Breaking Through Upper Limits
If you want to grow your startup and grow as a person, everything HAS to change.
But the question is – how do you approach that change?
Last month, I attended a three-day mastermind workshop with a peer group of consultants and coaches. One of the presenters (a very smart dude named George Birnbach) walked through a model that explained the “upper limits” that each of has. (This concept is the theme of Gay Hendricks’s book “The Big Leap.”)
Here’s a quote [paraphrase] I wrote down from George’s talk –
“We live our lives on a sine wave – we have upper limits that we think we cannot grow past, and we have lower limits that are forcing functions protecting us from disaster and failure.
“Because we all have limitations of growth, as we look forward, we have to develop new skills, knowledge and abilities if we want to break through our own upper limits.”
Before George finished drawing a sine wave on the Flipchart, I knew exactly what he meant.
If we want to do more, if we want to grow, we have to push through our upper limits. We must deliberately change and adapt our strategies, systems and skills to break though self-imposed barriers.
Change is the ultimate path to growth but the hard part is knowing what to change and how to change. Finding our upper limits requires us to be both the subject and the observer.
As a starting point, I think we can segment our upper limits into four (4) categories, with a couple of example from business and life –
1. Specific & Actionable
These upper limits are limitations that we know that we have, are easy to identify and are immediately actionable.
For example, I know that my downhill running is mediocre at best, especially on technical, rocky terrain. While I pass other runners on the uphill sections, they just pass me back on the descents. This is a major limiting factor to improving my overall race times and how I place relative to the field.
Here, I can see a clear upper limit that I know that I need to break-through and I can take specific action to fix it by researching articles, listening to podcasts, asking faster runners for advice and spending more training time on technical trails (all of which I’m doing right now…)
As a business example, say a company founder is excellent on stage at industry conferences and events – telling the company’s story and showing the impact they can make, but after every presentation, there’s lots of applause but no new sales leads. Why? Because the founder is afraid of seeming too pushy even when he knows he has to leverage these opportunities to generate leads for the company to survive and grow.
This is an easily identifiable upper limit, and one that’s actionable with a dose of confidence and implementing a simple call-to-action by offering to email a white paper or a 15-minute implementation call to anyone in the audience that wants to learn more about how to use the company’s product with their team. It’s simply a matter of acting on this upper limit.
2. Specific & Unactionable
These upper limits are limitations that we know that we have but we don’t know how to overcome.
Say you’re a company founder that’s transitioning your prospecting and lead gen work to a new SDR team. Even after you show the new SDRs exactly what you do on LinkedIn, how you write your outbound emails and how you talk about the product at the conference booth, the team just isn’t able to hit the same number of qualified leads as you and it’s a clear upper limit to scaling the sales process and the company.
But here’s the catch – You’ve hired several top-notch team members and you’ve tried several approaches to training but nothing seems to work. Here, you know the problem, but you don’t know how to fix it.
3. Unspecific (or Inaccurate) & Actionable
These are upper limits that we can sense, but we haven’t not been able to specifically identify where it exists. As the saying goes – “I can’t quite put my finger on it…” But once the upper limit is identified, it’s one that we can address.
For example, let’s say that every time your startup reaches a certain number of paying customers, your churn rate goes up. Not good, and a clear upper limit to growing the company. The good news is that this is a problem that many startups have faced and fixed, so it’s an actionable upper limit.
But you don’t know exactly what to change or fix. The root cause could be your onboarding processes and customer success systems. It could be the team you hired. It could be how you’re managing the team. It could be how you’ve training the team. It could be the product itself. It could be how the sales team is setting expectations in their conversion calls. It could be the types of customers that are buying the product.
Here’s another example from a question that I’m asked all the time – “How do I improve my sales deck and demos so that more deals convert?”
When I ask why the demo needs improving, and inevitably the answer is – “We need to improve our conversion rates.” In this case, the team is aware that they need to improve conversion rates – it’s an upper limit when it comes to growing sales. But the thing is, it almost never has anything to do with the deck or demo – they’ve inaccurately diagnosed the root cause and the fix to the problem.
Usually when we dig into the sales process leading up to the product demo, the upper limit that the team is trying to fix (“I need to improve my demos.”) isn’t the problem at all. Usually, the real reason for their low conversion rates lies in their lead generation, lead qualification, buyer type analysis and pre-demo strategy. Once we get specific on the root cause of this upper limit, we can address and breakthrough the conversion rate upper limit.
4. Unspecific & Unactionable
As I sit here and write, I know I have my own upper limit. These are the scariest kinds of upper limits because we don’t even know they exist and that they’re preventing us from growing.
When I was training for Uberman back in 2016 (a multi-day triathlon that included swimming the Catalina Channel and an ultra-marathon in Death Valley), I was training pretty hard, at one point swimming 30,000 yards, cycling 150 miles and running 40 miles in a week. I thought I was on the right track.
Then Lena told me about Brian MacKenzie, the guy that developed “CrossFit Endurance.” He coaches professional athletes and Olympians. I thought I’d get some good strength and conditioning tips to add to my training regimen. After a full-day training and evaluation session with him, Brian showed me that I had to overhaul my entire training plan going forward. I was completely unaware that I was training the wrong way for this level of competition and physical stress.
On the business side, I see this is startups and their sales process all the time…
For example, a startup team will share their pipeline of active deals with me and say something like “We have 12 active deals in the pipeline. Three of them will probably close in the next month, we’re just waiting to get the final word back….” The team honestly thinks that those three deals will close. Then we dig into the deals one-by-one, and they realize that none of them are going to convert (and they almost never do…).
Until we analyzed their pipeline and examined their sales process, they were completely unaware of their own upper limits – doing more of the same is going to lead to decision delays and most critically, a lack of customers and revenue leading into a pivotal part of their company’s journey.
Or take a lead generation. Say a startup is blasting thousands of emails every week, trying to book meetings with a cold lead list. This approach yields a few booked demos and converts a new customer or two every week, so the startup thinks this is the way their sales funnel works – “We send 1000 emails to book 10 meetings and convert 1 new customer.”
When we dig into their entire process – looking at their target market, the number of possible customers, their sales projections – and soon they realize that while they’re adding a new customer or two every week, this process is completely and impossibly hard to scale. They thought all was well until they became aware and shown their upper limits.
So Now What? Try this 5-Step Plan-of-Action
If you want to identify and act on your upper limits – personally and professionally – here’s a process I’ve been using both with myself and with the startups I coach –
1. Results – First, get absolutely clear on where you want to go and why that outcome is mission critical for you. Without a clear view of the outcome, it’s impossible to build a plan-of-action to identify and improve your upper limits.
2. Right Now – Take inventory of what you’re doing right now – what’s working and what’s not? This is about putting all of the work, the systems and effort onto the table to assess the status quo.
3. Roadblocks – Finally, write down everything that you think is getting in your way, slowing you down or stopping you from getting from where you are to where you want to go.
4. Review – Schedule a time with 5-10 experts to share your analysis and ask for advice and strategies to help you identify upper limits across their four categories, and ask for specific strategies to help you overcome these upper limits.
5. Retool – Put the ideas to action. One of my mantras is “Implementing = Learning.” Only when you put these new strategies, systems and skills to work, will you know where you’re improving and where you need to recalibrate.
Most of all, accept that it’s all a process. Reaching an upper limit is a good sign – it means that you’re ready do more, to get better and to go farther. You can do this, and let me know if I can help in any way.
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