If you want a way of improving small business performance, there’s a diagnostic tool I use in my consulting and coaching work with clients that help you examine each part of your business and how they’re working holistically as a whole engine.
In last week’s article, we dived into the 7 dimensions of my iSuccess framework and I shared how you can use these as critical levers for business growth. It‘s also proved an extremely good diagnostic tool for improving small business performance.
So now let’s dive a little deeper into the iSuccess framework and go through 14 criteria you can use to diagnose bottlenecks, barriers and blind spots in your business. I’ve used this in hundreds of digital roadmap business reviews I’ve done with clients in various industries.
In my consulting practice, we work with all kinds and sizes of business, from large corporate organisations in the non-profit sectors – like education, social housing and charities – to small to medium sized enterprises, what we call SMEs.
And under the umbrella of the iSuccess Business Academy, we run our education and mentoring programmes working more with sole traders who are professional service providers, freelancers, and healing practitioners.
The two are inter-connected in terms of improving business performance, but they have quite different needs in terms of why support is needed and how we apply the 7 dimensions of success. Nonetheless, there are some typical questions I get before, during or after a business review.
If you haven’t read that previous article, then I do suggest you go through that first and then come back to this one afterwards. Because the iSuccess dimensions and elements map onto the entire leveraged consulting – leveraged business – matrix but in my articles this month, we’re working from the inside out.
Key Drivers for Business Performance Review
On the consulting side with the reviews I get asked in to do for corporates especially non-profit organisations, a key driver in most industries is the need to satisfy standards and compliance requirements or maybe to evidence to funders that a project achieved its objectives.
There’s still a lot of demand for external evaluation of innovation projects and change programmes. And I’ve conducted over 30 internal audits projects on process improvement for these organisations too.
But for me personally, the impact of that work I feel is fairly minimal – it’s like investigative surgery – you go in, take a look around, get out and send them a report. What they do with that report … hmm, well some will come back and ask us to help them implement the improvements we’ve recommended, but much of the time I never know.
Although evaluating the customer journey and customer experience or student experience has been a big part of that work in the past, and I love diving into what’s actually happening at ground level so to speak, again it’s not generally all that transformative.
I’m telling this bit of context, this part of my story, because it’s a big reason I shifted my own focus to working more with improving small businesses, solo professionals and entrepreneurs.
The work I do improving small business performance – so businesses with between one and 50 employees – is somewhat different. What I’ve been noticing over the last few year is that small businesses are not particularly good at strategy, find being ‘agile’ in a changing world quite difficult, and they’re not particularly good at keeping an eye on performance to check what’s changing and evaluate root cause.
The Problem with Most Business Improvement Models
When the goals and direction of travel isn’t clear, if the activities are mainly short term, it’s hard to pin down metrics for improving small business performance. But it’s also that most business improvement models are not a great fit for a small business. They’re full of jargon and complicated theories.
Theoretically, that’s all well and good, but they have to be user-friendly if people are going to use them. Things like Six Sigma are great and have their place in many industries. Porter’s Five Forces model – another good one to look at competitive advantage.
Go look them up and tell me you know where to start using them to diagnose the bottlenecks in your business. You almost need a PhD to make sense of them, and your business isn’t about becoming an expert business modeller. Plus, it’s hard to see past your own cognitive bias – the assumptions and misconceptions we all have about the world and ourselves – those are your blind spots if you will.
So a business will get someone like me in to help them review things – internally or externally. When we start working together, the CEO or business owner doesn’t always know what to evaluate, how or when. They just know something’s not right. They may think they have a sales performance problem and try dropping their prices or training their team. But actually, when we dive in, it turns out the weakness is way more in the foundations – the business design, the core and the marketing than in the sales and delivery end.
That means a lot of the problems or the bottlenecks in the business persist as blind spots. And that’s where the questions they ask are quite revealing.
As I mentioned last episode, those of us who start a service business are often driven initially by the desire to help certain people, we’re looking to leverage our expertise to not only earn a living working for ourselves, but also to make a difference. As well as pursuing freedom and independence, and earning enough money to comfortably and reliably support those goals, our vision is one of having impact.
So these are way softer objectives or outcomes than many business improvement models incorporate. We don’t just want to look at performance indicators in terms of sales or revenue, important as those metrics are. We need to find a way to make a judgement about the benefits we bring and the impact we’re having, and about our “sense” of joy and fulfilment. How do you measure our “sense of” something so intangible.
Well, I’m getting ahead of myself a little, but that question is something that comes up time and again with my clients.
How do I measure success in the wider sense of the word – not just growth in numbers but whether I’m on the right track to achieving my vision and the business I want to end up with.
A Holistic Model for Relief of Business Design Faults and Bottlenecks
Let me take you back to the leveraged business flywheel we talked about in the previous article, which we want to get working in a balanced and efficient way. Because this is where the iSuccess 7 dimensions framework really comes into its own to get to the heart of things – to fine-tune the engine.
The 7 dimensions – just to summarise – are levers for business growth and help you identify what needs fixing for you to improve small business performance. We start with the Aligning lever, then Targeting, Positioning – these are the areas that help you clarify what you do and for whom and where your messaging comes from.
Next you have the Branding and Pricing levers, which help you package what you do into a compelling product, program or service. And once you have things clarified and packaged, you can ramp things up with the next two levers for Systematising and Scaling.
When you see how the business needs to operate holistically – how all the pieces fit together and are connected, then the lightbulb goes on and they understand why they need to look at the elements across all dimensions not just be the little Dutch boy sticking his finger in the holes of the dam and hoping to stop the leaks and save the town from devastating flooding. If you don’t know that story, look it up here. It’s very enlightening about that story, because it’s all about getting the right solution for the right problem.
Ok, so if you haven’t already got it or guessed it already, iSuccess is my expert system – my methodology for the strategy work I do with clients – be it for business performance improvement or business growth or both! The methodology helps us get on the same page and locate critical business design elements within a structured and pragmatic framework for innovation, improvement and change.
So this framework works really well in my work with clients, whether it’s a start up business or an existing business, and especially for service-based and solo practitioner businesses.
Using the ‘Leverage Test’ to Evaluate 14 Critical Elements in Your Business
For those 7 dimensions – Aligning, Targeting, Positioning, Branding, Pricing, Systematising and Scaling – my diagnostic I call the ‘Leverage Test’ goes deeper to reveal two critical elements that you can evaluate for each one.
The Leverage Test gives you a very easy-to-use, easy-to-apply business diagnostic to improve small business performance because it helps identify the key leverage points.
And remember, I give you that in the companion workbook that comes free as a digital download with my book Leveraged Consulting in the Digital Age – or you can buy the print copy on Amazon. I like things like that in print and you’re not going to print out 100 pages of the PDF.
The Leverage Test not only gives you a self-evaluation for the 14 critical elements I’m going to talk about in a moment, it also includes activity checklists for the 7 iSuccess dimensions – so you can assess your iSuccess-ability – yes I came up with that, cheesy but I kinda like it!
Analysing your iSuccess-ability to see how strong your critical levers currently are and then again after you make improvements will give you a great way to judge performance changes.
At the end of each checklist, I ask you to count up how many boxes you ticked and give yourself a RANK from 1-4. And you end up with a grid that indicates where you need to focus your business improvement work. It’s really pretty neat.
Typical questions I get from clients would be something like “how do I create a good offer” or “how to I know the right people to talk to”.
If you score high 3s and 4s across the board, then great – there’s a few things you can tighten up but you’re definitely ready for growth! If not, then what follows will show you the best direction of travel for you.
But if you scored 1s and 2s – there’s a breakdown of the analysis to help you understand what you can work on to fix and boost those levers.
Right, so I’m quickly going to list out all 14 critical elements and the top level question for you to review in your own business. If you find it hard to penetrate those questions – then I can only reference you to my book and The Leverage Test where there’s much more detailed explanation of what I mean for each one.
So here’s a visual and below are the questions.
Let’s go through each element or criterion and I’ll give you the top level questions for each one.
In the Aligning dimension, the two elements are MINDFULNESS and AUTHENTICITY and you can ask yourself: How mindful are you about the driving force behind your business vision? and To what extent do you feel you’re authentic in what you stand for?
For Targeting, we look at PROFITABILITY and NICHING, asking: To what extent is your chosen target audience a profitable market? And How specific and well defined is your niche?
For the Positioning dimension, the criteria are about how UNIQUE and NETWORKED you are. We can ask: How strongly do you stand out as unique in your ideas, expertise & methodology? and To what extent do you participate in networking partnerships & groups?
Remember there are more questions in the Leverage Test workbook that help you reflect on your answers.
Now the Branding dimension, to pull the lever here we need to focus on BOLDNESS and CREATIVITY and ask specifically: How bold, confident & irresistible are you in your brand & offer? and How creative, innovative & flexible are your delivery methods?
In the Pricing dimension we look at how RESULTS DRIVEN and PREMIUM you are, and the top level questions here are simply: How results driven is your service, programme or product? and To what extent do you feel able to offer premium services?
For Systematising, we’re assessing EFFICIENCY and PRODUCTIVITY. The key questions here are: How efficient do you see your business operating model? and How would you rate your overall productivity week on week and over 90-day cycles?
And finally, for the Scaling dimension, the levers we need to focus on are about how STREAMLINED and EXPANDABLE the business is, specifically: How streamlined is your business development process? and How expandable do you believe your business potentially can be?
Now, the top level questions aren’t always easy ones to answer in one go, so the reflective additional questions in the workbook will helpful. It’s also what we’d look into on a Strategy call with regards to where you’re starting from: your assets, tools, skills, team and so forth.
Why Business Diagnostics Are Worth Bothering With
In the Leverage Test we score each element 1-10 and plot it onto a spider chart so you get a nice visual picture of any imbalances or skews across the dimensions. I create a clever little excel formula version too for my clients – it’s fabulously insightful – that’s on p.273 in my book but here’s the colour version.
So you plot your scores and shade the areas inside and can visually see the elements that you’re strong in are shaded up close to the outer ring, and those that are weaker will only have the inner area shaded.
Of course, there may be many more success criteria you could add; but being brutally honest, they most likely still fit within one or more of the seven dimensions.
Once you have all 14 sections charted or shaded, what are the results for each element telling you about your current and desired situation?
Start with mindfulness and authenticity at the top and think about how clear you are about your end goals. Are you clear on what you wish to achieve personally and financially? What is the real benefit or impact you wish to achieve helping others?
Look at each dimension and its two elements in turn. What do your scores reveal that lead to you to think how you might improve things – e.g. your messaging, branded offers, pricing, operational and delivery processes.
In terms of the corresponding leverage areas, ere is the shading heavier? Can you spot the problem areas that may be hampering your marketing offers, sales process and growth potential?
More shading in the top right quadrant indicates you’ve picked a purposeful and profitable niche; bottom right suggests you feel you have a distinctive and compelling message. If your shading is heavier in the bottom left quadrant, this suggests you think you have an impactful and efficient way of delivering results; and top left denotes a workable and scalable operational system.
The reason this kind of business review work is valuable is because something isn’t working in the business or at least not as well or as fast as we’d like. It’s because we’re not seeing the performance we’d like in terms of the wealth, freedom or impact we want.
Often the metrics are just in terms of the money and it’s really not what iSuccess is all about – or what independent business is solving for. Or it’s because we know the root cause is somewhere deeper than just finding the next great marketing tactic, creating a better landing page or implementing a bit of software. Those may well be part of the solution, but they’re not going to solve anything that’s broken at a strategic level.
Danny Iny who’s an absolute gem in problem solving business bottlenecks had it right – and a reason I work with his company Mirasee. He said:
“As a business, as long as you’re always looking to grow, there will always be another bottleneck. Your job is to identify it and to fix it, and realize that you will get incremental and even exponential gains in doing so, but it’s never going to be infinite.
Your strategy is all about focusing on the highest point of leverage, the one thing that you can change that will have a positive effect on everything else that you do. And when you fix it, you move on to the next one.”
Believing a strategy can double or triple your income is not easy. Even though an approach may appear very feasible, most of us are intrinsically risk averse and our cynical brain may dismiss it entirely.
While we can use process improvement methodologies to help get any problems ironed out in the machinery, we also need to be looking at whether the machine as a whole is doing what it’s intended to do – that is, to support the business growth strategy we pick.
The Most Typical Question I Get Asked by Small Business Owners
A business owner will come to me for help and we used the Leverage Test to identify the areas for improvement – the barriers and bottlenecks, the blind spots.
The question I get more than anything else is “how can I get more clients”. Unless you have a constant stream of leads and clients coming into your business, you can understand why. It’s a pretty basic first stage of building a successful business – client acquisition.
Now, in answering that question, we could have dived into all kinds of marketing tactics, the flavour of the month especially as one business was asking if they should use LinkedIn sales navigator to help find the right clients to talk to. And that’s kind of asking the wrong question, or rather you’re asking it too soon; there are other questions to address that go back to the fundamentals of your business design.
So here’s what the Leverage Test shading pattern revealed. We have lots of red, but not much orange, and it was kind of patchy in the greens. This suggests they have a high level of clarity around their purpose (the aligning dimension, the red areas), but that this it’s not well aligned to their target audience or being communicated effectively in their brand (the orange-gold sections).
The variations in the beige-green areas suggests that they may be productive and get results (the pricing and systematising dimensions), but are possibly charging too little (in value for money terms) and there is little leverage in terms of streamlining and expansion of their operational processes.
The biggest reveal – their big aha moment – was when they realised that even if they got more clients, they weren’t set up well to accommodate them. You could well argue it would be a nice problem to have, but actually that’s pretty stressful problem to have and when you’re a specialist service provider you can’t just hire someone in and ramp up capacity, at least not in the areas that matter to customer fulfilment and service quality.
Being able to identify the general area of barriers and bottlenecks in your business as well as the specific steps in your operating process is a super important skill to learn how to do for two reasons.
Firstly, these constraints can snowball on your overall revenue and capacity to grow, so you need to look at your business as a whole. And secondly, there’s always a bottleneck in a business even if it’s a small one.
Learn how to find and resolve the most constraining one first and keep your eyes on your key performance indicators that illuminate new ones as your business grows. As you expand the capacity of one aspect of your business, it can create a build-up of problems in another aspect.
So that’s why this kind of business diagnostic as a holistic framework helps enormously.
I’ve used this the iSuccess framework for many years working with my clients and it’s proven very effective for driving our leveraged business ambitions and strategy. It’s a self-evaluation exercise that helps people to identify their bottlenecks and create an action plan that’s going to prioritise where to make improvements so they’re using time wisely in what they’re doing and it helps get them the results they want.
The Leverage Test is included in the companion workbook that’s free with my book and I’ll put the link in the show notes too. In there, you’ll find a detailed explanation for each element plus further questions to reflect on. I’d definitely urge you to use it to delve more deeply into the self-evaluation, so that you arrive at well-thought through findings.
When looking at their own business, clients tell me they can’t “see” the weaknesses. Remember, we all have blind spots! Helping them overcome possible mindset, marketing and money blocks can help cut to the heart of what’s holding back momentum and growth in the business.
The Leverage Test helps shine some light on what’s hiding in those blind spots. For instance, imagine if you wanted to attract a consistent stream of clients to your business, but also increase how many clients you can serve beyond the constraints of trading time for money, what would need to be in place?
We then map those 14 critical elements against the flywheel components for the Leveraged Business – and it illuminates whether you need to work on the inner core (leveraging YOU), your marketing, sales and/or delivery model. (There’s a colourful little mapping table I created for this, and I’ve put that in the show notes for you too.)
Once you can see the priority areas for your business, if you want support to implement your action plan, then do look to joining the Leveraged Business Accelerator – we go through the diagnostic together and create a digital roadmap as an action plan to implement improvements. It’s our flagship program in the iSuccess Business Academy.
How to Apply an Expert System Diagnostic to Your Business
Now, look – I know that’s a bit of a whirlwind overview. And I pointed you to my book, in part because it’s awesome 🙂 but also because there’s lots more lovely visuals in it and the companion workbook has way more detailed explanations about the 14 elements and analysis examples.
Even for the audiobook which just came out a couple of weeks ago, I give listeners a free downloadable so they have all the visuals and references to quotes, figures and tables.
Anyhow, for now I just want you to see how the iSuccess wheel – the “cog” or engine – fits within the larger leveraged business flywheel, so that you see how improving each element helps drive business acceleration.
As a service provider, it’s great using a visual model like this because it provides your audience of potential clients with a clear view of your solution. It’s like seeing the map and most of us like to have a sense of the road ahead, right?
For you, I’m hoping it gives you an example of what an expert system actually looks like, in visual graphic design terms. It’s your 3-step system or your 5-step process, or your 7-step framework … and clients like to have this mapped out too because it’s clear, it’s tangible and it’s exciting!
I’ve deliberately kept mine to simple SmartArt graphics as I teach packaging your expert system to my clients and I always want to emphasise that anyone can easily create a visual like this for their own expert system. It doesn’t have to be a flashy design, that’s not the point.
By the way, from a leveraged marketing point of view, this expert system is what helps differentiate what I do to what anyone else does. Because it’s unique to me, it’s proprietary – I created it.
And from a leveraged delivery point of view, it forms the basis of the diagnostic review and improvement work I do with a client. This one little system – this framework – has proved itself time and again as a reliable tool for resolving the typical business challenges and common frustrations my clients face that I outlined in chapter 1 of my book – the power of leverage.
So when I turned that framework into a program, I can show it looks a bit like this.
I’m sure you have an expert process too – even if it’s not yet explicit or you haven’t given it a name. And there’s all kinds of graphics and infographics you can create around it once you’re clear – but that’s a topic for another article, another time!
Get in touch and let me know if that’s something you’d like me to talk more about or reach out on social media.
Want more help with improving small business performance?
I’d love to connect with you and welcome you into the world of iSuccess for leveraged business building and find out more what your challenges and support needs are.
In the meantime, here are other ways you can tap into the business acceleration I help small business owners with.
1. You can grab a copy of my best selling book – now just out as an audiobook – to get a much deeper dive into everything, including a free digital downloadable workbook that gives you The Leverage Test self-evaluation and activity checklist based around the 7-Dimensions of Success framework.
2. You can book a Strategy discovery call with me to identify how to bridge the gap between where you are now and where you want to be.
3. Check out my 12-week Leveraged Business Accelerator program – currently open for enrolment. Places each month are very limited.