A Story Of Organization

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”

and yet:

  • 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.


21 thoughts on “A Story Of Organization

  1. Great post Toby, and very timely for me as my business is going through a few of your points as we speak. I power through by ensuring my vision for my life / business is still on track. Sometimes a job aint nothin’ but work, but you have to do it. Sometimes though you have veered off course, you need to be able to tell the difference.

  2. I think every business faces these types of organizational scaling challenges. Whether it’s going from one to many people, or from having to split a team up into multiple teams (e.g. the Amazon rule that no team should be larger than one that can eat two pizzas together), and finding processes along the way so that you don’t spend all of your time trying to keep everyone in sync or up to date.

    Solo entrepreneurs in particular struggle with this transition, as early on, they get the vision for everything. If they’re a consulting firm or a business with much customer-facing communication, it’s nearly impossible to find someone that will communicate with the same level of understanding as the original founder, etc.

    Eventually, organizations that succeed figure out how to scale and organize in a way that takes advantages of the benefits of a larger group, whereas organizations that never really grow beyond a single person successfully do not find a solution to these types of problems.

    Your story is an interesting reminder of these types of scaling challenges we all face, and of remind me that reorganizing things helps get over the initial productivity loss when bringing new people into the mix.

  3. Toby,

    I read this line: “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.”

    You know, over at http://www.Momentum.GS we’re studying this VERY topic through the entire month of May. You’ve uncovered something very, very important to the entire “growth/development” puzzle, in that one line. Have you ever seen two co-workers (founders???) at a conference, or on a business trip? You can almost imagine the “thought bubbles” over their heads as they are moving through space…And time.

    When I advise entire organizations, starting at the EO, we realized that there are different stories that are being told/held on to. Different beliefs about what success means. Different ideas about what the goals are. Different milestones about how to get there.

    As clear as some people can be, perhaps the most important thing for people to do is to be “as clear as possible” when they repeat back what is heard. I remember we did this over breakfast that morning in Zurich a while back. Our conversation spun around itself a few times as we all worked to understand the issues, ideas, outcomes and action sets we could all walk away with.

    Thank you very much for posting this article I think it’s one of the most important ones I’ve read that you’ve written in a while.

    • Thank you for sharing Jason – I’ll think of you when I’m in the very same spot in Zurich this Thursday! Congratulations to Momentum.GS – I gotta say that the MIT’s follow me around since reading your book and have inspired me to prioritize our product layer with the “5 D’s”, too :)

  4. Thanks for the sharing, Toby. It is true that from time to time, we have to step back and relook at the best way to organize our team or even our thoughts. Working harder and longer hours using the same old way will not give us break through. Stepping back, having a clear view of where we are heading before relooking at how we organize the piles is critical. So, taking time and effort to look ahead instead of burying one in the piles and keep digging deeper is critical.

      • No secret recipe, but it does help seeking inspirations from best practices from different industries. At time, getting friends and associates to come and give their views from a third party view also helps.

  5. Amazing story Toby… Just loved it! The analogy was nice. Well written. It comes in the right time when I need it the most… :) I am in the phase of re-structuring from scratch. Good thing that you mentioned is to break away from natural progression and re-structuring from scratch. But I personally think the challenge is to know when to break away from natural progression and start it from scratch. Over a period of time we tend to become comfortable / adjust with the structure we have. It gets difficult/laborious to start from scratch unless it is easier than adjusting to the existing structure.

    • Good point Anand. Timing is key – the term “never change a running system” sometimes has equal importance. Comparing the the triggers/signs (before some re-structure from scratch happened) with each other might help us to get a feel for when such a phase is coming up :)

  6. Nice Toby, a good read! My thought is that it’s extremely important how you organize stuff in the beginning. If you do it right, then later it will be easy to re-organize according to your needs. It’s just like the software architecture. You need to do it as abstract as possible from the start, so that later on you always have the data you need in some well-organized pile.

    • I also place lots of importance at organizing stuff well in the beginning. Over the years I felt I do this sometimes too much. My email folders are a digital proof of it. Those which don’t contain 50+ messages are hardly worth having at all. That is, if somebody bothers to have email folders at all of course. You’re right, organization and software have certain things in common – also that after a few years, no matter which structure you adopted, the technology may be old and overtaken. A good example is physical folders vs. Evernote.

  7. Hi Toby. Interesting article. My cooments is why didnt you guys pool your resources. Instead of working individually (which appears to be what happened) if you all worked collabratively I think you would have been much more efficient. Also over the years I have found that a group of persons more often than not makes the best decision. I may not have agreed at the time but usually in the end it works out better.

    • Hi Bill, good point. I agree collaboration is great and often can enhance productivity. In this case what happened (the manager later told us) was this: they wanted to match 3 assistants with 3 project managers. In this exercise we explicitly were not meant to work together but to come up with our own individual structures. That way and by looking which manager liked which structure more for their respective project, they anticipated manager and assistant would think more alike and could work more productively together. So eventually it was all about collaboration – just not between the assistants during the exercise.

  8. Interesting perspective which I’d not thought of before, but the key concept I read from this is not starting from scratch per se but more the natural progression and improved understanding through each iteration. On the face of it you may be approaching again from scratch but actually what you’re doing is learning from the previous iterations, as a result the next change will be quicker due to the knowledge gained from prior work.

    • Thanks for your feedback Chris. Initially I was also thinking that natural progression and improved understanding through each iteration is the best approach. But every once in a while – it seems – breaking with all the structures that were there place before, is a good think to do. Luckily today, with tools like Evernote (what Tian also mentioned), Unified Inbox and Dropbox, restructuring digital data is so much easier. One doesn’t have to lose his old structure and still can create a new one from scratch :) If it doesn’t work out, just go back to your version before. In the old days, that was a bit harder with the papers in front of you.

  9. Great story Toby ! It’s amazing where some of our best learnings come from – sometimes from the most unlikely situations ! At the end of your piece you mention “Nobody truly knows, how much others have to clean up behind ourselves simply due to our inability to organize well.”. This is so true ! I’m fascinated by the differing levels to which people pay attention to detail. I have two colleagues in my business, and we couldn’t be further apart in this sense. I might try doing the exercise in your story with them, to help us all see first-hand how we might approach the same task differently, yet each having its own validity.
    Thanks for sharing your story Toby !

    • Hi Chris, Glad you liked it – having somebody “independent” run a workshop including such an exercise can be a rewarding team experience. I’d also acknowledge that at the end of the day some people place more importance on organization than others – which doesn’t mean one is automatically more productive than the other. But chances are that if a team wants to scale up or a company grow: with better organization, their chances to do this successfully significantly increases :)

  10. That’s true, sometimes reorganizing from scratch is better than applying small changes. It’s like making a revolution, albeit a small one. And most significant advance seems to be based on revolutions.

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