Spark Blog

Public Sector vs. Innovation?

innovate_or_dieAs someone involved in transformation in local government, it feels like we’ve been skirting round the subject of public sector innovation for a while now – or, should I say, consultants and advisers do the talking but the public sector is still a little startled by it all?

There are courses on public sector innovation, commercialization and income generation and we talk endlessly about new models of service delivery, budget integration and the prevention agenda.

What’s the reality?

We see articles on how some organizations have transformed and innovated their way through austerity but what is really happening on the ground?  Where are the new ideas coming from, who is driving them forward and are they making a difference?

The public sector should be good at intrapreneurship: the public and not-for-profit sectors are full of people passionate about their vocations, motivated by delivering public service rather than commercial gain: eager to do more.

Many of our organizations are large with plenty of (internal and external) networks ready to nurture new ideas and they have the potential to leverage hidden pots of knowledge and resource as well as have access to customers that can help shape and grow new ways of doing things.

As large organizations we should be big enough to deal with failure if an innovation doesn’t work and able to scale up if it does.

The key question

So here is the key question: why do we continually fail to deliver transformational change and tackle entrenched social and economic problems?

What is it that the sector isn’t getting?

  • We are failing to understand that innovation is not the same as improvement, efficiency or value for money – we concentrate all our efforts on the latter and often actively discourage novel approaches;
  • We are often unable to clearly identify the challenges we face and actively generate ideas (preferring to rework current programmes);
  • We are too good at continuous improvement (and continuous salami slicing of budgets): it has delivered in the past and enabled us to create safe and stable environments (or silos).  We approach financial planning in the same way year on year even when it only delivers the same outcomes;
  • We are risk averse and prefer to see the status quo managed rather than a big idea fail, we do not value learning from failure.

I know that this analysis isn’t new: the blocks and barriers to innovation in the public sector have long been identified by business schools, bloggers, and every customer and employee on the frontline – so what can we do to action this?

What can we do?

As ever, it’s easy to identify solutions and hard to deliver change, but a good place to start is by looking at the key components or make up of a large organisation:

  • Work with our leaders, managers and teams to encourage innovative thinking, confirming the value of improvement but exploring the benefits of new ideas, encouraging novel approaches and developing a new view of risk;
  • Spell out the scale of the challenges facing our sector (in ways that people understand) and canvas our organizations, partners and customers for solutions;
  • Create a culture of profit & loss – encourage people to consider financial ROI as well as their social ROI;
  • Learn to fail small and fail fast

Cornerstones of Public Sector Innovation

Process – innovation isn’t magic.  It’s about understanding our challenges, creating new ideas and approaches, incubating and developing, piloting and scaling up.  Innovation is a process: if it helps to deconstruct it or map it out with post it notes, then go for it.  Just be aware that processes need to be invented, tested, broken, fixed and tweaked.  Processes need to be owned if they are to work.  Challenge process that blocks innovation (e.g budget rounds that always ask for 5% savings). I think what is also import here is this: today’s process may become redundant tomorrow – so be prepared to kill it, if need be.

Performance – rewarding what matters: incentivize the creation of new ideas and the people that deliver them (and stop incentivizing the status quo!).

Resource – innovation needs resource: people need time to work up and incubate their ideas; they need space to test the ideas and support and encouragement to bring them forward.  And if an idea has potential, it may need start-up funding so we need to start thinking about how we can work out the ROI – this is something that can be difficult for the public sector to grasp, but this is the new world, I guess!

Leadership – bold and brave leadership with an understanding of risk and an appreciation of what happens if we fail to take them. Importantly, the leaders have to be seen to be supporting this – actions speak louder than words.

People – let’s be clear about what we expect from our people and then let them do it.

Where is this heading?

In a public sector / 3rd sector context, we need a renewed understanding of the challenges that we face and our collective responsibility to innovate to tackle them.

There is a need for a fundamental readjustment of the relationship between leaders (both elected and organizational) and employees and to consider the dysfunctional behaviours within any large and established organization – we should be identifying collaboratively intelligent people who work across silos, get things done and ask the difficult questions.

As well as identifying these people, they should be rewarded, trained, supported and mentored as we encourage them to become intrapreneurs and leaders who actively enable innovation – and then giving them the space and resources (time and motivation) to support it.

We need to blur the boundaries between the public and private sectors. The public sector should be able to monetize its ideas and products; we should be actively seeking investment and partnerships with the private sector and developing a real understanding (if necessary in monetary terms) of the social value of what we do. In some places this is happening but a critical mass is needed to make this a new norm for the sector.

Simply put as a sector we have to invest in managing innovation and creating leaders who understand that social value is created through innovation rather than through the continuous improvement of KPIs. And the rewards are great.

There is no denying that the public sector management challenges are broad in scale and deep in complexity:

  • funding and organising a health and social care service to support an aging population;
  • designing an education system that is fit for the future;
  • creating places and spaces that balance the needs of business and communities;
  • preventing teenage conception;
  • reducing alcohol dependency;
  • preventing cycles of worklessness and benefits dependency

If you are up for a challenge this is the sector to be in, and it really needs intrapreneurs to shake it up.

Claire Taylor currently manages the delivery of a public sector innovation program for local government in the UK. With a Public Sector MBA, she is responsible for the deployment of innovation in a 3-way council including new approaches to governance, business operation, performance, revenue generation and idea development.

Our Town – Funding The Ecosystem

MICHELLE WILLIAMS Operations Director

Operations Director

“Development Funds are a long-established approach to finding ways to create employment and boost local economies.”

Through our international work, I have seen flavors of community funding and have been able to bring different ideas and integrate them with our Community Ecosystem Model which draws together all of the aspects required to ensure the realization of specific benefits.

For example an education ecosystem may focus on ‘employability of graduates’ whereas an ‘enterprise ecosystem’ may expect to see success in the number and sustainability of startups.

All successful ecosystems demonstrate joined up thinking – reducing the disconnect.

The Ecosystem Disconnect

From what I have seen so far, many ecosystems tend to be disjointed with too many stakeholders / interested parties with too many vested interests – so much so that the benefits are forgotten and the initiative fails. By assigning a central point, the ecosystem has something to revolve around – consider the ecosystem orbiting a centrepoint which is the desired benefit.

The main elements of any ecosystem are: public sector; private sector; community; academia; resources; funding. It is rare to see stakeholders from all six areas working cohesively – partly due to time-constraints and partly due to personalities.

Ecosystem Contributions

Stakeholders come to the table with their own ideas – and will push them as hard as possible to be the ‘solution of choice’ – even if it is unsuitable for this particular ecosystem. If their idea is not taken on, they lose interest, undermine the initiative or overtly resist – either way, the people that should be benefiting from the ecosystem are put at a disadvantage.

We have addressed this by securing ‘buy-ins’ from the stakeholders. These buy-ins differ from region to region, town to town, ecosystem to ecosystem… but the principle of ‘buy-in’ remains.

For example there is an identified community need for an enterprise & employability ecosystem – this might raise such buy-ins as:

  • Public sector – Access to public sector facilities
  • Private sector – Mentoring program
  • Community – Involvement in community projects
  • Academia – Delivery of academically-recognized training
  • Resources – Inclusion in enterprise & employability incubator / accelerator
  • Funding – Seed capital for startups

At this stage, we are not being too prescriptive about how each stakeholder will deliver; we are simply securing a commitment to deliver. By ensuring that all stakeholders ‘buy into’ the ecosystem, their vested interest becomes the success of the ecosystem itself.

For the ecosystem to come to life, we require funding.

Ecosystem Funding

There are two distinct layers of funding for the ecosystem: start-up and operation.

For the start-up, Spark works with the stakeholders in the creation of a fund – working within local legal guidelines, Spark creates a Business Development Fund specifically for the ecosystem - the equity in the fund is bought by the stakeholders as part of their ‘buy-in’.

As an example, the stakeholders may agree that to deliver on all required benefits, a start-up fund of $1.5m is needed. Contributions to the fund come from the stakeholders. For the sake of discretion, I won’t go into detail about how this works as this undermines our competitive advantage!

We appreciate that ‘buy-in’ comes at a cost. In fact, attaching a cost to the buy-in creates a perceived value – the stakeholders may take longer to make a decision about becoming involved but, when they do sign up, they are committed to the venture.

In some countries, the fund is then floated on the markets but we tend to advocate that the fund stays within the walls of the ecosystem.

With the ecosystem being P&L driven, there are different economic drivers set within it – and we have a series of ways to boost employability and enterprise even further.

The benefits are obvious: the public sector sees fewer unemployed people, an increase in local businesses, rising business taxes; the private sector is growing its potential client base; the community is seeing enterprises that address community needs.

Community Crowd-Source

We are hearing a lot about the crowd-funding of civic initiatives – some people refer to it as the crowd-funded city –
using such organizations as Kickstarter, Spacehive, IOBY, and CitizInvestor to secure financial support from hundreds / thousands of individuals. For example, the Lowline and Plus Pool projects in New York each secured $150,000 in crowd-fund.

Projects that would once have required cash from grants, political allocations or a single interested philanthropist are turning to the power of the community.

We have successfully taken this a stage further, using Ecosystem Funding where we bring donations from each of the 6 main elements. We have wrapped this together under the banner ‘Our Town’ – partly in reference to the growing ‘Transition Town‘ culture centering on pulling together a local ecosystem to support local people.

Our community fund approach draws the stakeholders together and engages the neighborhood – using the principles of match-funding but giving the community a real say in what goes on. Whereas publicly-funded civic projects like ‘public subscription parks’ in the USA (or even the stone base for the Statue of Liberty) may have offered few financial benefits (but fantastic social outcomes), ecosystem-focused business development funds focus on outputs which includes revenue.

Typical crowd-funded civic projects are about green spaces (a small-scale garden or park project in a large city) or temporary projects such as food, training, media and events. ‘Our Town’ is geared more towards the commercial element of enterprise and employability which, obliquely, bring about the social outcome – more taxes paid lead to more social investment.

I honestly believe that community funding is necessary in order to address community needs – and match-funding this with the public and private sectors gives it greater strength.

If you are interested in what we do and how it works, then contact us and we can arrange a meeting.

A former troubleshooter for local government, Michelle is Operations Director of Spark Global Business, responsible for all operational aspects focusing on advice, consultancy and training. She is also Operations Director of the socio-economic development organization, SEEA, ensuring the ongoing development of innovative ecosystems.

What Drives You On?

NEIL FOGARTY Speaker, Writer, Adviser

Speaker, Writer, Adviser

When we work with clients, whatever the discussion, we want to know “what kick-starts you?” and “what keeps you going?”

Over the last few years, most clients have tended to point to legislative, regulatory or competitive reasons for starting a new program of work: they initiate something because they have to rather than want to: they are looking to fix or avoid something rather than necessarily accomplish something.

Now, as we move further away from the 2007 recession, organizations are looking to grow (better, faster, stronger) as opposed to simply slash expenditure and dig down deep until ‘things get better’.

We are in this strange period of transition where organizations are still cutting spending but also demand exceptional goods & services from the suppliers (yes, it looks stupid as I write it, but such is the mentality of many organizations), the catalyst for change is the growth mentality.

But they are still troubled – they want to grow but can’t / won’t invest in it. They want the glory without the hard work.

My immediate advice to people within Spark is to find the really decision maker – find the person with the authority and influence to say ‘yes’ rather than just say ‘no’. In any organization, there are more people that can refuse a sale rather than sign one off.

Now that we have the decision maker in the room… what has led to the meeting: what has happened or is due to happen that has led the client to sit down with us and talk? What is their true catalyst? At this point, my next advice is simple: don’t accept the first answer given! Be prepared to drill down a little to find the true cause and then, when you are there, it’s time to determine the motivator: the positive mindset that will keep everyone going till we reach the end.

Nothing is 'easy'!

Nothing is ‘easy’!

Many clients feel that the catalyst is so powerful and compelling that a motivator is not required. Wrong.

Many business development professionals will take what they are told at face value and then go away believing that they have everything that they need to help craft a solution. Wrong.

The catalyst and motivator need to be fully-articulated and explored as this will help both the client and the supplier to work together on a solution.

And this is the harder part: the best solution may not be the one that procurement / purchasing is telling you. When you understand what the overarching goal is, and you have been able to work out how you can help the client to bridge the gap, then you can present a solution.

In the modern world, certain off-the-shelf sales still exist (standard commodities such as furniture, buildings, stationery) but when it comes to the provision of services, you need to stop being formulaic and you definitely need to avoid being branded as one-size-fits-all.

If you are happy being a transactional sales person (an order-taker) then go for it. It will become a dying art so enjoy it while you can.

Neil is an author, blogger, speaker and adviser on such topics as corporate effectiveness, intrapreneurship, entrepreneurship, and collaborative intelligence. He is the Managing Director of Spark Global Business, responsible for all strategic aspects focusing on advice, consultancy and training to government and private sector clients. He is also Managing Director of the socio-economic development organization, SEEA, designing, building and implementing innovative ecosystems.

Before sending off your business plan (part 2)



The second part of an article by international business consultant and business author, Constantine Amblianitis on creating the right kind of business plan to appeal to investors.

The bottom-line goal of any business plan is to secure funding – your plan will be showing that your idea will be profitable – is your business plan strong enough to excite an investor?

Be honest with yourself…

Will it open the way for you to be sat in front of them, helping them with their due diligence before they provide venture funding for your idea?

The business plan is the key to investment

“The business plan serves as the tool through which the entrepreneur has the ability to convince potential investors regarding the business opportunity he / she suggests and the market he / she is aiming at” (Hellenic Venture Capital Association).

“Venture capitalists consistently emphasize the importance of the management team in an entrepreneurial venture and focus much of their due diligence on the key people involved. They assert that a good idea is only executable when implemented by a top-notch executive team. Personal introductions are the best way to give your plan a chance. Use your network to find mutual acquaintances”. (Stanford Graduate School of Business)

  1. The Investor Deal:

    When you are building your management team, are you bearing in mind the executive value that an investor can bring to the table?

    Recently I was approached by a company seeking $3m investment for a 30% share in the business. They had appointed their auditors to arrive at the rationale behind this reasoning. When I asked them about the kind of investor they had in mind, I was not too surprised to hear that they had not thought about it as most entrepreneurs think about the terms of the deal rather than who they want to bring in as a partner.

    When one considers the many decisions entrepreneurs need to make to achieve their goals, having a well-seasoned business investor who’s been there and done it is invaluable. In fact I would go as far as to say that choosing an investor is more important than defining the terms of the deal.

    To what degree do the deals involved in the venture make sense, given the management team involved the nature of the opportunity and the external environment?

    So what about valuations particularly for a start-up that carries a huge uncertainty? There are a myriad of books written on valuations but, in practice, valuation is more of an art rather than a science. Savvy Investors will base their valuation judgement on their experience and how they may be able to justify the investment to their partners.

    OK, I admit as a qualified accountant I was under the strong impression that investors will make their decisions based on my financial projections and that in fact would be the first place investors would turn to before reading the rest of the business plan. The reality is that in most cases investors would not even bother looking beyond a glance at projections. In fact evidence shows that where numbers are of such high prevalence (five year monthly forecasts) such business plans would end up in the dustbin!

    The vicious circle that goes on with investors and entrepreneurs is that investors know that the numbers are over-ambitious so they would more than half the projections. Entrepreneurs know a haircut is going to be applied and therefore pad the numbers accordingly.

    So what about financials? Here are some pointers:

    • Make sure the Investor can evaluate the key drivers behind your business model. In other words the value chain behind making something and selling something;
    • Establish the breakeven point of your business or more importantly when is your business likely to turn from a negative to a positive cash flow;
    • Provide financial scenarios that show the most optimistic to the most pessimistic picture therefore pre-empting the Investor question;

    Investors will tend to use your Business Plan to perform their due diligence. So be well prepared to back up your statements and assertions.

  2. Content:

    Can you fit your business plan onto one single page?

    We live in a world of micro-blogger sites like Twitter – we are being steadily conditioned to make our point in 140 characters or less. Investors want to get your massages quickly and succinctly and sending a business plan of 80+ pages will simply not fire them up to read it.

    “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” Albert Einstein

    There are many references one can find as to the layout of a business plan. My advice is that before embarking with your formal business plan journey; see if you can write your business plan on a single page. Concentrate on the messages you would want to convey for it will serve you well with your investor pitch. You can then amplify your one page plan into pages and chapters.

    “Give me three weeks and I will write you a short letter.” Mark Twain

    Potential investors expect the plan to be well-presented and look good… but not be over the top. Things to avoid are bad grammar, typos and spelling errors. Below are some further points to consider:

    • Appearance: Be sensible here. A spirally bound document with two hard covers and single color would provide the right balance between photocopied stapled documents (poor presentation) and a book-bound document with gold leaf letters on the front page (extravagant presentation);
    • Length: In practice you should be able to package the business plan in 40 pages. You may provide a separate addendum with supporting documentation or provide it on request;
    • The cover and title page: always include the company name, address and telephone number. The title page follows the cover and besides it’s good design that you repeat the cover information but also type at the top or bottom corner “Copy no:___”. Be careful not to have such a high number here for no investor wants to read a “blasted across the universe copy” 20 copies is regarded as the norm.
    • Executive summary: Maximum two pages here. Your single page business plan should come useful as you focus on being concise. Tell investors the current stage of your enterprise in terms of customer benefits, key financial forecast figures, the company’s future objectives, the finance needed and how they will benefit from this investment. The executive summary is where you capture the investor to read the rest of your document or to forget the whole thing.
    • Table of Contents: a well-designed table of contents to follow the executive summary indicating the chapter names and page numbers only.

To summarize; A business plan is a 40-page document for a prospective venture put together by the founders and their advisers that demonstrates just how they will monetize a great market opportunity. It attempts to convince the reader that the founders have the right team to deliver successfully a strategy and business model to deal with the external environment and be ahead of the curve with completion. Its purpose is to get commitment and consensus among team members. It is also an invitation to targeted investors whom they need to guide them through the journey with their knowledge and experience that will also be part of this new corporate DNA by bridging the resources gap through investment and therefore too – believe in their dream.

Constantine is a consultant with an international senior management background gained through blue chip major multinationals in the pharmaceutical, consulting, technology, aviation, telecommunications, and government sectors. His focus is on transforming local highly entrepreneurial ambitious country organisations into multinationals and managing the delivery of large complex transformation programs for major multinationals and government organisations. Check out CA Management.

Before sending off your business plan (part 1)



OK, so you’ve written your 80-page business plan: it’s taken you weeks to complete and you are about to send it off to potential investors.

The next thing to do is just to send it out, right?

Well, before you dive right in, international business consultant and business author, Constantine Amblianitis has a few thoughts for you.

Take a moment and ask yourself, “what aspect of my business plan is going to impress the investor so much so as to make them want to pick up the phone and call me?”

How will you stand out from the chattering crowd?

My first encounter with investors was in the USA during the dot com era. During this experience, and subsequently ever since, the behavior patterns that I have witnessed from investors when receiving a business plan (in the US, VCs average 2,000 plans a year) tie into 5 observations aided by William A. Sahlman’s chapter on “Some Thoughts on Business Plans” (Sahlman, William A. “Some Thoughts on Business Plans.” Chap. 9 in The Entrepreneurial Venture. 2nd ed. by William A. Sahlman, Howard H. Stevenson, Michael J Roberts, and Amar V. Bhide, 138–176. Harvard Business School Press, 1999).

Five factors of the powerful business plan

  1. The Management Team:

    To what degree does the management team have the right background and stamina, given the nature of the opportunity, the external environment and the deal struck?

    Investors normally begin reading the business plan from the resume section. Investors in fact will prefer backing a great team with a “B” idea before investing in a great idea with a “B” team. Successful track records rather than great ideas with a capacity to deliver captures the investors’ attention as they eagerly jump into the management profile section and business associates to establish who the founders are, what they have achieved, what skills they have, what direct relevant experience they have for the opportunity, what management skills are missing and whether or not the founders are prepared to recruit high-quality people.

    One thing to mention here is that investors would be looking not just at the success record of the management team alone but also all who are associated with the organisation e.g. accountants, lawyers, suppliers, advisers etc. and more importantly whether there is a team balance.

  2. The Opportunity:

    To what degree does the opportunity make sense, given the management team involved the external environment and the deal struck?

    Business Plan 3Now that you are satisfied that the management team and wider team participants, the next most important question investors would ask is about the overall market potential and characteristics described in your business plan. Your balanced score card should include market size and growth, barriers to entry, competition and the business model. This is where you accurately and unambiguously describe the nature of the opportunity, the way the company is going to make money, ways that the opportunity may change and barriers to entry.

    The normal reaction I get from clients is, “what about the product? Should that not be in the balanced score card?” Well of course product is important, but yet again there are no guarantees that people would buy your product however great it may sound. But if you have a great team that realizes the product has not met expectations, they would change it or switch it and make it work… so do not depend or delve on the product disproportionately to your other scorecard items.

    However aspects to articulate about your product are; define the customer and segment; outline how they make decisions; explain what is going to be so compelling for a customer to buy your product; product price, cost of acquiring, supporting and retaining a customer.

    A final word relating to product is that it is harder to pitch to an investor customer response to a product or service because of lack of proof – stick to emphasizing and evidencing the market.

    Investors like large fast growing markets because it’s easier to get a share in a growing market. A rapid growing market also helps in other ways. For instance investors may consider backing a ‘B’ management team because the rate of market growth outstrips this inefficiency.

    Investors will be looking at the market’s size, maturity, competitiveness, and environment. For instance, a large, growing young market where your product carries registered trademarks is perceived by investors to carry higher margins and less direct competitive threat to its protected intellectual property.

    For any given opportunity there are an unprecedented number of competitors. Annually billions of venture capital investments take place globally. To underplay or to suggest that there is no real competitive challenge to your venture will substantially devalue the maturity of your business plan. In identifying current and potential competitors consider the following: establish the resources they hold; their strengths and weaknesses; anticipate the reaction you will get from them once you enter the market.

    There is a military saying that states in a conflict situation ‘anticipate and forestall’ There is no better place for this dictum to apply when dealing with competition.

  3. The External Environment:

    To what degree is the external environment favorable for the venture, given the management team involved the nature of the opportunity and the deal struck?

    Opportunities live within an external environment: regulation, interest rates, inflation, the so called microeconomics, together with the impact of technology and substitutes have a direct bearing at what new ventures are able to accomplish.

    Investors will be looking how the external environment has been described in the business plan and whether it will further enhance or hinder the opportunity. For example favorable environments promoting de-regulation or public investment will enhance the opportunity in the investor’s eyes. The opposite of course applies under unfavorable conditions. The degree evidenced in the Business Plan by which the management of the new business can influence the external environment with new industry standards and its impact on regulation provides investors considerable food for thought.

The final part of this article can be found here:

Constantine is a consultant with an international senior management background gained through blue chip major multinationals in the pharmaceutical, consulting, technology, aviation, telecommunications, and government sectors. His focus is on transforming local highly entrepreneurial ambitious country organisations into multinationals and managing the delivery of large complex transformation programs for major multinationals and government organisations. Check out CA Management.

Qualifications Are Only Paper

NICOLA FOGARTY Program Manager Middle East

Program Manager
Middle East

After delivering a workshop to a Middle East customer, I was walking back through the lobby, speaking to one of the delegates. The delegate was very well educated (Bachelors and Masters qualifications) and, as we walked and talked, they kindly went to open the door for me.

He pushed the door and it wouldn’t open. So he pushed it again. And again! The door wouldn’t budge, no matter how much he pushed it and as he turned round to apologize to me for the inconvenience, someone pushed the door from the other side and it opened inwards. To open the door, we needed to pull it, not push.

We laughed about how he had great academic qualifications but didn’t realize that the door needed pulling (in fact, to the side of the door, was a small sign telling you to pull).

When I work with students, I stress the same thing every time – qualifications are usually just ‘proof that you know the theory’. The only true way to ‘know something is to do it over and over. Lessons and workshops should be the launchpad for development; not a replacement for it.

Otherwise we’ll all end up pushing doors that need pulling!

Nicola is Head of Foundation Stage at a prestigious international GCSE school in Cairo. She provides professional leadership to a team of multinational employees whilst creating and implementing strategic and annual improvement plans. Adhering to the EYFS, she ensures the quality of delivery of the curriculum which is relevant to the needs of all the pupils. Nicola applies this rigor in her capacity as business manager for SEEA in Africa.

Take Control

NEIL FOGARTY Speaker, Writer, Adviser

Speaker, Writer, Adviser

There are going to be times in our personal and professional lives when we feel like we have lost control – and this sensation has so many negative effects on us.

This sense of loss means that we become angry, confused and even bitter – all stemming from a sense of helplessness.

The first thing is that feeling helpless is a good start – if you don’t feel helpless then you are not going to get motivated enough to get off your ass and do something about it.

The key thing at this point is to stop blaming someone / something else – the reason for your situation is down to you. Money worries? Did you choose to borrow the money in the first place? Problems with your boss? Do you choose to stay in that job?

Everything in your life comes back to you and your choices.

Based on this simple premise, choose to take control.

I’m not saying it’s easy because it rarely is – but take the difficult decision now and you will give yourself an easy life. Example: credit cards. Take the easy credit but pay it back for several years. Or you can save the money first; avoid the instant gratification; and pay for it in one go, all at once, never to pay a recurring payment on it.

On a personal level, how about being stuck in a loveless relationship? People choose to stay for ‘the sake of the kids’ but this hardly ever works as you spend years resenting the relationship, the spouse hates the attrition and the kids wonder what the hell is going on. On the flip side, make the hard choice and leave but then be able to maintain a strong friendship with your ex-spouse and build a fantastic relationship with the children – and, after the initial period of unhappiness.. a much better circumstance for all.

Chances are, if you are firefighting, bouncing from one problem to another and blaming everyone else rather than yourself… then you have no control. If you are spending time checking ex-friends / ex-partners on their social media feeds… watching their lives in preference to facing up to your own… guess what? You are not in control.

It is likely that there are aspects of your life that you are deeply unhappy with, hence the stalking of others.

People with goals are people who are deciding where they want to go in life: they have made a choice and they are taking control.

So what are you going to do about it?

Neil is an author, blogger, speaker and adviser on such topics as corporate effectiveness, intrapreneurship, entrepreneurship, and collaborative intelligence. He is the Managing Director of Spark Global Business, responsible for all strategic aspects focusing on advice, consultancy and training to government and private sector clients. He is also Managing Director of the socio-economic development organization, SEEA, designing, building and implementing innovative ecosystems.

Take The High Growth Test

ANDY TODD Guest Blogger

Guest Blogger

I’ve worked with enough innovative companies over the past 10 years to find 9 strong indicators of success. Here’s what they did to succeed – feel free to test your company against them.

  • Many successful high growth companies had disruptive solutions that changed the way their customers did business. They created advantage for market leaders, causing the rest to follow.

Give your company 10 points if you already disrupt your clients’ markets, 5 if you think you could and 0 if your market is mature or commoditised.

  • They found customers that were willing to be early adopters and that could be identified as potential market leaders. Famous examples are Bill Gates’ relationship with IBM that launched Microsoft and Boeing’s agreement with Pan Am that created the 747 and opened up Trans Atlantic travel.

Give yourself 5 if you have a breakthrough account, 2 if you can easily think of one and 0 if you think the idea doesn’t apply.

  • They understood their customers’ business drivers and market tested their solutions. They ruthlessly qualified the customers and wasted no time on poor leads.

Give yourself 5 if you think you have a disciplined approach to qualifying prospects. Note: if you don’t have a sales forecast that you review monthly and regularly meet you probably don’t have adequate discipline. Give yourself 0 if you don’t have any sales tracking processes. It’s amazing how many companies don’t!

  • They charged a price based on customer value not on cost plus a margin.

Give yourself 2 if you have been paid based on the success of the client, 1 if you generally get a price that is better than the competition and 0 if you’re the least cost supplier. If you don’t know… shame.

  • They appealed directly to the profit motive of business clients and demonstrated direct financial benefits.

Give yourself 2 if you proposition is B2B, 1 if its B2C, but you can provide advantage to a large intermediary that serves a consumer market and 0 if you are straight B2C.

  • Their available market was over £500m per year. Professional investors consider large market potential a key indicator of success. They’re not wrong. Whether you need funding or not it is still a good indicator.

Give yourself 2 if the market is over £500m and 0 if it isn’t.

  • They planned to go global from day one. As soon as they established a reliable business in their home territory they leveraged their and credibility to exploit new territories.

Give yourself 2 if you already trade globally, 1 if it’s in you plan and 0 if it is not appropriate to go global.

  • They aimed to be number one or two in their markets.

Give yourself 2 if you’re revenues already position you as one or two, 1 if you know what you have to do to be one or two and 0 if the nature of you company or market means the concept doesn’t apply.

  • They created only enough product or service to allow them to generate revenues at or before incorporation. Through early customer relationships they understood how to best to serve their markets. They gained 1st mover advantage and locked out the competition.

Give yourself 2 if you generated revenue from day one and 0 if you didn’t.

Add up the results. If you got more than 25 consider yourself on the way to vast riches. 15 to 25 and you’ve probably got a sound foundation to accelerate growth. Less than 15 and maybe you ought to think about doing something different.

Andy has many years of experience in sales and commercial management with US and European high growth companies. Through Commercial Catalyst he now works with business owners and managers to create successful go-to-market and business expansion strategies. His company helps raise funds, prepares companies for stock market floatation and high value exits. Information is available on the company’s website

Get The Balance Right

MICHELLE WILLIAMS Operations Director

Operations Director

If you had sat me down two years ago and told me that I would be part of a business that trains Nigerians in Business and Enterprise, I would have not only been amazed at the radical difference from my life at the time, but I would have seriously wondered about your sanity :).

From the age of 19, I was a qualified live-in nanny looking after 3 children under 5. I was working up to 60 hours a week and earning £460 a month… I loved my job; loved the children; loved waking up and looking out of my bedroom window to the early morning mist kissing the Chiltern grass.

My employers worked in London – she was a TV executive and he was a lawyer. I watched how they walked bleary eyed out of the door at 5am without uttering a word to anyone and then walking back through the door at 8pm still looking bleary-eyed and still in silence. Their £1.2 million pound house was not going to pay for itself, after all!

Their weekends were filled with paperwork, filter coffee bubbling away, dinner parties, and the phone ringing as play dates were put in the diary. You were also certain to hear the weekend au pair screeching at my boss in her broken English to stop walking on her clean floor with his dirty boots on, and the Labrador chasing the 18 month old, gently nipping at her nappy, wagging its tail furiously.

This was their idyllic family life.

The thing was that if you scratched just under the surface, stress raged. My employers barely saw their children and I know that they felt guilty about the lack of parent interaction as they over-compensated at the weekends by giving into the demands of a 3 year old and her obsession with chocolate. Similarly, bedtime routines went out the window and even the Labrador breathed a sigh of relief when he saw me, as if to say “no more venison and cheese, just plain old dog food please!”.

Chaos would then resume on a Monday morning when everything I had put in place the week before had been successfully pulled apart. One Sunday night I walked in to the kitchen to find my boss with her head in her hands. She told me that they could no longer afford to keep me. How could this be? They were both high earners; the house, the two range rovers… It transpired she had lost her job 6 months previous and was going in to London everyday with her husband “to keep up appearances”.

That was the first time I was made redundant and I don’t know what shocked me more – the loss of my work, not being able to see the children, or the fact that this woman was more interested in keeping up appearances and having such a miserable life in the process.

Over the following years, I continued to nanny for families and then worked in nurseries until I eventually got married, had a child, and moved into a house in suburbia, but I still had this nagging voice in my head that I wanted to achieve more. I initially had support from my then husband, so took on a role as childcare tutor. The feelings I had back in the early days of nannying came flooding back and my enthusiasm never waned (even when there was pressure every quarter to make sure the learners passed, I thrived).

As time went on, and the childcare industry boomed, I went in to work early, marked paperwork at home, and swapped late night emails with fellow tutors. I didn’t realize at some point that I had lost my role as mummy somewhere along the way – the nursery saw more of my daughter that I did – I barely saw my husband as his own job took him all over the country.

In my heart, I knew that one of us had to free up time for our daughter and, at around this point, luckily, I believe, I was made redundant again.
We went on to have another daughter and I took on a job that allowed me to work term-time only: all my energies went in to my daughters, making sure that I saw them in the morning and the afternoons – spending time with them in the school holidays.

After 17 years my marriage ended and I walked away with my two daughters into a rented cottage. The support from my family and friends at the time was invaluable and going to work each day made it all the more bearable as I felt that I was back in control of my life.

For the first time in a long time, all the decisions I had to make, I made alone. I felt liberated, happy and scared at the same time. The children were happier because I was happier… and I was happier because I saw how happy they were.

Then, in 2012, on the first day back at work after the Christmas holidays, I walked into the staff room to be told by my employer that my position was being made redundant.

At this point my life did that whole slow motion bit that you see in films: it didn’t seem real. My first thought was how was I going to support my children, pay the rent, pay for all those things you do with your kids and not really think about it.

Times were a-changing, there were fewer and fewer jobs that could fit around my children, I applied for positions but got turned down as I was ‘over-qualified’ which is the most frustrating (and probably most dishonest) answer to why you aren’t offered a job.

Now, as all this was going on, I had met my new partner and he was in the throes of setting up his business. When we first met, he had a mobile phone dongle for his laptop and spent his time visiting free WIFI spots to send and receive emails. The cottage I was living in didn’t have internet as I would get annoyed with technology so if it wasn’t there, I couldn’t get frustrated by it.

For a year, my partner lived off cheap noodles and was forever mapping out places with free WIFI for him to use. He was “bootstrapping” – something he told me I had been doing myself for the last year as I relied solely on my own resources and knowledge to build this new life for myself.

After many discussions and coaxing I finally agreed to become his business partner. With my tutoring background in the education field, he said I could use my skill base to great advantage. But this meant becoming self- employed.

From when I first started working at 15 through till I was 36, I had always been a payroll number; always working by someone else’s policies and procedures. So I took the plunge and called the tax office and they talked me through the process. Once I understood it, I was very at ease with it all.

Now I’m certainly not saying this was the easy option: the past 18 months have been a roller coaster ride. My third child came along, we moved house, and there have been times when I thought it might be easier to go back in to the public sector.

But I’ve stuck at it, with the support from my partner whose always there with a cuppa and advice when I’m juggling with paperwork.

The point I’m trying to make is that I firmly believe that you shouldn’t stick with something if it makes you unhappy – embrace change. If you have support from people that love you, you can accomplish anything. I won’t deny that Spark Global Business isn’t going to be hard work, fun work, and fulfilling work but as long as you can see the good you do for other people whilst still having time set aside to be with the people you love… then that’s a great job, yes?

A former troubleshooter for local government, Michelle is Operations Director of Spark Global Business, responsible for all operational aspects focusing on advice, consultancy and training. She is also Operations Director of the socio-economic development organization, SEEA, ensuring the ongoing development of innovative ecosystems.

Why do we do what we do?

MICHELLE WILLIAMS Operations Director

Operations Director

I am a lucky person, when I think about it: I have good health, I have a loving family; I live in a western European country with a commitment to a welfare state; I live in a democracy. The list is quite endless.

So when I am asked by people “why do you do what you do?” I know that my immediate answer is the simplest one: I am grateful for what I have and I want others to experience a similar life.

It is very easy for anyone in business to chase the easier opportunities rather than the more fulfilling ones – do I try my hardest to engage with a wealthy banking client or do I focus all my resources into helping disadvantaged people in third world countries?

We all reach key points in our lives and careers when we make important choices. I chose to reach out and help other people – something that is in keeping with my personal values. This is reflected in my work with government, large corporations, small businesses, charities and foundations – I love to see how people develop and grow.

I do what I do because it makes me smile every day as I feel that I am leaving a legacy.

Why do you do what you do?

A former troubleshooter for local government, Michelle is Operations Director of Spark Global Business, responsible for all operational aspects focusing on advice, consultancy and training. She is also Operations Director of the socio-economic development organization, SEEA, ensuring the ongoing development of innovative ecosystems.

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