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Book Review: Traction

August 17, 2020

Cover: TractionOver the past several years, I’ve been spending more of my time working with startups, entrepreneurs, and solopreneurs. Many founders have a lot of passion for their ideas and fervently believe they can build a successful company. There are also many programs available to help businesses start up, through grants and matching funds. Plus, there is a plethora of books, Web sites, and other information available to help founders go through the mechanics of establishing a business and filing the right paperwork.

But what startups are often missing is the ability to effectively manage and lead an organization as it grows. When the time comes to turn an idea for a business into a functioning team that can execute on the business’s purpose, things can get a bit dicey. As a result, these young businesses often tread water, make little progress, hire the wrong people, and fail to build a plan for growing the business. They may have great plans for building technology, but they need help getting on a path to success.

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In his book Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business, Gino Wickman provides an operating system for businesses seeking consistency in quality, growth, and processes from the outset. Wickman provides a series of scenarios in which startups could benefit from leveraging the Traction methodology. Whether you’re dealing with an unprofitable business, a business that is simply reacting to the market, stalling growth, or poor team performance, this book provides a series of tools and templates for effectively running a business.

Book Specifications

Title: Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business

Author: Gino Wickman

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, MP3 CD, Audible, and Kindle

Publisher: BenBella Books

Published: April 3, 2012

Pages: 246

ISBN-10: 1936661837

ISBN-13: 978-1936661831

Aligning on a Vision

Among the tools Wickman introduces is the Visual Traction Organizer (VTO). Without getting into the details of how to build your own VTO, I’ll just say that this tool is similar to other business-organization tools—especially Strategyzer’s Business Model Canvas. The VTO helps focus the business on core concepts—the first among them being values. When an organization knows its values, it is much easier to identify the right people, the right products, and the right customers. Simply put, if the values of a team member are out of step with those of the firm, there will be tension, conflict, and probably poor performance all around.

Similarly, the VTO helps a firm focus on its core value proposition—the kind of business it should pursue. The book’s general advice is to choose a small number of things that you do better than anyone else, then focus on executing against that capability. Companies can find themselves getting into trouble when they expand their business scope without a solid rationale—something other than growth. More often than not, especially for small businesses, expanding their scope distracts them from their core value, and the entire business suffers. In general, companies would actually do better to focus on execution.

An example of this issue might be a commercial construction firm’s deciding to get into residential leasing. While it might be true that the firm has experience building multitenant homes, building and managing them are not the same thing. They would need to develop new capabilities such as marketing to a new audience, developing building and grounds maintenance, and managing utilities and renters. Even though the prospect of low-effort, recurring revenue is attractive, it is important that such a firm not simply chase revenue because they can. This is not to say that a developer could not or should not also manage buildings—many have. But any expansion into a new business or market must be in alignment with the organization’s vision.

Putting the Right People in the Right Roles

A cliché among companies is: “Our people are our greatest asset”—or some variation of that statement. Wickman takes a pragmatic, direct view of people in organizations. As he writes, you must surround yourself with good people. That starts and ends with their alignment with the organization’s values. No matter how talented people are, if their values are out of step with a company’s culture, the organization’s morale and performance suffer. Throughout his chapter on people, Wickman describes how getting the right person in the right position yields significant outcomes for a business.

Traction provides a straightforward framework for evaluating talent and their performance. Wickman’s five-by-five method begins with evaluating the frequency with which an employee demonstrates organizational values and the employee’s outcomes rather than evaluating employees by their achievements alone. This method recognizes that certain innate attributes—such as attitude and trustworthiness—ultimately lead to stronger teams and better outcomes. When organizations recognize this, teams can realize that good talent might be in the wrong position within the organization—rather than dismissing people who have strong values, but mediocre performance in a specific position. This approach gives flexibility and enables companies to retain and reassign talent.

Knowing the Numbers

Many fixate on the top-line numbers that leading organizations publicize. I recall, from my time at Eaton, when our then-CEO led five-year strategy meetings with top leaders, he would issue big growth goals. For an enterprise of that size, seeking aggressive growth typically meant growing by ten digits. While those were big goals, Sandy Cutler had great talent for breaking the numbers down. He demonstrated that, when each unit of the organization and each department in the unit took charge of their own goals and aligned on enterprise goals, these results were very achievable. This might seem simplistic, but it was during that time that I realized big numbers are really just a bunch of smaller numbers that a leader has added up.

Similarly, Wickman advises that all members of your organization should have a number. Not an employee number, but a metric they are responsible for optimizing, no matter what. It could be days outstanding for invoices, leads generated, or the duration of jobs. If every person in an organization knows their number and works to achieve that goal, all parts of the organization are working in harmony toward reaching their goals.

Holding Productive Meetings

I’m well known among my colleagues for absolutely hating meetings. It’s not that I dislike seeing my colleagues or working with other people. The trouble is that most meetings take too long, don’t have an agenda, don’t have an outcome, and are, frankly, unnecessary. There is nothing more demoralizing to talented, action-oriented professionals than having their energy sapped by having meetings during which they decide nothing and nobody knows what happened.

Most managers have trouble managing meetings effectively. We find ourselves chasing down—or making up—agenda items, for an agenda we must write down, for a meeting we think is necessary.

Perhaps the biggest thing I gained from Traction was its Level 10, or L10, meeting format. Using this format, you can keep meetings brief, with everyone’s attention focused on topics that move objectives forward. It employs a standard agenda that you can use not just in planning a meeting but also in running the meeting. In the organizations with which I’ve worked that use L10 meetings, things get done and everyone has a say.

Conclusion

Many of the concepts that Traction presents might seem familiar if you’ve worked in a highly process-oriented environment. To be fair, the book offers many other very useful lessons. But the biggest benefit that Traction delivers is to the firm that is trying to figure out its growth strategy.

Some firms try to develop their own operating systems. Toyota has the Toyota Production System, and when I was at Eaton, we had the Eaton Business System. Some smaller firms try to create their own operating systems, giving them names such as The A Company System or The Fanatical Client. Unless you are leading a sizable firm with the resources to properly invest in developing, documenting, training, and promoting a company-wide system, you are much better off adopting a proven system such as that of Traction.

Traction can become very jargon heavy. The organizations that embrace its methods frequently throw around references to L10s, VTOs, and Five-by-Fives. This jargon can obscure the value of the methods the book presents. Nonetheless, the methods are valuable.

If you are running a business and trying to figure out how to move your organization forward, do yourself, your employees, and your customers a favor: read Traction and apply its lessons. 

Vice President, User Experience at Metisentry

Owner of TheoremCX

Kent, Ohio, USA

D. Ben WoodsBen began his career in 1999, when businesses were just beginning to recognize the World Wide Web as a valuable tool. Prior to his appointment at Kent State, he held positions as a UX designer and UX manager. He has worked with global teams and a variety of consulting firms to deliver research and design that improved digital experiences for customers. He has also developed his organizations’ analytics discipline to track the performance of digital properties and identify opportunities for improvement. Ben’s company TheoremCX is an innovation firm that provides customer-focused solutions. He has developed solutions and corporate workshops for a variety of organizations around the world, including Eaton, General Electric, Knoch Corporation, and Orange S.A. Ben is the chairperson of UX Akron, a nonprofit professional network serving Summit and Portage Counties, as well as all of Northeast Ohio.  Read More

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