Are you struggling to step out from your business? Do you feel like a hamster in a wheel? Does your day start, continue and end with problems that only you seem to be able to solve? Do you finish the day having not achieved all you wanted?
Do you yearn for some space, some peace so that you can step out from your business and see the big picture, check the course you’re on and get creative on making your business better?
If you’re like most business owners then you’ve almost certainly said, “yes” to these questions. Well, here are some tips on how to eliminate most of these problems and be able to step out from your business.
Before you’ve managed to finish your first cup of coffee of the day, someone brings a problem to you – a piece of equipment has broken, the product in development has failed a vital test, a service was delivered badly and some bridges need building.
Or the phone rings and you have an upset customer or bad news of late delivery from a supplier or a crucial member of your team is ill and won’t make the important meeting with one of your key customers.
Or maybe you have people needing your expertise and guidance or simply your permission to do something or to purchase something.
On top of that, you have all the other things demanding your attention – not least, the dreaded email inbox.
And you still have things that you must do to keep your business growing, including:
- Attracting and converting new prospects;
- Keeping relationships strong with current customers;
- Creating and delivering what your customers want;
- Keeping on top of trends in your industry to make sure your fully aware and prepared for them;
- Thinking about the future direction of the company and what you need to deliver in order to stand out from the crowd and to make your competitors as irrelevant as possible;
- Reducing costs of running the business in order to create the best return on investment and of course keeping vital stakeholders happy;
- Inspiring, motivating and leading.
This, by no means complete, list of things that you need to do to keep your business growing, is the list that you want to be focused on. But all too often it’s the list that doesn’t get your attention because you’re spending too much time reacting to and handling problems.
The size and type of your business will dictate the kinds of problems you have. As a micro business for example, you may not have problems relating to staff because you are the staff, but you’ll still have problems landing on your desk that only you can fix.
So, regardless of the size of your business, you’re probably familiar with the feeling of being busy but achieving little. If you can vastly reduce the amount of problems you have to solve, you’ll spend less time in that hamster wheel and be able to spend more time on your business and doing the things that contribute to its growth.
Two Types of Problems
There are two types of problems; those that originate from elsewhere and those that are of your own making. The former type could be the government changing a piece of legislation in your industry that will impact the products or services you offer and the latter type could happen because you weren’t clear enough in your guidance or expectations.
The latter type of problem is clearly of your making but arguably, so is the former. Could you have seen the problem coming? A change in government legislation usually comes with plenty of warning. Technology or fashion trends don’t happen overnight. And there are plenty of signs when we’re heading for an economic downturn or crash.
If you don’t spot these signs of a problem then, no matter how “unexpected” they may be, it’s because you’re not lifting your head out of your business enough to have a good look around. And even if you can’t predict them, like a key person handing in their notice or unexpectedly losing a key contract, these possibilities should still have been planned for.
Of course you can’t be ready for every eventuality, like your premises burning down, but you can be prepared for most and can either eliminate or avoid them. Just so I’m clear…
almost all of the problems on your desk could be eliminated or avoided and the fact that they aren’t, is down to you.
Problems Originating From Elsewhere
When you set out your strategy for the year or years ahead, you must review the weaknesses in your business and the potential risks to it. Ask “What if?” questions. (See, my “Don’t Panic” article for more on this.)
You should carry out this risk analysis with both an internal view of your business and an external one. An internal view includes looking at things like your ability to deliver, if you have too many eggs in too few baskets when it comes to your customers, suppliers, key people in the business and so on. An external view includes looking at your market including customers and competitors and at trends such as technology, political and economical.
Identify as many risks and threats as you can and prioritise them according to probability and impact on your business. Prioritise the big ones and make sure you have a mitigating plan in place.
I get my clients to list the risks to their business, which in itself can be a large exercise, and then give a score between 0 and 5 for the probability of it occurring and a separate score for the impact it would have if it did. 0 is negligible probability or impact and 5 massive. Multiply the numbers together and the higher the score the more important it is to have a mitigating plan in place.
I recently worked through this with a business that highlighted something the owners hadn’t really considered before. They had one supplier for a key material in their business. When the results pointed out a high risk score, they were quite relaxed because in the 6 years the business had existed the supplier had never let them down. I advised them to have a 2nd source on board just in case and they agreed to but I knew that they probably wouldn’t get round to it.
Two weeks later one of the owners called me to tell me that the supplier had delivered the wrong material and didn’t have what they had ordered. The business was immediately set back around 5 weeks. They now have a second source for this material.
It’s absolutely vital that you carry out this kind of risk analysis.
Problems Of Your Making
There can be many reasons for this type of problem.
1. You didn’t thoroughly assess the possible hazards ahead and one of them becomes a reality. Well, this is really what I’ve just described above but, even though you’re not the direct cause, you can argue that had the risk analysis been done and this problem mitigated for then it would no longer be a problem. And so it’s of your making. You can’t win…sorry.
2. You didn’t give clear enough direction when wanting something performed in a certain way. You might think you’ve been clear with your instructions but then, you know what you want and so cannot be the best judge of that.
It’s the person receiving the instructions who is in fact the best judge of that, assuming he or she isn’t a complete idiot. We all suffer from something called the “the curse of knowledge”. Lee Ferver’s book, The Art of Explanation, describes this communication problem and how to overcome it. Basically, if someone doesn’t get it that isn’t his or her fault, it’s yours.
3. You didn’t make your expectations clear and hence didn’t get the result you wanted when you wanted it. Sometimes an explanation can be clear and a person understands what to do, but if you have any expectations with regards to the outcome then you must be clear about that too.
Tasks can often be assigned with no instructions as to when it needs to be completed, what information to be presented and in what format.
When do you want a task completed? Do you want to see the results? If so, in what format? Does the task need to achieve a certain standard? How do you want that demonstrated? Is the chart the right colour? No, just kidding.
Meetings aren’t always possible, so email is often used instead. But this can lead to long email chains with different people contributing. This can quickly become cumbersome and hard to follow so instead use a tool like Asana. It’s a great tool for discussing projects, assigning tasks and monitoring progress.
4. You changed your mind. If you haven’t fully thought through what you want doing and how you want it implemented, then you could change your mind, resulting in wasted effort and time.
Make sure you’ve fully mapped out what it is you want doing so that you can more easily spot potential problems that could arise.
5. You didn’t fully delegate. It’s awful for the person being given a task to then be watched over, critiqued and instructed at every turn. The person you are micro-managing will feel de-motivated and may well do ‘just enough’ so that she can get, what’s become a chore, off her plate as quickly as possible.
6. You abdicated instead of delegated and relinquished responsibility. This goes to the other extreme of not properly delegating. You pass not just a task but complete responsibility to another without checking progress.
I know a business owner who quite rightly delegated the update of his website to a web developer but, he did nothing to check progress or ensure expectations were understood and simply had his own expectation that that his site would be inundated with visitors buying his products and needing his expertise. He was mighty upset when that didn’t happen and lay all the blame at the web developer. Actually, this example covers point 3 too.
7. You keep expertise and knowledge in your head and are therefore always advising, guiding and resolving when things are not done correctly. This is a common problem and one that takes time to resolve. There has to be a process of decanting what is in your head and getting it in a format that can be understood and replicated by others.
This is a key part of systemising a business and to having it run smoothly without you, the owner, in it everyday spinning those plates.
8. You are a bottleneck. Clearly you are a bottleneck if much of the expertise is in your head and your advice and guidance has to be regularly sought. You can also be a bottleneck if you restrict responsibility.
For example, if a department doesn’t have a budget and a ceiling item spend then it has to come to you for approval even to buy a low-cost piece of equipment.
These reasons behind problems also apply if you run a one-person business. Delegation, abdication, vague expectations and so on, still apply because even though you don’t have employees you should be outsourcing a descent amount of your tasks and certainly not trying to do everything yourself.
5 Ways to Eliminate Problems Before They Arise
In addition to identifying potential risks, here are a few things you can do to reduce these problems of your making.
1. Identify and Eliminate Bottlenecks
Where in the process of running your business are the bottlenecks? Map out how your business flows and the key processes within. What’s required for that flow to work?
When you’ve mapped out how your business flows, look at where the flow slows down or temporarily stops because it needs input from elsewhere, including from you. I used the example previously about needing your authorisation for minor purchases. In this case, giving a budget and single item spend limit would open up that bottleneck.
(This is a really big subject and an absolutely vital thing to do so, excuse the plug, but I take you through this in my book, Your Business Foundation.)
2. Create Boundaries and Rules
Every game of rugby or chess can be unique. The players can do what they like to achieve their aims provided they remain within boundaries and adhere to a set of rules.
By setting clear rules that work within well-defined boundaries, people will know what they can and can’t do and be empowered to do what’s necessary within these boundaries and rules. As a result fewer problems (and bottlenecks) will occur. An added benefit is that these people will be more motivated, will learn more and could reveal future leadership potential.
3. Be Clear
Don’t assume that because you know what you’re asking for that others will ‘get it’. Make sure, ask them and reassure that it’s ok if they don’t get it because you’d rather they fully understood than head off in the wrong direction and waste time and effort.
I for example, don’t process aural instructions or explanations very well. Write it, draw it so I can visually see what’s needed and I’ve got it.
Many problems can be eliminated with the right education and training. I recently worked with a company whose new employees were struggling and making mistakes. I went through their initial induction-training program and saw a 2-day, jam-packed event. Talking with new staff it was quickly apparent that there was so much to take in, these people were over-whelmed, nervous and had retained little of what they’d been taught.
We studied the problems and identified what upfront guidance should eliminate them. We also took on board how the new staff felt and, with a core team of managers from across the company, the 2-day stressful induction program became a 5-day inspirational and educational induction program.
5. Create Clear Process Flows
A simple one-page process flow can often replace a procedure comprising pages of text. Identify key processes in your business and create process flows that are easy to read, to understand, to learn and to remember.
I worked with a care home owner on this and we had department heads identify the key processes that, if understood and followed, would reduce mistakes and discord amongst peers.
A person was assigned to create these process flows and now each department has its own set of processes that all are taught and tested on. Now there is no ambiguity in how to accomplish tasks and mistakes are far fewer in number.
Take away the ambiguity and show people step-by-step how to accomplish key tasks.
If you are struggling to step out of your business, eliminating problems before they land on your desk will go a long, long way to help.
This is about being fully prepared for the journey ahead as you drive your business forward. The best way to do this – to pre-empt the risks and hazards and do something about them before they hit you – is to use my Business Foundation Health Check Tool which I’ve wrapped up in my short course How Strong is Your Business. Check it out because it really will help you identify your risks and better prepare you for the journey ahead.
Photo credit: Haundreis on Flickr