Business & Policy
Good decisions come from better questions
By Peter Darbishire
Are you ready to take action on a new idea?
For the third year in succession, a select group of farm producers from across
Canada attended 'Grower University' at the invitation of Syngenta Crop Protection.
They were, in the words of their program director, Professor Don Barclay, some
of "The best producers in the country."
Barclay is associate professor of marketing at the Richard Ivey School of Business
at the University of Western Ontario in London. This special course is designed
to help farmers develop their business management skills, from understanding
and leveraging financials, to developing staff, communication and looking for
opportunities to add value and profitability to their operations. It is an intensive
four day workshop learning experience in which Barclay and his colleagues encourage
these business managers to learn, through active participation, completing exercises
individually, and in small and large groups, about how to improve their management
Most of the course is conducted on-campus at the university, but one element,
a local farm tour to a previous graduate's farm, is included. It is an initiative
of Syngenta Crop Protection Canada which, according to the company's president,
Jay Bradshaw, has caught the attention of the company on a worldwide basis.
I was invited to sit in on a part of one element of the course led by Barclay:
Looking for Opportunities. The starting point, says Barclay, is asking better
questions to identify and qualify an opportunity. Answers to the 'right questions'
should allow managers to get focussed, then guide them to choosing a decision
to take the leap or to back away. "Asking the questions that give the answers,"
he says, "is the first step."
With the participants, Barclay developed a number of questions to ask ranging
over various areas, including: Is there a customer base for the prospective
new enterprise? In other words, is there a market? How big is the market? Is
it growing or shrinking, where is it in its own life cycle, or how mature is
it? Are conditions right for someone to make money? "Apply the pest test,"
says Barclay. "What is the Political, Economic, Social and Technological
environment that convinces you that this is an opportunity?"
Can we meet 'customer needs' in a sustainable way so as to develop loyalty?
Can we get customers to give up what they are doing now, including their current
suppliers so that we can be chosen? Can we handle existing 'competitors', other
potential newcomers or new solutions that might be more advanced? How will competitors
react if we start up? The manager must look to the 'management preferences'.
How will the enterprise fit with his style or personality?
Can we do it? Do we have the fundamental 'capabilities and core competencies'
needed to do something the competition cannot, or do better than the competition?
Do we have the finances? The people?
What investment is required? Is cash available to sustain the business until
it can be profitable? Will there be a return on the investment? Will I know
when to cut my losses if it does not work out; will I have the guts to pull
the plug, or exit by selling or handing off the enterprise?
Can I implement the idea? The plan should include supply agreements, cash flow
considerations and the ability to keep it separate from the existing business.
Will I be able to get things done in a timely manner so that the window of opportunity
does not close? Throughout this process, strategic issues or potential show
stoppers might surface. The question here is can I get over these hurdles?
"Any element of any of these questions can relate back to an element of
another, especially those that are strategic issues," stresses Barclay.
The concepts apply whether a farmer is proposing to start a custom spraying
business, buy a local farm equipment dealership or simply trying to grow a new
crop. "The idea is to mitigate risk using the information gained from answers
to these questions and others," he says, adding that each individual's
risk tolerance will be different. "For some, they have 70 percent of the
information and have done 70 percent of the analysis and are 70 percent confident,
that's good enough, go for it. For others the numbers would be different."
Barclay has some sage parting notes on the subject too: "Share the ideas,
questions and answers with your business partners; have realistic time lines
and ask 'who will help to make it happen?' Then, ask yourself: 'Am I excited
about taking action?' and 'Does my gut tell me it's a good idea?'" -30-