if you listen to educational audios while driving. Each day you will undoubtedly pick up points of what you don’t know and develop a system of capturing new ideas immediately and take action.
What should a business owner do specifically to know what they don’t know about their business? I first start with discussing if the business is on course or off course. When businesses are on course, that’s a great time to work on a sustainable future by determining what you don’t know. When businesses are off course, then more aggressive inquiry is needed to get back on course.
I also talk about seeking out two different kinds of feedback to learn what you don’t know. We have our own internal feedback system and then we also have vast knowledge available to us through external feedback sources.
Dennis Zink: Bonnie, what do you describe as internal feedback? If you could define that, that would be great. What are some of the techniques for using your own internal feedback to learn what you don’t know?
Bonnie Seitzinger: One of the things I talk to my clients about is how they feel at the beginning and the end of their day. Often entrepreneurs are too busy to assess how they are feeling and what their inner guidance system is telling them, and that’s what I mean by internal feedback. I always say if you are not taking an hour a day for contemplation then you are not using the biggest resource available to you to find out what you don’t know.
This may sound very obvious or perhaps confusing to some listeners. I find too few business owners using their internal feedback system. The field of neuroscience tells us through brain scans, which are functional MRIs, that our brains light up when we sit in quiet contemplation and become introspective. This actually means that parts of our brains think in new ways that they have not in the past. Over time, daily contemplation practice changes the way you think.
Some of the well-known entrepreneurs of our time such as Steve Jobs talked about the best ideas coming to him when he allowed his mind to become quiet for periods of time each day. This generally works best in the early morning when you may be taking time to intend your day. Additionally, ideas come to you at the end of the day as you watch the game film of how your day went.
Bringing forth new bright ideas to your organization is knowing what you didn’t previously know. Neuroscience is also telling us to take a creativity minute each hour. This is even being taught at universities in MBA classes. Set your alarm; or I even have an application downloaded that has a nice chime that I set up for one minute each hour. It reminds me to take a creative minute.
Perhaps you can take your creative minute by closing the door after each meeting or each lengthy phone call to give yourself a creative pause. Try it and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by your results. The point is do this daily on a regular basis and the results will come to you in the form of knowing what you don’t know.
In general, what we are doing with our own internal feedback system is creating awareness, and awareness brings us answers to knowing what we need to know. It’s answers that lead to new choices.
Dennis Zink: You described internal feedback. What about external feedback? What are some techniques for using external feedback to know more about what we don’t know and what are some of the ways to do that?
Bonnie Seitzinger: One of the best success principles which sounds so simple is to ask, ask, ask. Dennis, we had a CEO roundtable recently and that was the number one takeaway by one of our participants on this topic, and that is taking time to ask for feedback.
This can be done in several ways. A healthy dialogue several times a year, one-on-one with employees can be very revealing. This takes the ability to fully express your questions to employees and then to fully listen to their responses. Some entrepreneurs have an open door policy and a culture of feedback and suggestion sessions. It’s always important, of course, to avoid complaint sessions. The goal is to have a culture of continuous improvement.
I have administered many employee questionnaires which can be done anonymously, depending on your company culture. This type of feedback provides both qualitative and quantitative feedback. For example, various questions on a questionnaire form that I’ve used have ratings on a scale of one to ten. This gives us the ability to measure company averages on how our employees are thinking and feeling about certain things. It also gives us the ability from year to year to see how our averages have changed and hopefully improved. The main point in ask, ask, ask is we can learn more about what we don’t know from thoughtful employees.
I do want to stress if using an employee feedback system, it is important to have a loop based system where the best ideas for change and improvement are tracked, acknowledged and acted on with visibility.
Dennis Zink: Do you have more tips for gathering feedback that may already be available to me inside my company?
Bonnie Seitzinger: Many companies periodically, especially annually, have strategic planning sessions and they use what is referred to as a SWOT analysis. This is done using a group technique and addresses your business’ strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Great ideas and learning what you don’t know come forth with SWOT analysis.
Some businesses conduct focus groups with outside facilitation to generate ideas and get the creative juices flowing. When I was with the large global consulting firm, we used focus groups all the time as a key source of our software application requirements gathering and improvement. This actually included both inside and outside sources, employees and our customers.
It’s important to take time for long-term planning, which leads to learning about what you don’t know. It also improves our short-term decision making.
Dennis Zink: Bonnie, how about outside my company? Where can I go, what can I do to learn more about what I don’t know?
Bonnie Seitzinger: One of the best systems for learning what you don’t know is gathering actionable information from your customers. The most common business using customer feedback is the restaurant industry. Just last week I was at a restaurant that included a bright colored feedback form from the owner who provided his name, phone number and a place for comments. That can be very effective.
One of the best ways to receive customer feedback is to have a simple one question, and that is on a scale from one to ten, how do you rate our service or expertise or whatever you provide in your business. The question then leads to if the rating is not a ten, what would it take to make it a ten. This one question is effective because it’s short and simple for customers to give immediate feedback based on how they are feeling after you provide your service or products.
Periodic customer feedback requests through email or some companies use Survey Monkey, some clients make random phone calls and they’re all good methods of gathering feedback. The shorter, the better. Your customers will answer your questions if they know it won’t take very much time. As with employee feedback, it is important to have a process in place for assessing the information and the potential new knowledge you are receiving.
I have a large equipment sales and service business client who dropped the ball and collected customer surveys and somehow did not have a person assigned to review them. This was a costly mistake, because one of the surveys actually included a request for a sales person to visit them and they found this four months later. Again, having the proper feedback loop in place is very important.
Another method for learning what you don’t know is to join a SCORE CEO Roundtable Group. Roundtable Groups have ten or more established business CEO’s and we can bring in experts where the business CEO’s learn more and become more knowledgeable for discussion. Business challenges and goals are discussed and the group has a sense of accountability to other members.
Mastermind groups have history dating back into the early industrial age. Napoleon Hill wrote about mastermind groups in his classic book, Think and Grow Rich. Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and Thomas Edison were known to have held mastermind groups at their winter mansion in Fort Myers, Florida. Today’s mastermind groups meet as often as weekly and the main purpose is to brainstorm, work on problems and encouraging and motivating each other.
Some fortunate business owners are even able to have a dream team of experts such as their attorney and banker, a CPA and perhaps their insurance agent. They periodically gather for lunch or dinner in an environment of sharing. Again, the important reminder is to prepare in advance and ask, ask, ask those questions.
Fred Dunayer: It seems to me that another source of information about what you don’t know might be trade associations and trade publications.
Bonnie Seitzinger: I have quite a few clients who are members of their industry trade association, one who has even taken on the president role for some time. The active members of those groups look forward to meeting once or twice a year and the information and knowledge they can gather and glean from others that are in their industry are very great sources.
Dennis Zink: Trade associations; it’s getting like-minded people within the same industry talking about best practices and what they do in their businesses and it’s a great sharing methodology. It’s kind of focusing in, if you will; it’s convergent thinking looking inside the box as opposed to a CEO roundtable which is more divergent thinking, looking at possibilities, people from different industries that are non-competitive thinking outside the box, so that’s a good point and it’s a great question that Fred asked.
Let’s talk about problems and decision making. What are some of your suggestions for solving problems within a business?
Bonnie Seitzinger: We mentioned earlier that learning what we don’t know is one way to prevent problems before they start. Of course this could be a topic for another podcast, but in general I like to refer to Mastering the Rockefeller Habits book, which has a simple one page for problem solving guidelines.
Before you even get started in working on a problem, you want to determine the relevancy. Is the issue a problem causing customers and employees time and money? Certainly if so, you want to proceed with the specifics, really knowing what the problem is, taking the time to make your decision about how you’re going to change things in a very thoughtful manner, addressing the root cause; looking at more than the symptoms of the problem is very important, and then focusing on what is the problem, not who is the problem.
The book I mentioned refers to 95% of the time in a problem situation it’s process problem. That’s 95% of the time it’s a process problem, not a people problem. You want to involve all those affected or that have the potential to affect your problem. You want to fix the whole problem, not just part of it, or create another problem in a different part of your organization.
Again, being open to feedback all of the time and having a mindset of continuously seeking out what you don’t know goes a long way to take action to preventing issues from turning into full-blown problems.
Dennis Zink: We mentioned decision making which may involve changing course before problems begin. What are some of the processes and tools that can be used for decision making?
Bonnie Seitzinger: Keeping score is another success principle. Simply put, keeping score drives a business to be in constant readjustment. I’m not referring to the flavor of the week type readjustment. I’m talking about on course or off course correction. Examples of scorekeeping would involve using a dashboard faithfully.
I have a client who sends me a weekly cash flow forecast and the dashboard. This puts decision makers in a position to learn what is happening in their business almost real time and make decision to improve or learn what is working from a positive perspective, also what you can do more of. The dashboard typically has your key performance indicators; what is it important to measure so that you know if you’re on course or off course.
Variance reporting is another tool that can be used daily, such as measuring sales in comparison to last year or your target goals. A monthly or quarterly report of each budgeted line item and the comparison to actual numbers gives us data for determining why we have a favorable or an unfavorable variance. That’s very actionable data, so we know how we can improve or what we can do more of.
Again, these tools put decision makers in a position to have the knowledge and data from which to make decisions or corrections. The data can provide patterns and trends; connecting the dots, we like to say; that is very meaningful in learning what we need to know.
Dennis Zink: Speaking of metrics, I’m a big fan of measuring things. In fact, I have a saying count everything and then figure out if it’s worth counting. If there’s any possibility of figuring out how to count something just do it and then afterwards reflect on it and see does this make sense to count this number. The ones you do come up with would be your key performance indicators or your key measurement tools for your business, which may be different from what someone else is doing, but it means a lot to you. Then you keep track of that, whether it’s on a daily, weekly, monthly, annual, whatever basis, so you can see how you’re doing.
I contend that you can run a business effectively by doing that and that will help you to learn what you don’t know as well because you’ll be looking at things that you are counting that you never even thought of counting, but it’s countable.
Bonnie Seitzinger: Great point.
Dennis Zink: What pointers do you have for a person who does not think they have the time, the understanding to implement what we’ve discussed?
Bonnie Seitzinger: When it comes to time management, that could also be a topic for more lengthy discussion. Certainly the fundamentals of time management are important. Brian Tracy reads his book, Eat That Frog, on YouTube and provides good reminders about how we spend our time.
I mostly want to say that as business owners we need to make time to learn what we don’t know. As an example, if your business is important enough to you, then you can figure out how to spend your daily contemplative quiet time to allow new ideas to come to you. At first it may feel as though you have to give up other activities. Eventually, the productivity benefits of what you do with your new knowing, will greatly outweigh the time it takes to make this a daily habit.
Some of the other more tangible techniques we just discussed can be assigned to managers or assistants. If that’s not an option, others outside of your business should be engaged to assist with the initiatives to learn what you don’t know.
Dennis Zink: What do you think is the maybe one thing in your experience with business owners that has held them back from business growth and from achieving their vision and their goals?
Bonnie Seitzinger: I would have to say the need to have relentless focus on the end results. Knowing what you want to achieve is necessary; it’s absolutely necessary for business success. A person without ongoing focus on the end results moves into an oscillating pattern really of back and forth, moving close to the goal and then moving away from the goals.
All important decisions that a business owner makes should be aligned with your desired outcomes. In fact, all daily choices should be driven with the end goal in mind. Look at your daily choices as either taking you closer to your goals or in effect away from your goals. That’s a great way to look at whether or not you have some time wasters. Look at whether or not what you’re doing is taking you toward your goals.
Dennis Zink: In closing, what would you say is maybe one or two things that business owners can do to stay open minded to what they don’t know?
Bonnie Seitzinger: Very short and sweet, I would have to say stay curious. Curiosity; there’s that expression curiosity killed the cat, but it is what keeps business and people on top of their game. Be open to recognizing your deficits. Be open to the value of the new skill of learning what you don’t know.
Dennis Zink: Bonnie, thank you for enlightening us today about the very interesting topic of How to Know What You Don’t Know.
Bonnie Seitzinger: Thank you, Dennis. It was great being here and sharing.
Fred Dunayer: Thank you, Bonnie.
Fred Dunayer: You’ve been listening to the SCORE Small Business Success Podcast, Been There, Done That. The opinions of the hosts and guests are theirs and do not necessarily reflect those of SCORE. If you would like to hear more podcasts, get a free mentor, view a transcript of this podcast, or would like more information about the services we provide, you can call SCORE at 800-634-0245 or visit our website at www.score.org. Again, that’s 800-634-0245 or visit the website at www.score.org.