Going viral: man plans, God laughs

“I’m a big believer in ‘man plans, God laughs.’”

The adage has manifested in Lisa Hershman’s life in many ways. The acting CEO of Scrum Alliance, a nonprofit organization promoting Agile frameworks for businesses, and founder of the DeNovo Group, a global consulting, training and research firm, has stumbled upon many contradictions to get to where she is.

In one example, Hershman went to college to study chemistry, but came out with a degree in engineering, distribution and logistics. Even science was too abstract for her. She preferred pure analysis.

In another, she found herself, among the first women in her field, to take the upper hand while dealing with her male superiors.

“One of my first bosses at GE said to me, ‘I’ve never had a woman report to me before and I’m not sure where to begin.’ I had to help put him at ease by telling him we’d take it one step at a time and invited him to lunch,” she says.

Her twisting, turning life has prepared her well to advise businesses through one of the greatest obstacle courses many will ever face: going viral. These days it’s a goal for many entrepreneurs, but the mechanics of actually scaling your business to viral proportions can be cumbersome and, in some cases, treacherous.

Hershman, an operational expert and master of data interpretation, says the most common mistakes companies make while going viral are:

Assuming the company knows what the customer wants

“We get comfortable and we stop asking questions of our customers,” Hershman says of the understandable trap into which many businesses fall.

She cautions companies not to stop probing the marketplace, especially when demand skyrockets. In stages of going viral, she even recommends a shift in the types of questions asked. Instead of ‘what do you want from our catalogue?’ ask ‘what are you challenged with?’ The answer may better prepare a company to shift with the changing needs of a marketplace.

In other words, get reacquainted with your customer. The higher your level of success, the deeper your ability to understand your consumer base.

Being unwilling to let go

In Hershman’s profession of advising and consulting, she tends to meet resistance often. Typically, it comes from upper management who have a fear of change.

If a company needs to shift branding or production strategies, she recommends addressing the emotional aspect of the change first. Wondering where to begin?

“If you can ask your company what the impact is of not doing anything, you can usually create an internal call to action,” she says.

Not reassessing measures of success

The way in which a company measures its success will undoubtedly change with scale. In the beginning phases, a business may be focused more heavily on building a following. Once progress has been made there, the next step might be diversifying products. Then, the next challenge could be speeding up product delivery.

To keep evaluation techniques in line with the company’s scale, maintain a consumer-focused approach. For example, a call center’s employees may be reaching for a certain number of calls answered per day. A consumer-focused approach would shift that goal to number of resolutions for customers reached per day.

The path to success is rarely straightforward

Taking Hershman’s hard earned advice can help steer companies down the right path if the coveted bolt of viral interest strikes. But as the Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education has learned all too well, even our best planning can’t prevent surprises.

Man plans. God laughs. Woman reacts. Business booms.

In the chaotic realm of rapid business growth, twists and turns are sure to unfold. We can plan our way through some of them, but the ability to trust an instinct can’t be overlooked.

“I was willing to take risks. At one point in my career, I took two steps backwards in order to make a giant leap forward,” Hershman says, referring to leaving a Vice President position at a $30 million company to become a Senior Manager at $200 billion company. Trading a job title for greater opportunity, she is now at the peak of her career.

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