Managing your gunpowder

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Best-selling author Jim Collins (“Good to Great” and “Great by Choice”) likes to say, “Fire bullets, not cannonballs.” The idea is that you first fire bullets (low-cost, low-risk, low-distraction experiments) to figure out what might work — calibrating your line of sight by taking small shots. Only after you have empirical validation that something new could work should you fire a heavy cannonball (concentrating resources into a big bet) on the calibrated line of sight.

According to Collins and his legion of followers, “Calibrated cannonballs correlate with outsized results; uncalibrated cannonballs correlate with disaster.” In other words, the ability to turn small proven ideas (bullets) into huge hits (cannonballs) counts more than the sheer amount of pure innovation.

As an organization, you must decide at some point where you want to fire your cannon. Ask yourself, “What kind of a firm do we really want to be?” By the way, sitting back passively without firing your cannon is NOT an option today. As legendary CEO, Jack Welch always said, “If the rate of change outside your organization exceeds the rate of change on the inside, then the end is near.”

Unfortunately, too many CPA firms are content not to fire. It’s a lot easier to stay in your lane than it is to get out of your comfort zone and try something new. But, your gunpowder is not doing you any good when it’s just kept in storage. Inertia is not an option.

Calibrating your lines of sight

There are always going to be potential opportunities and initiatives (not to mention threats) at your firm. How do you figure out which ones to fire the cannon at? Before answering that question, keep in mind that you are really calibrating two two lines of sight, not just one:

1. You’re calibrating at the firm level and

2. You’re calibrating at the individual partner level.

At the firm level, the ultimate cannonballs may be around initiatives like upgrading technology, brand messaging and creating a world-class client experience. At the partner level, it could be establishing yourself as the go-to expert about physician practice management issues — the expert that every webinar and conference producer wants to invite on as a guest.

Whether you’re using your gunpowder to attack or defend, you have to decide where you want to put your efforts. Like your stash of gunpowder, your energy and your resources are not unlimited. You have to be strategic about where to focus. What do you want to be known for? When you figure that out, don’t just fire away.

Collins talks about calibrating your line of sight — making sure you’re pointing at the right spot before you commit to hitting the target in a big way. But you have to commit to firing at something. As U.S. Army General Eric Shinseki used to say, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

Getting started on the path to greatness

Start by focusing on your firm’s strengths. It’s better to get very good at something you already do well than to try to get “less bad” at things you and your team don’t do well. By the way, it’s very hard to do an honest self-assessment. Don’t waste time and money on brainstorming sessions or off-site retreats. Instead, ask your best clients what they think you’re already doing well and let them tell you what they think “great” would look like.

Think of client feedback as bullets. The bullets are what allow you to keep pinging away in a low-risk way as you start to calibrate your line of sight more accurately. Then ask, “Is this something we can actually do? Is it scalable? Is this somewhere we want to go?”

Example: Our firm is redoing its client newsletter and we’re in the bullet-firing stage. Like many firms, we used to rely on generic private-label content from an outside provider. There was nothing wrong with the articles — they just didn’t sound like us, and every other firm in town was using the same stories. The newsletter wasn’t being read very much. It wasn’t being shared. It was just kind of there. You can’t afford to take your email newsletter lightly. It’s your Trojan Horse for getting into the sacred ground of your clients’ (and prospective clients’) inboxes.

We learned that clients don’t care about highly technical material such as ASC 606 or Section 179. They want to know how to avoid missing deadlines and how to make smarter decisions with their money. Most of all they want to know about the people and changes at our firm. What happened at the last client event? When is the next planning workshop?

Based on this feedback, we are committed to changing our newsletter from a tax reference guide to a monthly team update that showcases our firm’s biggest asset — our team. Nobody works with a firm; they work with a person. It’s the same way in the medical profession. Patients don’t go to Methodist Hospital; they go to see Dr. Smith.

By the way, this concept of firing bullets before cannonballs applies to all parts of your life, not just your work. It could be learning a new language, exploring a new sport, or embarking on a fitness or weight loss regimen. Calibrate your line of sight before going gung-ho. This will greatly increase your chance of smooth sailing and minimize the risk of running out of powder on the high seas with an enemy armada in your line of sight.

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