Scaling up on the growth journey: Pioneer to Process

Whether you are currently starting up your business, or an established founder looking back on your business’s achievements after many years of hard work, I am sure you would agree that the foundation phase of any company is both chaotic and exciting.

The feeling that you, as an individual or a leadership team, are creating something new, that you believe in is a heady experience.

The green shoots of early growth increase this feeling as your idea is exposed to the market for the first time, and customers seem to like it.

Early suggestions from the market shape your direction and development and add to the sense that you are going places.

Successful early adoption of your new offering is the reward for the effort put in up until that point. It validates and affirms your abilities and boosts your confidence that you were right to invest time, money and effort and, above all, take risks that have begun to pay off!.

However, let us not forget that there were moments of abject terror too.

Remember the times when you thought, ‘How will we possibly deliver this big order?’
‘How do we keep customers who took an early chance on us from going elsewhere?’
‘How will we overcome that new competition from a bigger player?’ ‘How do we keep going when cash is coming in, but also going out at an alarming rate to fuel our growth?’

Sleepless nights, stress caused by long days and little time off, arguments with others in the business, and fallouts with cofounders and other members of the startup team, are perhaps inevitable in this pressured situation.

Whilst everyone is trying to make the best decisions possible for the company’s future direction, the choice of which path to take is not always clear.

You are exploring new territory, after all, and the choice of routes going forward or past obstacles in your way will not always be clear or unanimous to your fellow travelers.

You are a pioneer in every sense of the word.

It would probably be fair to say that up until this point, your ‘company mission statement’ (as if!) was probably something like ‘just get on with it’ and the way this was put into operation was more ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ than planned.

Many of my clients have experienced this approach.

In a smaller team where communication is between fewer people, they can all be on the same page very quickly.

There is no need for mission statements, policies or procedures. There is almost an instinctive set of behaviours and an inherent understanding of what needs to be done, when and by whom.

Founders are perhaps equally motivated to make the business a success and, therefore, reward is a driver, but also because they are directly linked to the consequences of business failure.

Personal loss of money, reputation, status and sometimes much more can be at stake and can be a powerful driving force too.

At this stage, it feels like there is no time to write things down in policies and procedures and little benefit in doing so.

Operational processes may not be fully formed yet and are subject to external changes and ‘pivots’ caused by customer requests.

They also will be subject to improvements and changes internally from the experience of their delivery.

Changes may be needed to optimise profit, reduce the burden of delivery on the team, increase productivity, improve quality of delivery, improve customer experience, and reduce waste.

So, documenting processes and procedures feels wasteful as there is little or no short-term gain in exchange for the cost of spending time doing so.

This is also true for some policies and procedural norms found in more established businesses, save for the basic legal requirements all businesses must adhere to in these areas.

However, there comes a time when the business must start to change, and the above attitude toward formalities cannot continue.

There is no right or wrong time to do this, bar the requirement of the business to remain legally compliant.

However, I believe that the timing and implementation of this development of the business are crucial to its long-term success.

Companies that get the timing and the implementation of processes and systems have more chance of long-term success as they strike a balance between the excitement and flexibility of growing rapidly, with the need to shore up the foundations on which their businesses are based.

Constantly prospecting for gold is of no benefit if the tunnel you have dug in the mine collapses behind you!

An informal system where the entrepreneur or leadership team has managed to get by suffers when the company grows.

When the business’s activity grows beyond the founding team’s ability to deliver it, customer orders can no longer be delivered by that small close-knit group.

Communication begins to be more difficult as the number of people within the company grows.

Others need to be recruited to help with delivery and brought into the company with an understanding of how things are done.

Without written procedures, this can become increasingly difficult.

A larger team means greater capacity to deliver, but with ‘more moving parts’ that can go wrong or not work in harmony with one another, the chance for miscommunication grows.

The ability to deliver customer services or products consistently becomes more difficult without formal processes too.

Also, putting things right if they go wrong, without some form of guideline as to what to do, can present challenges.

So, what can be done about the timing and application of these changes in a fast-growing business to increase the chances of success?

How can we ensure that the changes are applied gradually and with a degree of finesse to ensure the fast-growing business is not bogged down with too many procedures and processes too soon?

How can we make sure individuals are not reliant on their procedures at the expense of ‘common sense’? (Especially when the definition of common sense is not easily written down!)

With the clients I have had the pleasure of working with during my career I have often drawn the analogy of their being on a journey.

The journey of the company should be communicated to all employees by the management team.

A clear destination (goal) should be articulated by the leadership team.

As new people join the journey, they should know where they are going, what they can do to help the journey, how they can carry their share of the load and how they can help their companions.

They should also be clear about how reaching the destination successfully would benefit them personally as much as the rest of the company.

By clarifying the above, leaders will find that most of the time employees will do the right thing in the circumstances they find themselves in at work, not because they are necessarily following a procedure, but because they begin to feel empowered to make decisions – with the guiding light of the destination in mind.

Some policies and procedures will need to be adhered to, for health and safety or legal reasons.

However, companies could benefit if they design other procedures to be written as more of a guide than a computer program for a robotic response from employees.

Thought should also be given to recruiting new employees to get the right people for the roles that are needed to move the business forward.

Some people are natural entrepreneurial thinkers, comfortable with uncertainty and the cut and thrust of unchartered territory.

There is value, too, in people with another skill set – those who enjoy working within known parameters and are great at defining procedures that strike a balance between the flexibility a growing business needs and the consistency and reliability that procedures can bring to customers in the form of product and service delivery.

You cannot hope to continue mining a seam of gold without keeping the roof up and providing access to the outside world so that you can eventually sell the nuggets to a customer.

Old caved-in gold mines are not much use to anyone except a competing miner who has the forethought to bring tunnel supports along with them!

In these ways, we cushion the introduction of processes and procedures, not by making them completely rigid, unquestioned and imposed from above, but by accepting that there is never a perfect time for their introduction, knowing they are never perfect, and ensuring they do not become a substitute for common sense in well-intentioned and motivated employees.

A fine balance of pioneering and process activity helps to manage the internal challenges and growing pains on the journey and implement the necessary systems and processes to take the business to the next level.

Our six-stage approach to scaling up your business will help you shift to a more process-driven operation, resulting in new and higher standards of efficiency and performance.

The approach is proven to work, is empowering and easy to implement throughout your organisation.

For more information, please contact me to discuss your scaling-up challenges and how we can help you.

Best wishes on your journey, wherever it may take you.

John Stein, Founder of the Winning Formula.