How overstocked Mental-Shelf-Space blocks service firm growth

Over the years of working with professional service firms and helping them grow, I’ve noticed a trend. Those service firm leaders who keep their mental-shelf-space open and uncluttered make solid decisions and actually get things done that matter. They grow.

But service leaders who overcrowd their mental-shelf-space often make poor decisions and don’t get done those things that matter. They don’t grow nearly as much as they should or as much as market opportunities would allow.

If you want your service firm to grow, I encourage you to look closely at your mental-shelf-space and ask yourself how you can reserve more of it for strategic growth planning and execution.

What is Mental-Shelf-Space?

When I use the term “mental-shelf-space” I’m not talking primarily about busyness, back-to-back meetings, time-management or the like. Mostly, I’m talking about how much focused energy service firm leaders apply to do things that only they can do that impact growth. What sorts of things?

  • Analyzing the market opportunities that are in front of them and strategic initiatives that could help them leap-frog the competition.
  • Making decisions to take risk on innovative new strategies and business opportunities that no one else inside their organization has the political clout to sponsor or champion.
  • Building strategic plans that most effectively apply resources like time, money and talent to realize these opportunities.
  • Nurturing and coaching talent inside their organizations to move in new directions that often feel uncomfortable at first and that require ongoing, concerted effort to come to fruition.
  • Staying the course and remaining confident, while also making course-corrections as necessary based on hard data not gut instincts, when initiatives do not turn out as hoped.

This is the sort of mental work that only leaders of service organizations can do. They are the only ones with enough influence and decision-rights to achieve these goals. But this work is very energy-draining and requires one to have stamina and courage in the face of adversity and what often appears, on the surface, to be failures.

In my experience, it is only service leaders who prioritize and carve out room in their busy lives for this sort of work who then see break-throughs. Other leaders fade down the stretch, give up hope and stop innovating, going back to the safety of being a good technician or simply the face of the firm.

Why many service firm leaders avoid this work

Over the years I have worked with hundreds of leaders of service firms, all of whom had viable opportunities to grow their organizations, to innovate and to outstrip the competition. But only a few people actually did this. Why?

I believe there are a handful of causes including fear of change, difficulty in getting buy-in from partners, absence of funding and lack of a well-formulated plan that inspires confidence in stakeholders. But all of these factors are external to the leader.

Strategy & Innovation Consultation

I believe success in business is less about what is external and far more about what is internal. This is why some people walk into petrified industries that have done things the same way for decades and completely disrupt it. They have a different vision.

The number one reason that more service leaders do not innovate, in my experience, is because their mental-shelf-spaces are already stocked full of what’s happening right now: serving clients, managing the firm, balancing strong personalities internally, protecting territory, managing cash-flows and just plain old keeping the wheels on the bus.

This leaves them will little energy or focus to spend on the creative and analytical cycles that are essential to innovation. If you doubt what I’m saying, let’s try a little exercise.

I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that in 15 minutes you could make a list of at least 5 things you know could impact your growth and that you’ve talked about as a team but haven’t yet executed against.

Recommendations to improve Mental Shelf-Space

If you want to substantially improve your focused energy so you can innovate, let me offer advice based on what I see leaders doing who actually get important things done.

  • Analyze what it is that only you can do and then do only those things.
  • Transfer to other people things that they can do that you are now doing.
  • Discover how technology and AI can help you skip past barriers that hold you back now.
  • Stabilize your home-life because an unstable home-life will sap every ounce of focus.
  • Read good books that are both inside and outside your industry.
  • Attend conferences both from inside and outside your industry.
  • Plan for innovation by carving out large time-blocks (say 4-8 hours) where all you do is think about the future and where you are going.
  • Freely spitball ideas with colleagues and people you trust who can give you honest feedback.

I believe we can only have repeatable successes in business when we are consciously competent, actually planning to win and never giving up until we do win. We can get lucky just by doing great work all the time and then having opportunities pop up that we didn’t see coming. I love these. But I consider them a bonus.

The real breakthroughs come from something the music industry calls a 20-year overnight success story. Musicians hone their craft in virtual obscurity, writing songs, learning to record, building a fan base and mastering the music business.

And then, voila. They “suddenly” are successful. But everyone forgets the 20 years they created, innovated and reinvented themselves, never losing hope.  This sort of stamina is what it takes to achieve real wins.

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