Over the past couple of months I’ve met with several entrepreneurs who’ve been self employed for a while and who are now working towards growing their businesses to the next stage, either alone or by joining forces with others.
These are successful people: they’ve raised at least one company already, made it profitable, achieved an entrepreneurial lifestyle which isn’t bound by 9-5 rules and yet, when entering the next phase of growing what they had, they struggled. Something was holding them back.
During the course of our exchange about the beauties and challenges of running your own business, I observed three particular issues they all had in common:
- their business revenue was going up
- their client list was increasing
- the company workload could be distributed amongst more team members, leading to more peace of mind in all key people, when compared to being a “solopreneur”
- overall profitability did not increase significantly
- old (good) clients started to express dissatisfaction, with concerns such as “a lack of understanding for their business”, “loss of price-value” and “service issues around communication and reliability”
- there was always too much work in the company overall and always one had to pick up the majority of it to keep it together
So I wondered, why is that?
Then I remembered an incident from when I worked at Daimler-Chrysler to earn some money during my studies. I had found the job in a quite magical way: one of the top managers at Daimler-Chrysler wanted to learn the piano and became my student. He helped me to land my dream job at the time: driving and caring for (that is washing!) some of their newest prototype cars (or “Erlkönigs” as they are known in German) from one production facility, to another. While the outer design of such cars is often somewhat veiled, they certainly need to be made compatible in every other aspect, especially if a make or model needed to be made available as a high performance vehicle or upgrade such as in the case of AMG. So that was my job and I loved it.
However, after doing the basic driving, washing and transportation services for a couple of weeks, my piano student who helped me to get this job in the first place asked me whether I could assist one of his managers who was charged with creating a presentation for their newest high performance diesel motor. He told me I could study about project management at their headquarters and this sounded like a fantastic opportunity to learn, so I was all in.
Imagine my disappointment, when the first task the manager gave me was a seemingly lost case. He poured out several boxes of letters, cut-out newspaper articles, various printed documents and a bunch of previously created presentations on the subject matter right in front of me on to the floor.
I wasn’t alone, there were two or three others with me, tasked with other projects coming from different boxes, but nevertheless they, too, had the same mess in front of them: hundreds and hundreds of printed pages with no clue how they all related to each other.
Our task was not to read or understand what was written on those pages. It wouldn’t have been possible anyway as we had only 2, maybe 3 hours to finish the job. Instead we should simply sort these variety of formats, content and ultimately information into different piles with the goal that they should make sense. But what makes sense means different things to different people and unfortunately for us, no further explanation was given!
So initially I was quite angry. I was thinking about the nice job I had before and was dreaming about the 250 km/h drive on the Autobahn in the latest (not yet available) car. I was also thinking what difficult piano piece I could give back to my student who brought me into this mess in the 2nd place!
Seeing my frustration, the manager looking after us took me aside and told me: “just try to complete the task in time and don’t worry too much about what you could do wrongly. I too was given the same task a long time ago. Once you’re finished, let me know and I will give you a more detailed explanation.”
So I went about my business, trusting that eventually it would make some sense. If not to me, then to him at least and after all I got paid to do my job, which is what I did.
The following three hours were surprisingly some of the most thought leading ones in my life and they shaped a lot of my entrepreneurial thinking when it comes to organizing your work as well as life.
None of us knew what was awaiting us in those boxes and whether the materials in there would actually add up into sensible piles at all. This was a big uncertainty. We did not know the structure the manager himself had in mind, so we had to do this while completely left in the dark. Some even feared what the reaction of the manager would be, if what we did, would not be in line with his expectations.
But the reality is – that’s life. That’s work. That’s you. It’s your team, your customers, your company. All of this is nothing but in different boxes. Some is in the form of invoices you’ve written, some in the form of a customer service email or telephone call. Others may be the minutes from the last meeting you had with the rest of your team, an SMS from your partner to come home early for dinner, or the quotation you’ve written for the big new client or project your firm so badly wants to get.
Whatever it is, all of it is a part of you, one way or the other, and it occupies your mind all the time – consciously or subconsciously. Some of it makes it to the top and gets a higher priority, other things never make it there though they could be a real breakthrough for you, both personally and professionally.
My experience and realization at the time showed me: while all of us came up with different structures (or piles) for the respective projects we’d been assigned to, after three hours of doing this exercise there was one thing we all had in common: if the manager asked us where he could find a piece of information which he wanted to put into his presentation, we were able to point with an at least 90% accuracy to the right pile. We didn’t even know what exactly he was looking for, but we were extremely confident of our (totally individual) structures.
After some time, we repeated the exercise and our way of organizing it again changed. Probably not as much as it could have (as none of us wanted to pour back the entire piles back on the floor and start completely from scratch), but it did not remain in exactly the same manner either.
Many problems related to growing your own business – no matter if you think small, large, alone or with others – deep down often originate from an organizational structure that isn’t fit to scale (and hopefully didn’t have to as long as it was just “you”).
The above mentioned three observations are closely tied to problems resulting from bad organization, or, organization not matching your current needs any more. Keeping existing, good customers happy is tough when your company is changing. Yet, if organized well, neither one must outgrow the other and certainly nobody need to feel that way.
A lack of time, lost emails or missed project deadlines often happen when the dynamics of your organization change. But often your personal and your team’s organizational structure and behaviour don’t.
Pouring the contents of all boxes back on to the floor and re-sorting it into new piles might sometimes just be the answer for better productivity and more work-life balance.
If you’re not alone in your business, doing this exercise as a group may not only be more fun, but increases understanding of each others learning and thinking patterns as well.
Mastering this exercise is not just a big help in managing yourself, but thus also greatly benefits the people around you. Nobody truly knows, how much others have to clean up behind ourselves simply due to our inability to organize well. Like my manager said: Just get started.
This post is dedicated to the anonymous manager who guided me at the time, friends, colleagues, fellow entrepreneurs and business owners, mothers and fathers who have decided to take on the next challenge in their lives, whether privately or professionally.