“You know what’s so awesome about working at a start up?” a friend asked me recently. As someone who until recently had always worked at giant slow-moving oil tankers of companies, I had to screw up my eyes and search my brain. He took pity on me eventually. “It’s such a creative and innovative atmosphere to work in. Everyone does a bit of everything, everyone brings their ideas to the table and they all count equally, everyone gets a say. It’s such a team effort.”
Huh…. That I didn’t know. Sounds… pretty cool?
Because this is very much not the experience of working at giant oil tankers. Big businesses are no less a team effort, but the focus is very different. The secret sauce of big business is pretty much the exact opposite of what makes a smaller business such a crazy, fun roller coaster: it’s about creating order, not creating creative freedom.
Is this because big businesses are run by dour-faced managers who want their staff to be robots? No, it’s because being a bigger business means you have more resources, and that means both that you have more to lose if you’re inefficient, and that you have the luxury of being able to design ways of making those resources work even more effectively.
Did I lose you to a heap of zzzzzzs? The thing is that growing (in any part of life) isn’t super fun, and it isn’t easy, and isn’t about sticking with what’s worked for you so far. If you want those things, I would ask you, is growth really what you want?
The painful truth – what got you here won’t get you there
All hail Marshall Goldsmith, because I guess what I’m saying boils down to what he told us all: that what got you here won’t get you there. Being a brilliant start up run by a genius with a multimillion idea growing at an astronomical pace is an enviable position to be in. And I choose that word deliberately, because you can bet that there are people in big corporates looking on with green faces thinking, that looks like such a BRILLIANT place to work, and look at their results! But one day, you might wake up and things have stalled a bit because it’s just a bit too… messy.
There are too many people doing similar things without realizing it.
Or spread across lots of things.
Or each spending their time working out their own way of doing things.
Or marching in different directions to the beat of their own drum.
The multitasking that was a necessity as a few people heroically pitched in to get the job done; the sizzle and spark of creativity to find new ways of doing things because they didn’t exist; the need for entrepreneurial spirit and autonomy because nobody had time to discuss options, just the need to go out and make things happen. These are all precious qualities that people in corporates put on their wish lists every quarter. But the fact is that what you need to go from small and growing to bigger and still growing is something else, something that smells a lot less like entrepreneurial teen spirit, and more like the cologne of discipline and resource management.
It may not be sexy, but scaling is all about reporting lines and allocation of resource
The holy grail of business is actually a pretty simple formula. When you have people spending their time on the things that matter, and not on the things that don’t; and when you’re investing in the things that will make a difference, and saving money in the places that won’t; that’s the dream, that’s when explosive growth happens.
How do you achieve this? By eliminating the friction and the duplication, and by reassessing where your investment goes. Or, in English:
- Stopping people getting frustrated by tripping over each other
- Cutting out the time spent on duplicative tasks
- Having one way of doing things, not having each person create their own
- Separating the things that create corporate competitive advantage from the things that are table stakes, and allocating resources accordingly
- Having reporting lines that enable priorities
Those things all sound like pretty good outcomes, but how do you get there? It normally looks like
- Delineation of roles
- Declared responsibilities (and no-fly zones)
- Common processes
- Standard ways of working
- Investing in game-changing capabilities
- Streamlining the tasks that don’t give you a competitive advantage
And this is where, as they say, the rubber hits the road. Because where’s the fun in that? Where’s the spontaneity and the one-for-all-and-all-for-one? Where’s the having of OPINIONS?
What’s that saying about opinions?
Businesses big and small are staffed by people, and regardless of their job title, what people generally have in common is that they have OPINIONS. As a marketer, maybe I’m biased, but this seems to be never more the case than when it comes to creative, and packaging, and logos, and ads. Which makes sense, because these are so often the most public experiences of a brand, and we should never forget that brands are the product of blood, sweat and tears from countless people, not just the folks in the marketing team.
Here’s the thing. If you have a room full of people with opinions about the new logo, you will get healthy debate. You will get points of view. You will get feedback and perspectives and different takes you hadn’t thought of. What you will not get is a decision, unless there is somebody clearly responsible for making that decision.
The theory would go that it is the marketing person who is best qualified to make that decision; not the only person who knows what a good logo looks like, not the only person to have a stance on periwinkle over teal, but the person who the buck stops with. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t ask anyone else, or seek feedback, or give them an excuse not to listen. But it means that it’s their responsibility.
Everyone else can have and air their own point of view, but in a world with a clear delineation of responsibilities, and here’s where I will sound harsh to some, it doesn’t matter.
It would be naïve to ignore that that type of change can be a huge cultural shift, one that needs careful management and communication. One that could piss a lot of people off, and one that might make some employees question the environment that they’re now part of.
But management is about making tough choices, and as I said at the beginning, if things don’t feel uncomfortable, then you’re probably not doing a lot of growing, in any sense of the word.
And there’s a trade off from being freed of the need to have an opinion on everything, it’s being able to focus on a narrower set of responsibilities yourself.
The bottom line
Businesses start off needing all-hands-on deck, constant invention, entrepreneurial drive and thrive on the collaboration of the whole team. But as they grow, these very qualities that have propelled them start to choke them through inefficiency and too many conflicting ideas. By adopting some of the practices of bigger business, the separation of responsibilities and the focus on duplication of effort, can free up people and time to work on the big, game changing ideas.
The key is getting someone to help who’s knows what the end point can look like. But not someone who thinks they can come in, brush aside the entrepreneurial culture and values that are so critical to your success and turn you into a faceless conglomerate. Find a partner who wants to work with you and do exactly that, partner, learn your business, and help you find ways to scale without losing your identity.
And maybe even achieve the business dream – the startup mindset with big business resource
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