If you intend to create a business that lasts, start acting like it
Running a business always feels urgent.
There’s always something on fire, there’s always something going on which can’t wait, and as a founder or leader there’s a lot of pressure on you to prioritise and delegate to get a speedy reaction.
I think some businesses can probably get pretty far like this, but it isn’t sustainable. This urgent anxiety is the quickest way to reach burnout.
You make your job immeasurably tougher if you’re constantly having to recruit people to replace the last person who couldn’t keep up with the pace, or cope with the pressure.
Strategy and mission needs you to take a longer view, and behave differently.
Make decisions that you might not see payback from in the short term.
This might not be so straightforward if you have very present and urgent concerns. For the first few years most entrepreneurs and startups don’t know whether they will still have a job in three months, so planning anything beyond that seems like a pretty futile exercise.
It’s the surest way to have a future when you get there.
With every decision, think about whether future you will thank now you for taking that fork in the road.
I’ve not really talked much about the 1,000 different jobs I had before starting ICE, but my first corporate job was working as a trainee property surveyor. I’d dropped out of uni to take the job, and every lecture through my course had been on the importance of sustainability.
It didn’t take long to realise that this was not the reality of industry.
The phrase “buy cheap, buy twice” was not a mantra at this company. Every time anything needed doing it was the cheapest, short-term solution which — inevitably — needed repairing or replacing a year later.
There was no commitment to the future, and it might not surprise you to find out that the company founded in the 1960s is no longer running.
Closer to home, and more recently, in the last year we have revamped our flagship support programme — Startup Club.
It was at the busiest time, and nobody could afford to prioritise this over anything else, but that’s exactly why we needed to do it — we needed to do things differently. The other fork in the road wasn’t sustainable or effective.
A lot of graft went into making it happen, and a lot of good folks had to really push hard to hit the deadlines.
Since we launched the new Startup Club we’ve run two cohorts across our UK network and never seen retention levels or satisfaction rates so high.
Now, it’s easier to scale and has created an asset we can use over and over again. It frees up time and has created a lot of value for all stakeholders.
It has also created a process that makes it easier for us to create new content in the future.
All the way through the rebuild we had the pushback to delay it and get it done later, and we had a lot of reasons to do so, but it was vital that we got the work done.
I talked about this concept in the post on Bridges and Rafts. You have to focus on bridge building, and recognise when you’re neglecting the long term.
Waiting To Be Ready
I remember hearing a really counterintuitive perspective on hiring when I was on the UnLtd Future Pioneers programme.
One of the previous participants had some advice on recruiting that really got me thinking.
Don’t hire for the present, hire for the future.
The logic is that if you’re hiring now for a pressing need in the team, you might be too late. You have too much riding on getting the hire right, and they need to hit the ground running fast.
Don’t wait until you’re ready, hire to grow. Don’t want for tomorrow, if you have a strategy then act on it.
It’s higher risk, but both options involve risk. It’s just that we act like the reactionary approach is sensible and prudent.
There are some quite obvious commercial realities in this that can’t be ignored. If you don’t have the cash or means then you can’t responsibly bring someone into that team and encourage them to leave a more secure position.
But if you have a growth plan, or growth ambitions, then bringing someone into that process earlier can give them time to really get across the business and see what’s going on. It can help to give context by doing a more thorough induction and onboarding exercise.
Every time we have deviated from this path in the name of haste we have regretted it.
Sometimes you get hijacked by the urgency, and you have an immediate need. That’s where working with freelancers and other flexible solutions can help. Try to not get sucked into making long-term commitments in the heat of the moment.
The Long Now
I wrote about the Long Now in the post on Productive Busyness (including a prompt to go away and listen to Jeffrey Lewis).
There are different leverage points identified by Donella Meadows when it comes to influencing and changing a system.
The 12 leverage points premise is fairly simple, the further along the lever the easier it gets to move the system. The hard thing is moving along the lever, and appreciating that this might be why most attempts to change a system are unsuccessful.
The 12 Leverage Points can be grouped into four parts, and then two parts:
1, 2, & 3 are the KPIs, parameters, stocks and flows (the variability and certainties in a business).
4, 5, & 6 are the information flows, positive and negative feedback loops.
7, 8, & 9 are the connections, rules, relationships and information flows.
10, 11, & 12 are the intent, mindset, goals, and vision.
1–6 are the standard systems that enable a business to run on a stable and sound footing. They are far more concrete and tangible.
The further along the chart you go, the more abstract and perceptive things get, which adds in the variable of people buying in, agreeing, or understanding what they’re being asked to implement. When you get to 7–12 they are the harder things to do, the more transformative levers.
If your goal is for your company to be around forever and really make a dent in the universe then consider which levers you’re using to make decisions, and the level of leverage you have in the wider system.
Do you think about information flows and shifting paradigms? Do you work in constants and easily tracked parameters?
If you’re running a shop then it is absolutely right to think in these ways, but leading a purpose driven business which has a system change mission then you need to make sure you’re able to step out of the reeds and gain the power and leverage you require through creating new mindsets, perspectives, and collective goals.
Give yourself the time and space to do this, and you have a much higher chance of achieving your mission. If you don’t give yourself the time and space that’s fine too, just recognise that it’s a lot to ask to do both jobs at once.
Go easy on yourself if you’re not seeing the results in the first quarter, and don’t expect to see the shade of the tree until you’ve survived a couple of cold winters.
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