Someone asked me recently, ‘All of your work seems to be about improvement in large organizations, how would you go about building up a business without all the problems that you get paid to solve?’
Good question. Here are my thoughts.
Many a small business starts at the kitchen table or home garage level based on the enthusiasm, skills and knowledge of its founder. This owner has total control and understanding of the process and engages directly with customers so knows what is successful, what isn’t and why. So as the initial business looks set to expand it pays to plan the growth with the following in mind:
Start with Customer and Purpose. Is everyone in the organization clear about who their customers are? There is often a customer chain (think wholesaler, retailer, purchaser, end user at a minimum). What matters to these customers? If you don't know, there are myriad ways to get data about customers. Does everyone understand what the purpose of the organization is and their role in it? Is it to make money, sell product, meet a target or, perhaps, to provide a product or service that your customers really value? Make sure this is clear to everyone who joins and maintain visibility of this at all times.
What are the values of the organization? Values are based on beliefs and what people believe drives what they do on a daily basis – in their work, their interactions with colleagues and with customers. Making sure that the values that the initial owner knew without thinking about are visible, shared and agreed are key. Most managers will say things like ‘trust’ and ‘honesty’ are values they endorse but do your staff see these in their daily interactions in the business?
Process and data – how is the work delivered and how is it measured? How do workers know that they have done a good job on any day and (linking to values above) do they feel safe in exposing problems to managers? Are mistakes treated as opportunities to learn and improve or sticks to beat up staff with? Is there clarity about what a ‘good job’ looks like and how it is defined and measured? Set this right from the start and you grow an organization that can learn. Get it wrong and your people will miss your expectations in ways you cannot yet imagine.
Finally, all one team – imagine a team of rowers in a boat race. If they synchronize their strokes and work together the boat flies along the water. If they all work to their individual strengths, some pulling faster, some pulling stronger, some slower then chaos ensues and the boat goes nowhere quickly. The boat is analogous to a business in that if everyone doesn't pull in the same direction…. So it is a critical role of managers, as new people start, to make sure that all the values, processes and understanding that is clearly visible to the start up operation is shared with new staff.
None of the above is rocket science and with planning, thought and technique an organization can grow into a class leading business. But it won’t happen by itself. Unless growing businesses want to gamble on pure chance, defining multiple aspects of how the business develops is essential to ensuring growth equates with success rather than failure. And this brings me back to the original question and explains how some of the dysfunctional processes, behaviours and failures in large organizations came into existence. Getting it right at the start means you create a well-oiled machine that runs to do what was intended. Leaving the growth to chance ends in problems if you are lucky and business failure if not.
Thanks for reading