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Hold that Thought

“Hold that Thought”

Keep track of good ideas and advice for just-in-time inspiration.

The perspectives and insights you gather from others may not help you in the short term, but they can gain importance later when your business enters a new stage or reaches a pivotal moment in its growth. There’s just one problem: How do you keep that advice from fading over time?

Hold on to knowledge

To derive long-term value from advice and ideas that cross your path, you need a retention system. By capturing tidbits of knowledge and placing them in a mental lockbox, you can draw upon them as needed in the future:

Keep a log. Dedicate a computer file or spiral-bound notepad for jotting your brainstorms or pearls of wisdom that you glean from others. Make sure your log is accessible at all times so that you can make entries quickly with a minimum of disruption.

Decide which type of log works best for you. If you travel frequently, you may want to use a handheld microcassette recorder or laptop computer. For simplicity, you might prefer keeping a pad and pen handy. This low-tech solution allows you to take notes whenever you run into someone who mentions compelling facts, opinions or feedback that you might otherwise forget.

Schedule a follow-up. Your first impressions can taint your reaction to the advice or ideas that you hear. If you’re steeped in a crisis, for example, you may lack the ability to concentrate, much less appreciate, a solid-gold insight or idea. To judge input fairly and remember it accurately, make an appointment with yourself to rethink the advice. Flip through your daily planner, pick a date about two weeks away and set aside a time to revisit the issue.

Set prerequisites. Identify what conditions need to exist or what evidence you need to see before applying or taking action on any advice or idea. That way, you’ll know if and when it’s time to act. For example, a consultant may suggest that you invest in HR-management software. You decide it’s worth pursuing once you have 10 full-time employees and your human resources costs exceed a certain amount.

Activate your mind

Mentally file information into three broad categories of your choosing. For instance, classify advice or ideas under the headings supply, demand or people: Supply could relate to managing inventory and acquiring raw materials; demand could include packaging and product development; people issues could encompass staffing, payroll and training. (Other headings might include customers/ employees/suppliers or problem/ cause/solution).

The more information you take in, the harder it becomes to remember. Try keeping a three-column worksheet with each column heading corresponding to your three categories. When you’re ready to act on an idea, you can quickly retrieve it from the appropriate category.

For example, after meeting a client, Andy Slavitt, CEO of HealthAllies, had an idea to introduce a debit card to satisfy the client’s needs. He wrote it in his notebook. Two weeks later, he explained the idea to the client.

“He loved it,” Slavitt recalls. “By waiting a bit, it showed the client I was responsive and a good listener.”

Writer: Morey Stettner, a management writer and trainer in Portsmouth, N.H., is author of “Skills for New Managers” (McGraw-Hill, 2000). stettner@attbi.com

CEOs Making it Happen: Retaining Feedback

Avoiding the ‘LIFO trap’

Andy Slavitt Andy Slavitt’s secret weapon is his notebook. Slavitt is CEO of HealthAllies, a Glendale, Calif.-based provider of discount health benefits, which he founded in 1999. Revenues grew 600% from 2000 to 2001, and he expects 300% growth this year.

For Slavitt, keeping a notebook of his ideas helps him decide the best time to charge ahead — or wait. Each page of Slavitt’s notebook has 45 line items, and each line item is an idea.

Slavitt estimates that he has 200 “open items” at any given time. He writes codes in the margin such as P, S and M to signify whether the idea relates to products, sales or management, and he reviews the list about seven times a day.

Slavitt finds that his notebook prevents him from falling into the “LIFO trap,” which stands for last in, first out. “The danger of LIFO is that you automatically think the last idea you heard is the one you have to work on now,” he explains. “It’s better to have a system to track ideas over time. That helps you get the bigger things done, rather than just reacting.”

Advice that sinks in

Wendy Spivak Soon after Wendy Spivak and her partner launched their public relations firm in 1996, an adviser made a recommendation: Hire a technology consultant who really understands your business.

It took more than a year for her to act on the adviser’s advice and put a top IT consultant on retainer. “Now we’ve got this great consultant who helps us with everything relating to how we use technology,” says Spivak, cofounder of The Castle Group Inc. in Boston, which has $2.5 million in sales.

Another adviser told Spivak that “culture doesn’t just happen,” that a business owner must actively create a stimulating work environment. At the time, the comment didn’t resonate with Spivak.

But 18 months later, as her company grew from five to 12 employees, she recalled that advice. That’s when she decided to promote teamwork, host group celebrations, increase her accessibility among employees and encourage “cross-germination of great ideas.”

Buy from us, sell to us

Hanz Scholz When Hanz Scholz heard that Jaguar was buying back used vehicles, refurbishing the cars and selling them as “pre-owned” with a fresh warranty, he thought, “What a great idea!”

Co-founder of Bike Friday, a high-end bike manufacturer in Eugene, Ore., Scholz thought he could borrow Jaguar’s idea. But he wasn’t sure how. So he stored the information for a few months.

Ultimately, he decided to launch a used-bike program that guarantees new buyers can receive at least 40% of what they paid if they want to trade in their bike — regardless of its condition.

“It’s important to make sure your product is perceived as high quality,” Scholz says. “We keep our bikes from getting junky by giving a higher-than-normal resale value to our customers.”

In the 10 years since Scholz and his brother founded Bike Friday, it has grown an average of 40% a year.

“We set up the used-bike program about six months after I first thought about it. During that time, we made sure it would work,” he says.