We are one month into the New Year, and I am still hearing from people who want to implement change in 2011. The reality is that we have zero control over factors that create an environment most conducive to change, i.e., speed of economic recovery, banks loosening lending belts, or the long-term client who needs to get off the dime and their decision-by-committee mentality to actually shake hands on a “company maker or breaker” project, as described by an executive six months ago (you know who you are!). What you can do is summon some leadership chutzpa, separate yourself from the market noise and build real advantages for the rest of 2011 and beyond.Building this future will require you to extend your knowledge, experience, budgets, risk parameters, and portfolio of strategic relationships. In an economy overflowing with competitors (with essentially similar products and services) all chasing fewer and increasingly more sophisticated customers, who, in turn, face an amazing array of options, NOW is the time to rethink. Rethink key assumptions, challenge conventional wisdom (see my next article on Status Quo – the corporate killer disease), and push yourself to learn, grow, and innovate.

Here are ten relationship-centric questions you must ask yourself and your organization to get change right in 2011:

1. Can my strategic relationships help identify opportunities my competitors can’t? In a world of “me-too” thinking, products, services and ad campaigns, what are you doing to build strategic relationships with those who can help you not just out-hustle your competitors, but change the rules of the game? Who’s really pushing the envelope in your market? Go find a way to engage them and create a 1+1=3 game plan for 2011.

2. Do my strategic relationships help me look in new places for new ideas? If everyone is fishing in the same pond, it’s time for you to find a new pond. Look for strategic relationships across industries, geographic markets, and different segments of the market value-chain. Challenge the prevailing assumptions that have shaped so many industries in the past decade! Some rules were meant to be broken and strategic relationships can help you do just that!

3. Can my strategic relationships help me become a category dominator? Amazing how many people and organizations are “fairly good” at what they do! That’s crap and it won’t help you elevate yourself above the noise – you have to become the most of something: most affordable, most accessible, most socially robust, most colorful, or the most transparent. If you stay in the middle of the road, you’ll become road kill; pick strategic relationships that will push you to raise the bar personally & professionally.

4. Which one of my strategic relationships would miss me and why? If you took three months to go to Bora Bora, which one of your strategic relationships would miss your impact (not just your good looks and charming personality) the most and why? How have you created that impact, or are you continually doing so, and how can you bottle it? Find key attributes to replicate your impact with other strategic relationships you seek out in 2011.

5. Which strategic relationships in my past can most dramatically impact my future? The most impactful strategic relationships in your past can inform and influence your search for new ones moving forward. Strategic relationships can help you figure out how to use your existing knowledge, experience, talents, and access to influential relationships, to help you beyond your existing perceived limitations. They can help you rediscover and reinterpret the previous you, to develop a line of sight into the next you.

6. Can my strategic relationships thrive without me? In 2011, if they can, good chance they will. I’m working on my next book, Customer Economics, for which I’m researching the digital relationship continuum between individuals, organizations, and their customers from trust-centric introduction to repeat confidence, unquestionable integrity, custodial pride, and finally personal passion. My litmus test for the final one is: can they thrive – not just survive – but really excel in business and with customers without your strategic relationship? If you want to really impact change in 2011, become an irreplaceable asset.

7. How will I prioritize my most strategic relationships? If your goal is to become an irreplaceable asset, then by definition you won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Evidence of how committed you are to raise the bar on your portfolio of relationships in 2011 and beyond is how bold and fearless you are about setting aside distractions from those who are not central to your mission. Not all relationships are created equal, and you have to become more selfish in which ones you choose to invest in.

8. Am I maximizing input signals from the most diverse portfolio of strategic relationships possible? If you’ve ever heard my Adaptive Innovation™ keynote, I describe strategic relationships as “signal scouts” in the market, acting as tentacles to bring insightful input to you from the edge of where business really happens. Change is not a campaign you’ll want to embark on alone. Strategic relationships can present hidden genius within your organization and collective insights from customers, suppliers and other amazing people all around you.

9. Does my portfolio of strategic relationships sense, see, and believe my commitment to change? Flavor-of-the-week consulting jargon, a revolving door of academic gurus, or even worse, continuously going or sending people to countless executive education weekends isn’t commitment; it’s deeply rooted changes in behavior that occur as your portfolio of strategic relationships is prioritized and practices are implemented. It’s analyzing and learning consistently, through good and bad times.

10. Am I enhancing my portfolio of strategic relationships as fast as my environment is changing around me? Several of my consulting clients are large, mature businesses whose senior executives often need to be reminded that in a world constantly changing around them, they never have to stop learning. How are you pushing yourself as an individual and an organization to naturally evolve? Strategic relationships can accelerate your learning and evolution at a far more rapid pace than the environment around you.

To learn more, read the revised and updated Relationship Economics paperback edition with 40 percent new content, including an all-new chapter 10 on social media and business relationships (Wiley, Feb. 2011).

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