Work in Progress

I’ve just finished reading Richard Sennett’s new book Together, which is subtitled ‘The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation’. As with his last book ‘The Craftsman’, itself a dense and detailed account of how hand and brain are inextricably connected in the practice of craft, ‘Together’ commands a huge historical, social and literary vista, in this case ranging from a Lily Allen song to the court of Louis XIV via all points between. It manages to be simultaneously erudite, earthy, unsentimental and lucid.

Many of Sennett’s key themes have lodged themselves in my brain, none though as insistently as his riff on the relationship between cooperation and civility. It crystallised something that began as a personal niggle of mine and has grown into a serious professional concern.

If finishing Sennett’s book yesterday provided fertile ground for this post, the actual seedling was an email from someone I’ve not yet met but would guess is around thirty years of age. Bear with me, it’s a significant number. This morning, not for the first time in our correspondence, they opened with a warm thank-you for my quick response to their previous message. More than a courtesy, it’s a big thing for them, clearly a (pleasant) surprise. My point here is that it shouldn’t be.

Sennett characterises contemporary Western societies as generally lacking in civility – the sensitive, empathetic, ethical approach to relations and communications with the people you need to work with to get stuff done. Whilst this is clearly true, in business the degeneration is more marked, more corrosive. And this is where age is moot; if you are under thirty-five it’s likely that a graceless and instrumental form of interpersonal relations has been your default experience at work. Because of the age-profile of creative, digital and technology businesses, they’re especially prone to it – which is my alibi for airing the issue in this blog.

You could dismiss this as the perspective of an older observer, a relic from a mythically kinder more considerate era, and I’m happy to let you have that one; the likelihood is I am from a different generation to yours. But whilst you can make a case that the degeneration of civility in contemporary business is inevitable, you will not persuade me that it is desirable.

And here’s the reason. Sennett’s thesis evoked another familiar professional experience of mine;  teaching management teams how to orchestrate multi-disciplinary work. Often their attitude to the digitisation of their particular market has evolved,  from initial denial, via a reluctant admission that this indeed is starting to happen, to a present acknowledgement that it is gathering a threatening momentum. But often it’s only the raw reality of the numbers – such as the recognition that a major revenue stream is declining inexorably – that finally brings the point home, late but hopefully not too much so.

The digitisation of just about everything is driving a new business dynamic; the resurgence of the specialist. Whilst there may be composite experts who, for example, have a skill-set that includes trend-spotting, product selection, web site design, ecommerce and electronic payment systems or crowdsourced fundraising, online platform-building, social media, mobile communications and shared-value economics, they are going to be somewhat scarce. Far more likely that an online fashion store or micro-investment initiative will be put together by a team of specialists, working together.

Which brings us back to civility. Its degeneration is totally counter-intuitive to the absolute necessity of cooperation in building complex digital products. Many leaders of businesses and teams wheedle their way around this, paying lip-service to ‘integration’ whilst in practice maintaining silos and hierarchies (which have a convenient affinity for those who are over-invested in the status quo). Map out the process for delivering a product or service and they’ll agree the specialists need to be there from the get-go. Ask them what that means in practice and they’ll invariably show  them coming on three stages in from the start, reserving the early process phases for those in charge – themselves!

Sennett closely links civility to mutual respect, empathy (which he is scrupulous to distinguish from its more self-serving cousin sympathy) being deployed to acknowledge the other’s essential contribution and value. Communications that are civil and respectful oil the wheels of cooperation and help create properly synthesised multi-discipline solutions that work, a world away from the arms-length way, for example, developers are often treated (which means they don’t understand the real purpose and meaning of the thing they’re building, with predictably unsatisfactory results),  or those pitch processes where each element is farmed out and the expert contributions are cobbled together the day before the presentation, a parody of integration that is usually transparent to the audience.

I see hope in the next generation, coming through behind those brought up exclusively under neo-conservative governments and so thoroughly socialised into a credo of miltant individualism and unquestioning materialism. Mrs Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” was a rallying cry for anti-cooperation. Yet individualism now faces a massive challenge from the sheer interconnectedness of things. There are few excuses for treating  your colleagues (if you’re fortunate enough to find yourself in a position where you have some, given the level of structural unemployment in ‘advanced’ economies) as mere instruments and agents in the pursuit of your own agenda.

A renewal of civility at work and in business might just help us to get things done more effectively in the way they actually to need be done now – together.



On reflection I think I may have jumped the gun (by no means for the first time) with my last post: urging entrepreneurs and their senior teams to learn how to plan holistically, rather than strategically. Many don’t yet do the latter.

But, just as you a growing business needs the structures and processes of the next stage now, the entrepreneur needs the thinking and planning style that will take them through a looming transition to the next phase of growth.

As a way into this topic, let me share with you a diagram from a recent presentation I made at the UK government’s  Department of Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS)

The terminology here arose out of a somewhat bleary-eyed yet energised New Year’s Eve morning I spent with NESTA’s Jon Kingsbury thrashing out our respective approaches to supporting creative businesses. I’m the first, especially when I’m running positioning or branding workshops, to cry ‘don’t wordsmith’, usually in a desperate attempt to maintain focus on the content and not the expression. It’s one of those recurring human traits; to feel much more comfortable pushing words around into near-perfect shapes than pushing the sense of something into a semblance of meaning. My only excuse for breaking the rule on the last day of last year is that: a) it took no time at all and b) we’d already generated so much flipping meaning that I am still working my way through it.

In trying to find a neat way of characterising three recurring early stages of business growth, we certainly weren’t going to attempt to reinvent ‘start-up’ and the idea of a ‘grown-up’ enterprise seemed to fit the ones that had got through the worst bit. (by the way, those indicative team sizes below the transitions are just one loose way of defining the stages – it is just as easy to mark them by ball-park turnover numbers). It was JK who coined ‘stay-up’: not only did it fit the format we’d established with the other two; it captured graphically the plate-spinning, hamster-wheeling, Groundhog-Day state of running to stay still that seems to be a dominant feature of this stage. It describes the state of the business, the implicit strategy, the focus of the leader – and probably their sleep pattern. The MD’s number one question, while they’re in it, is ‘how do I get out of it?‘ (see an earlier post: ‘The Reluctant MD‘)

Having given JK his (well-deserved) 15 minutes, I want to focus on the three transition points, those junctures where (I’m oversimplifying to the point of caricature here):

– the individual freelance or sole trader (who often mistakenly thinks they’re already a business, just because they have a limited company) begins to build a workload and team bigger than they can handle on their own

– the initial team grows beyond the point where they can all sit around one big table, in a single room, and everyone can keep up with what’s going on by earwigging, so an informal ‘mate-y’ style of team management and communications becomes less effective at getting the work out the door

– the ‘Reluctant MD’ may be reaching their limit and the organisational structure (which resembles an upright dumbbell, flat at the top and the bottom, thin in the middle) , production and business processes are creaking at the seams.

Each transition the business inevitably goes through requires a parallel transition in the mindset and management repertoire of the leader or leaders. Einstein’s “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” becomes less of a pejorative and more a statement of plain fact. The thinking, before anything else, needs to change.

It’s not easy to do that by yourself, to yourself. It’s no accident that Einstein used the active verb ‘using’; we don’t have to possess the new thinking ourselves, we just need to use it. So we could learn it, or get it from somewhere or someone else and apply it. If we express Einstein’srule in a different way, from the entrepreneur’s point of view, it might say ‘ You can’t solve problems [of negotiating one of these transitions] by being and behaving the way you did as you built towards this point.’

Each successive watershed demands the entrepreneur expands their management bandwidth, their strategic management skills. Their operational management expertise, that enables them to run the business they have right now from day to day, is good enough to maintain the status quo; it becomes seriously challenged when called upon to envision where to go beyond an endless repetition of the day to day and to then figure out how to get there.

‘Strategic planning’ – a phrase that strikes at the very heart of many entrepreneurs’ freewheeling spirit, the antitheses of the six-month pivot and an echo of the corporate biz-speak they’ve rejected decisively (only to replace it with the equally predictable lexicon of the start-up?).

It’s understood mostly as something that there is no time to do. Not in the hurly-burly of managing a growing business. Planning is a luxury reserved for big-ego execs who gather at destination hotels and off-season spa resorts to thrash out product release schedules and marketing matrices by day and drain the lounge bar dry well into the night – not an appropriate activity for the lean mean fighting machine you need to be if you’re running your own show.

Having experienced both, I can affirm that there is some truth in that image; I remain unconvinced that an all-night marathon of carousing with a genial bunch of Finnish, Irish and Texan colleagues in a Beijing hotel bar did much for the following year’s corporate strategy – though I did make some good mates. But I’ve seen that it is just as easy to squander time with the senior management of a vastly smaller enterprise, though the wastage is more likely to be the result of persistent calls from demanding clients and un-empowered team members in need of nannying than from partying on expenses.

Most clichés contain a essential nugget of truth and ‘if you fail to plan, you plan to fail’ is no exception. Yes, it can be much harder to do forward planning in a fast-growing early- or mid-stage business. You have less data, fewer people, less time and far less head space. If your workload and revenues are project-based, you are in planning hell, unable to see beyond the end of the month.

Yearly financial planning, for example, often defeats small business MDs. Through a combination of the sheer scale of the task, the huge volume of unknowns and the apparent impossibility of setting aside more than a couple of hours at a time to focus on it, the annual forecast easily becomes one of those daunting non-urgent (in the continuous present of the entrepreneurial MD) tasks that never quite gets done.

There’s a simple remedy; don’t even try. Instead, adopt the habit of quarterly rolling forecasts, which are updated from a combination of the previous quarter’s actual numbers, some reasonable foreknowledge of the next three months’ big expenditure items and a sensible sales forecast that incorporates percentage likelihoods and approximate timings for as-yet-unconfirmed prospects.

There’s still a good smattering of known unknowns in there, like how many new clients might materialise out of the blue, and even a few unknown unknowns – the rabbit-in-headlights look on the creative director’s face when he discovers his partner is pregnant, for example – but you are so much closer to having an evidence-based foundation for knowing what could happen than you were before. And the longer you do it, the more accurately predictive the results. Better still, teach a numerate team-member to do it and delegate. Once you get your management information geared up to provide the necessary data, it can be done within a working week from the end of the preceding quarter, and in less than two hours.

The time that’s freed up when you throw off the tyranny of annual forecasting is better spent on quick-and-dirty long-term road-mapping. This is best done together with fellow founders/owners/directors/senior managers. More than one head is better than one. Shut yourselves off for a half-day, preferably away from the work space. The lobby of a hotel that’s grand – or hip – enough, to have waiting staff serving coffee and bar snacks to blow-ins off the street is a cost-effective venue – and allows for a late afternoon segue into well-earned beers.

Work on a two-year horizon across a sheet of A3 paper, set it down landscape and draw ten vertical lines to create eleven columns, of which numbers 3-10 are consecutive quarters. In your first column list five or six key aspects of your business – revenues, hires, org chart, core costs, product releases, gross profit…whatever you feel is essential – and draw horizontal lines between them.

Set this aside while you spend a half-hour summarising where you want to get the business to in the ensuing eight quarters. This requires a lot of self-discipline, combined with a firm facilitator. It is crucial to frame it as an exercise in downloading what you all already intuitively know; if you are still agonising over and arguing about where the business is heading (the subject of a previous post) then maybe you do need to book into this hotel for a couple of days and go the whole hog. Use the last column of your map to record what you would like the business to look like in two years’ time.

Then, in column two, document the current reality; how many staff, the shape of the org, last quarters revenues etc. Rounded-off rough numbers will do.

Now you have your point ‘A’ and your point ‘B’; where you’re starting out from and where you’re heading. It’s relatively easy now to see the eight columns in between as steady incremental steps along the way. But the real beauty of this methodology is that it acts as a basic primer in thinking holistically.

Businesses are systems and the don’t develop properly unless each element is evolved in synchronisation with all the others. When you can see, together, right there in front of you on the table, how bringing a hire forward by one quarter will affect profits and what that, in turn, means you need to achieve in sales, so you know how to amp up the previous quarter’s biz dev… and you do this many times, in many permutations, across the map over the course of the afternoon, what you build is both an holistic picture of the medium-term future and a different way of thinking together.

When my powerhouse (mother, wife, MD) friend Jaya Chakrabarti asked me at the beginning of this year, via this blog ,for my top ten tips for creative entrepreneurs , some readers were a little surprised by Tip No. 5: “Stop multitasking; it’s the devil’s work”.

We are so used to being bombarded with advice from productivity gurus, downloading tools that transform our desktop or inbox into a task management hothouse or sitting through do-more webinars delivered by toned-down sociopaths disguised in Brooks Brothers suits that we are now brainwashed into thinking that the more things we can seemingly do at once, or within a ten minute window, the more squarely we are set on the road to success. Not so.

Sure, there’s a place for multitasking. The kitchen, for example. Two-thirds of the time I single-handedly run a household consisting of myself and my teenage sons, so I have adaptively developed new behaviours – I can unload a full dishwasher in exactly the time it takes for a teabag to brew, for example. Or cook risotto whilst hanging a wash on a drying rack in the next room. You get the picture.

What works in the utility room, though, doesn’t play so well in the office or studio.

The optimum mental mode for stirring a pan of flavoured rice is not so different from that which is most conducive to bagging the recycling or erecting an ironing  board. That kind of multitasking, often evoked as a defining characteristic of women – sometimes by women themselves when  pointing out the essentially unevolved nature of the male psyche – is a highly useful skill to learn, one that could potentially save a few marriages.

I suspect it is the unconscious transfer of this piece of contemporary folk wisdom into the work sphere that has led to quite a bit of manic and hopelessly ineffective behaviour by the leaders and senior managers of growing businesses.

There’s a simple exercise I’ve done with several clients – corporate and entrepreneurial – over the years. The account I offer here is a generic composite, but if you do recognise yourself in it, then I suggest another exercise – building a well-known phrase or saying around the words ‘fit’ and ‘cap’.

All I do is get the person in question, the director or MD, to write down, literally minute by minute every single thing they do, for two or three successive days. A wonk-y colleague once extrapolated this to a more scientific extreme, identifying some 160 tasks going on daily in a particular team and mapping them against a timeline for each team member. Not only did this reveal damaging levels of multitasking but it also showed that almost everyone was working on tasks that were three levels below their role and experience, most of the time. Very useful intelligence, which we subsequently used to nail down job descriptions to improve work satisfaction and productivity.

Nothing I encountered in corporate entities prepared me for the entrepreneurial sector, though.

Here, multitasking can be virtually sectionable. Tasks lasting just one or two minutes each, wildly fluctuating in focus; from a new business call to a snippet of project management to editing a newsletter entry to signing off a payment to scheduling an appraisal to fixing a software bug…It’s the mental (in both senses) equivalent of doing a triathlon by running a few metres, chucking yourself in the water, only to immediately jump out and onto a bike before pounding the road on your feet once more. Result: you don’t get very far, and your body can’t take it. Well – surprise, surprise – nor can your mind.

These behaviours are acute in growing companies for a number of reasons. There are fewer people to get things done, especially senior people who take responsibility for stuff. Staff aren’t always paid top rates, so there’s a reluctance to ask them to do apparently demeaning tasks. Not least – let’s be honest here – many entrepreneurs are control freaks, manic micro-managers, which is precisely the reason they work for themselves.

Some simple advice. Accumulate similar mental-mode tasks into ‘bundles’: project management; financial; client direction (not client management, that needs to be done in real time by people you employ); strategy; organisational development; operations and so on. Once you have two hours worth of stuff to do in a category, do it. That’s enough time to stay in the flow and capitalise on the effect of being in a consistent mental mode. We all know this already, experientially, from doing biz dev calls; we’re much more confident, articulate and effective when we set aside a morning and do one after another – we ‘get on a roll’ and our self-limiting fear of rejection and failure, the one Steven Pressfield calls The Resistance, falls away.

So save the multitasking for the kitchen, the garage – or even the bedroom. If you want to achieve maximum entrepreneurial efficiency in the workplace, leave it there where it belongs.

When I was being trained as an ‘Inventor’ – a job title which continues to give me a lot of pleasure – at the innovations consultancy WhatIf, it was drummed into us that ‘brainstorming’ was the lowest form of idea generation. Yes, you can throw a bunch of smart people into a room and see what they can pluck out of the ether, but it is a progressively inefficient technique. Not only are the ideas likely to be random, weak and derivative, but the participants – and I have heard this first-hand from teams that are required to churn ideas day-in, day-out – rapidly become jaded and creatively exhausted.

But the real weakness of brainstorming is that it encourages creative egotism. I took part in one session – professionally facilitated in a fair and even way –  where, at the end, we all voted for the ideas we wanted to develop further. After the dud ones had been culled, leaving a handful of post-its clinging to the whiteboard, one participant slumped into a chair and declared their disillusionment with the whole process. Their reason: “None of the ideas that are left are mine”!

Research indicates that innovation is not delivered via an individual’s Eureka-moment ‘inspiration’ but by groups of people combining existing notions into never-seen-before combinations.

Hybridisation is the name of the game.

It’s exactly the same when you are growing a business. Even in the unlikely event that your enterprise replicates another identically, it is highly improbable that it will follow the same path or pattern of growth. One thing you can be sure of as its leader is that, sooner or later, you will find yourself in unknown territory. And then you’ll be looking for a map, a template, a model that you can recognise and say – an audible note of relief in your voice – that’s where we are, that’s the shape we need to be. If only.

When you need a model of how to deal with an aspect of growth – a management structure; a set of processes; a new commercial model;  a business development strategy; an evolving org chart – it is unlikely to emerge from a brainstorm or any other ether-tapping technique. Nor, given the unique character of your business, will it come from importing an existing model lock, stock & barrel.

We’re back to hybridisation, the fundamental technique for creating new things. You need to mash up previous models to make a new one. It’s tricky to make a mash-up from a single piece of source material. So if the only model you really know is the one you’ve developed within this company, a company that needs a new one pretty damn quickly, then you simply don’t have the means to hand.  Scouring Amazon for business books and learning models secondhand in the comfort of your room doesn’t count.

You need to find a way to bring the experience of those models into your business, even if it’s just for a short while, so you can work the creative alchemy that makes new things from the clash of the old.

Much as every entrepreneur would like to think their business is unique, certain patterns recur when companies grow. There are recurrent watersheds that an enterprise must cross as revenues and team expand. They happen to everyone and there’s no way to avoid them.

These milestones along the path of growth occur when the organisation reaches certain sizes – roughly speaking at 10-12 people, 30-35 and about 120. I’m told by another serial CEO/non-exec that the one after that happens around the 300 mark, though I’ve not personally been there.

Each of these staging-posts signals that the structures and processes which sustained the business up to this point are not the ones it will need in the next phase, after the watershed. I’ll put it more strongly; those structures and processes simply won’t work, not then. If you’ve taken a business past a dozen employees, you’ll know this from experience. Take a simple function like internal communications; every entrepreneur remembers the early days when you all worked in a single space, probably around one big table, and communication happened via a mixture of osmosis, shouting across at each other and earwigging.

Then there were eight or ten of you and that began to stop working. A couple of people working on the same project developed significantly differing impressions of what the client wanted and how much they had said they were prepared to pay for it.

By the time there were twelve of you it was really starting to create problems.

Extrapolate that syndrome from communications across project management, client/account handling, operations, finance, management information, product development, marketing and so on – those interdependent activities that constitute the humming engine of a functioning business – and it’s easy to see how what was relatively organic, unstructured and implicit might need to become more planned, structured, codified and agreed. The transition into each subsequent stage poses similar challenges but in a more complex form that reflects increased size.

And if you use a lot of freelancers – which is not just prudent commercially for many entrepreneurial businesses, it is also a sensible response to the technology-driven fragmentation of digital-era expertise – then you may well experience a special version of the problem. You’ll look at the books and note that there are only twenty-two people on them. Phew, there’s a way to go before you have to deal with the thirty-something transition. So then why are you having all these problems with people being less-than-fully aware of what each other is doing; why is your work flow creaking at the seams and why is it so difficult to keep track of project profitability?

Forget the payroll for a moment and look around the office/studio. Do a head count. Remind yourself that for the past four months there have been six or seven freelancers in the house on any given day. So you have actually been managing a team of twenty-eight or twenty-nine people, knocking on the door of the next stage and – as soon as you stop to think about it – experiencing symptoms of an organisation that’s not quite fit for purpose.

There’s a simple remedy. Always adopt the systems and processes of the next stage to the one you are in. Not the current one. You simply don’t know when the unexpected additional brief, the one extra contractor, the new business win from a client in a hurry, will tip the business over that watershed – there is no data available about the future.  So don’t get caught on the back foot. It’s a world of pain that’s entirely avoidable.

People talk about growing a business as it were an option, a lifestyle choice. It isn’t. It might well feel empowering to ponder an imagined bifurcation in the entrepreneurial path, to consider a couple of jauntily-angled signs that point, on the one side, to frantic scaling and untold wealth and, on the other, to a genial working day that goes on (more or less) forever. Except it doesn’t quite work like that.

Like an adolescent offspring, a young business is a pain; it will keep trying to grow up. Despite your best efforts to hold it back – conscious or otherwise – there’s an inexorable internal dynamic that makes a business, if it’s any good, need to expand. No doubt a smart economist, or maybe just a decent accountant, has a good explanation for this. Whatever. For a business owner it is either a blessing or a curse;  for many, in theory it’s the first but in reality it’s the second.

Paradoxically, this unstoppable momentum doesn’t stop a lot of creative businesses staying more or less the same size for years. They grow a little, push up the evolutionary scale for a while, only to settle back down to where they were a year, or eighteen months, ago. Having briefly entered the choppy waters of growth, they beat a retreat back to harbour, to calm water. Only it isn’t calm, back where they came from. It’s just a different kind of chop: too much work; not quite enough revenue; too few hours in the day; too little structure; flimsy processes, management structures and profits.

I worked, briefly, with a business that has gone through this cycle every couple of years since its inception. It has tremendous expertise, a charismatic leader and enthusiastic clients who tend to get on board at the top of the cycle and ended up questioning the quality of outputs, the attention to the subtleties in the brief and the evident chaos in project management.  What they experience is the point where the business has the opportunity to push through to the next level of growth but fails to grasp it.

A whole sorry catalogue of causes get blamed for this sort of entrepreneurial Groundhog Day, including – surprise, surprise – our old friend, a lack of investment. The most common culprit, though, is much closer to home; it’s the entrepreneur themselves.

Indeed, the syndrome  is so common it defines a key rule of entrepreneurial expansion; a business only grows at the speed with which the MD and directors can increase their personal Management Bandwidth.

The peak, from which these businesses invariably fall back, marks the limit of the leader’s (or leaders’) current management capabilities. Commercially, growth is there for the taking. The vision, goals, confidence and skills to grab it are not.

They need to be acquired, in either sense of the word – learned or purchased – for the cycle to be broken.