Imagine that you’re looking at your company-issued smartphone and you notice an e-mail from LinkedIn. “These companies are looking for candidates like you!” You aren’t necessarily searching for jobs, but you’re always open to opportunities, so out of curiosity, you click on the link. A few minutes later your boss appears at your desk. “We’ve noticed that you’re spending more time on LinkedIn lately, so I wanted to talk with you about your career and whether you’re happy here,” she says. Uh-oh.
Why Attrition Matters
It’s an awkward and Big Brother–ish scenario—and it’s not so far-fetched. Attrition has always been expensive for companies. But in many industries the cost of losing good workers is rising, owing to tight labor markets and the increasingly collaborative nature of jobs. (As work becomes more team-focused, seamlessly plugging in new players is more challenging.) Thus companies are intensifying their efforts to predict which workers are at high risk of leaving so that managers can try to stop them. Tactics range from garden-variety electronic surveillance to sophisticated analyses of employees’ social media lives.
Some of this analytical work is generating fresh insights about what impels employees to quit. In general, people leave their jobs because they don’t like their boss. Or see opportunities for promotion or growth Or offered a better gig (and often higher pay). These reasons have held steady for years. New research looks not just at why workers quit but also at when. “We’ve learned that what really affects people is their sense of how they’re doing compared with other people in their peer group. Or with where they thought they would be at a certain point in life,” says Brian Kropp, who heads CEB’s HR practice. “We’ve learned to focus on moments that allow people to make these comparisons.”
Delegation: Senior leaders want to believe that delegating a task is as easy as flipping a switch. Simply provide clear instructions and you are instantly relieved of responsibility, giving you more time in your schedule.
That’s the dream. In reality, we all know it almost never works that way. You’re often forced to step in at the last minute to save a botched deliverable. And because you jumped in to save the day, employees don’t have the opportunity to learn. They aren’t left to grapple with the consequences of their actions, and therefore are deprived of the chance to discover creative solutions. What’s more, morale takes a hit — employees begin to believe that no matter what they do, their work isn’t good enough.
What’s your management approach when it comes to communications? This article can’t be shared enough. Credit to HBR.
Around 11 p.m., you realize there’s a key step your team needs to take on a current project. So, you dash off an email to the team members while you’re thinking about it.
No time like the present, right?
Wrong. As a productivity trainer specializing in attention management, I’ve seen over the past decade how after-hours emails speed up corporate cultures. That, in turn, chips away at creativity, innovation, and true productivity.
If this is a common behavior for you, you’re missing the opportunity to get some distance from work, Distance that’s critical to the fresh perspective you need as the leader. And, when the boss is working, the team feels like they should be working.
Think about the message you’d like to send.
Do you intend for your staff to reply to you immediately? Or are you just sending the email because you’re thinking about it at the moment, and want to get it done before you forget? If it’s the former, you’re intentionally chaining your employees to the office 24/7. If it’s the latter, you’re unintentionally chaining your employees to the office 24/7. And this isn’t good for you, your employees, or your company culture. Being connected in off-hours during busy times is the sign of a high-performer. Never disconnecting is a sign of a workaholic. And there is a difference.
Regardless of your intent, I’ve found through my experience with hundreds of companies that there are two reasons late-night email habits spread from the boss to her team:
If the boss is emailing late at night or on weekends, most employees think a late night response is required. Or that they’ll impress you if they respond immediately. Even if just a couple of your employees share this belief, it could spread through your whole team. A casual mention in a meeting, “When we were emailing last night…” is all it takes. After all, everyone is looking for an edge in their career.
There are lots of people who have no intention of “working” when they aren’t at work. But they have poor attention management skills. They’re accustomed to multitasking, and used to constant distractions. Regardless of what else they’re doing, they find their fingers mindlessly tapping the icons on their smartphones that connect them to their emails, texts, and social media. Your late-night communication feeds that bad habit.
Being “always on” hurts results. When employees are constantly monitoring their email after work hours — whether this is due to a fear of missing something from you, or because they are addicted to their devices — they are missing out on essential down time that brains need.
Experiments have shown that to deliver our best at work, we require downtime. Time away produces new ideas and fresh insights. But your employees can never disconnect when they’re always reaching for their devices to see if you’ve emailed. Creativity, inspiration, and motivation are your competitive advantage. They are also depletable resources that need to recharge. Incidentally, this is also true for you, so it’s worthwhile to examine your own communication habits.
Company management can help unhealthy assumptions about email and other communication from taking root.
Be clear about expectations for email and other communications. Set up policies to support a healthy culture recognizing and valuing single-tasking, focus, and downtime.
Vynamic, a successful healthcare consultancy in Philadelphia, created a policy called “zmail.” Email is discouraged between 10pm and 7am during the week, and all day on weekends. The policy doesn’t prevent work during these times, nor does it prohibit communication. If an after-hours message seems necessary, the staff assesses whether it’s important enough to require a phone call. If employees choose to work during off-hours, zmail discourages them from putting their habits onto others by sending emails during this time. They simply save the messages as drafts to be manually sent later, or they program their email client to automatically send the messages during work hours.
This policy creates alignment between the stated belief that downtime is important, and the behaviors of the staff that contribute to the culture.
Also, take a hard look at the attitudes of leaders regarding an always-on work environment.
The (often unconscious) belief that more work equals more success is difficult to overcome, but the truth is that this is neither beneficial nor sustainable. Long work hours actually decrease both productivity and engagement. I’ve seen that often, leaders believe theoretically in downtime, but they also want to keep company objectives moving forward — which seems like it requires constant communication.
A frantic environment that includes answering emails at all hours doesn’t make your staff more productive. It just makes them busy and distracted. You base your staff hiring decisions on their knowledge, experience, and unique talents, not how many tasks they can seemingly do at once, or how many emails they can answer in a day.
So, demonstrate and encourage an environment where employees can actually apply that brain power in a meaningful way:
Ditch the phrase “time management” for the more relevant “attention management,” and make training on this crucial skill part of your staff development plan.
Refrain from after-hours communication.
Model and discuss the benefits of presence, by putting away your devices when speaking with your staff, and implementing a “no device” policy in meetings to promote single-tasking and full engagement.
Discourage an always-on environment of distraction that inhibits creative flow by emphasizing the importance of focus, balancing an open floor plan with plenty of quiet spaces, and creating part-time remote work options for high concentration roles, tasks, and projects.
These behaviors will contribute to a higher quality output from yourself and your staff, and a more productive corporate culture.
A must-read. You will most likely recognize the first work culture environment described. And perhaps enjoy a few suggestions for change. – pw
If there’s one place on earth where originality goes to die, I’d managed to find it. I was charged with unleashing innovation and change in the ultimate bastion of bureaucracy. It was a place where people accepted defaults without question. Followed rules without explanation. And clung to traditions and technologies long after they’d become obsolete. The U.S. Navy.
But in a matter of months, the navy was exploding with originality—and not because of anything I’d done. It launched a major innovation task force. And helped to form a Department of Defense outpost in Silicon Valley to get up to speed on cutting-edge technology. Surprisingly, these changes didn’t come from the top of the navy’s command-and-control structure. They initiated from the bottom, by a group of junior officers in their twenties and thirties.
When I started digging for more details, multiple insiders pointed to a young aviator named Ben Kohlmann. Officers called him a troublemaker, rabble-rouser, disrupter, heretic, and radical. And in direct violation of the military ethos, these were terms of endearment.
Kohlmann lit the match by creating the navy’s first rapid-innovation cell. A network of original thinkers who would collaborate to question long-held assumptions and generate new ideas. To start assembling the group, he searched for black sheep. People with a history of nonconformity. One recruit was fired from a nuclear submarine for disobeying a commander’s order. Another had flat-out refused to go to basic training. Others had yelled at senior flag officers and flouted chains of command by writing public blog posts to express their iconoclastic views. “They were lone wolves,” Kohlmann says. “Most of them had a track record of insubordination.”
Kohlmann realized, however, that to fuel and sustain innovation throughout the navy, he needed more than a few lone wolves. So while working as an instructor and director of flight operations, he set about building a culture of nonconformity.
He talked to senior leaders about expanding his network and got their buy-in. He recruited sailors who had never shown a desire to challenge the status quo and exposed them to new ways of thinking. They visited centers of innovation excellence outside the military, from Google to the Rocky Mountain Institute. They devoured a monthly syllabus of readings on innovation and debated ideas during regular happy hours and robust online discussions. Soon they pioneered the use of 3-D printers on ships and a robotic fish for stealth underwater missions—and other rapid-innovation cells began springing up around the military. “Culture is king,” Kohlmann says. “When people discovered their voice, they became unstoppable.”
Empowering the rank and file to innovate is where most leaders fall short. Instead, they try to recruit brash entrepreneurial types to bring fresh ideas and energy into their organizations—and then leave it at that. It’s a wrongheaded approach, because it assumes that the best innovators are rare creatures with special gifts.
Research shows that entrepreneurs who succeed over the long haul are actually more risk-averse than their peers. The hotshots burn bright for a while but tend to fizzle out. So relying on a few exceptional folks who fit a romanticized creative profile is a short-term move that underestimates everyone else. Most people are in fact quite capable of novel thinking and problem solving, if only their organizations would stop pounding them into conformity.
When everyone thinks in similar ways and sticks to dominant norms, businesses are doomed to stagnate. To fight that inertia and drive innovation and change effectively, leaders need sustained original thinking in their organizations. They get it by building a culture of nonconformity, as Kohlmann did in the navy. I’ve been studying this for the better part of a decade, and it turns out to be less difficult than I expected.
For starters, leaders must give employees opportunities and incentives to generate—and keep generating—new ideas, so that people across functions and roles get better at pushing past the obvious. However, it’s also critical to have the right people vetting those ideas. That part of the process should be much less democratic and more meritocratic, because some votes are simply more meaningful than others. And finally, to continue generating and selecting smart ideas over time, organizations need to strike a balance between cultural cohesion and creative dissent.
Letting a Thousand Flowers Bloom
People often believe that to do better work, they should do fewer things. Yet the evidence flies in the face of that assumption: Being prolific actually increases originality, because sheer volume improves your chances of finding novel solutions. In recent experiments by Northwestern University psychologists Brian Lucas and Loran Nordgren, the initial ideas people generated were the most conventional. Once they had thought of those, they were free to start dreaming up more-unusual possibilities. Their first 20 ideas were significantly less original than their next 15.
Across fields, volume begets quality. This is true for all kinds of creators and thinkers—from composers and painters to scientists and inventors. Even the most eminent innovators do their most original work when they’re also cranking out scores of less brilliant ideas. Consider Thomas Edison. In a five-year period, he came up with the lightbulb, the phonograph, and the carbon transmitter used in telephones—while also filing more than 100 patents for inventions that didn’t catch the world on fire, including a talking doll that ended up scaring children (and adults).
Of course, in organizations, the challenge lies in knowing when you’ve drummed up enough possibilities. How many ideas should you generate before deciding which ones to pursue? When I pose this question to executives, most say you’re really humming with around 20 ideas. But that answer is off the mark by an order of magnitude. There’s evidence that quality often doesn’t max out until more than 200 ideas are on the table.
Stanford professor Robert Sutton notes that the Pixar movie Cars was chosen from about 500 pitches, and at Skyline, the toy design studio that generates ideas for Fisher-Price and Mattel, employees submitted 4,000 new toy concepts in one year. That set was winnowed down to 230 to be drawn or prototyped, and just 12 were finally developed. The more darts you throw, the better your odds of hitting a bull’s-eye.
Though it makes perfect sense, many managers fail to embrace this principle, fearing that time spent conjuring lots of ideas will prevent employees from being focused and efficient. The good news is that there are ways to help employees generate quantity and variety without sacrificing day-to-day productivity or causing burnout.
Think like the enemy. Research suggests that organizations often get stuck in a rut because they’re playing defense, trying to stave off the competition. To encourage people to think differently and generate more ideas, put them on offense.
That’s what Lisa Bodell of futurethink did when Merck CEO Ken Frazier hired her to help shake up the status quo. Bodell divided Merck’s executives into groups and asked them to come up with ways to put the company out of business. Instead of being cautious and sticking close to established competencies, the executives started considering bold new directions in strategy and product development that competitors could conceivably take.
Energy in the room soared as they explored the possibilities. The offensive mindset, Carnegie Mellon professor Anita Woolley observes, focuses attention on “pursuing opportunities…whereas defenders are more focused on maintaining their market share.” That mental shift allowed the Merck executives to imagine competitive threats that didn’t yet exist. The result was a fresh set of opportunities for innovation.
According to decades of research, you get more and better ideas if people are working alone in separate rooms than if they’re brainstorming in a group. When people generate ideas together, many of the best ones never get shared. Some members dominate the conversation, others hold back to avoid looking foolish, and the whole group tends to conform to the majority’s taste.
Evidence shows that these problems can be managed through “brainwriting.” All that’s required is asking individuals to think up ideas on their own before the group evaluates them, to get all the possibilities on the table.
For instance, at the eyewear retailer Warby Parker, named the world’s most innovative company by Fast Company in 2015, employees spend a few minutes a week writing down innovation ideas for colleagues to read and comment on. The company also maintains a Google doc where employees can submit requests for new technology to be built, which yields about 400 new ideas in a typical quarter. One major innovation was a revamped retail point of sale, which grew out of an app that allowed customers to bookmark their favorite frames in the store and receive an e-mail about them later.
Since employees often withhold their most unusual suggestions in group settings, another strategy for seeking ideas is to schedule rapid one-on-one idea meetings. When Anita Krohn Traaseth became managing director of Hewlett-Packard Norway, she launched a “speed-date the boss” initiative. She invited every employee to meet with her for five minutes and answer these questions: Who are you and what do you do at HP? Where do you think we should change, and what should we keep focusing on? And what do you want to contribute beyond fulfilling your job responsibilities?
She made it clear that she expected people to bring big ideas, and they didn’t want to waste their five minutes with a senior leader—it was their chance to show that they could innovate. More than 170 speed dates later, so many good ideas had been generated that other HP leaders implemented the process in Austria and Switzerland.
Bring back the suggestion box.
It’s a practice that dates back to the early 1700s, when a Japanese shogun put a box at the entrance to his castle. He rewarded good ideas—but punished criticisms with decapitation. Today suggestion boxes are often ridiculed. “I smell a creative idea being formed somewhere in the building,” the boss thinks in one Dilbert cartoon. “I must find it and crush it.” He sets up a suggestion box, and Dilbert is intrigued until a colleague warns him: “It’s a trap!!”
But the evidence points to a different conclusion: Suggestion boxes can be quite useful, precisely because they provide a large number of ideas. In one study, psychologist Michael Frese and his colleagues visited a Dutch steel company (now part of Tata Steel) that had been using a suggestion program for 70 years.
The company had 11,000 employees and collected between 7,000 and 12,000 suggestions a year. A typical employee would make six or seven suggestions annually and see three or four adopted. One prolific innovator submitted 75 ideas and had 30 adopted. In many companies, those ideas would be missed altogether. For the Dutch steelmaker, however, the suggestion box regularly led to improvements—saving more than $750,000 in one year alone.
The major benefit of suggestion boxes is that they multiply and diversify the ideas on the horizon, opening up new avenues for innovation. The biggest hurdle is that they create a larger haystack of ideas, making it more difficult to find the needle. You need a system for culling contributions—and rewarding and pursuing the best ones—so that people don’t feel their suggestions are falling on deaf ears.
Developing a Nose for Good Ideas
Generating lots of alternatives is important, but so is listening to the right opinions and solutions. How can leaders avoid pursuing bad ideas and rejecting good ones?
Lean on proven evaluators.
Although many leaders use a democratic process to select ideas, not every vote is equally valuable. Bowing to the majority’s will is not the best policy; a select minority might have a better sense of which ideas have the greatest potential. To figure out whose votes should be amplified, pay attention to employees’ track records in evaluation.
At the hedge fund Bridgewater, employees’ opinions are weighted by a believability score, reflecting the quality of their past decisions in that domain. In the U.S. intelligence community, analysts demonstrate their credibility by forecasting major political and economic events.
In studies by psychologist Philip Tetlock, forecasters are rated on accuracy (did they make the right bets?) and calibration (did they get the probabilities right?). After identifying the best of these prognosticators, their judgments can get greater influence than those of their peers.
So, in a company, who’s likely to have the strongest track record? Not managers—it’s too easy for them to stick to existing prototypes. And not the innovators themselves. Intoxicated by their own “eureka” moments, they tend to be overconfident about their odds of success.
They may try to compensate for that by researching customer preferences, but they’ll still be susceptible to confirmation bias (looking for information that supports their view and rejecting the rest). Even creative geniuses have trouble predicting with any accuracy when they’ve come up with a winner.
A Syllabus for Innovators
When aviator Ben Kohlmann set out to build a culture of nonconformity in the U.S. Navy, he found inspiration in many sources. Here’s a sampling of the items he recommends to people who want to think more creatively, along with his comments on how they’ve influenced his own development.
A Syllabus for Innovators
When aviator Ben Kohlmann set out to build a culture of nonconformity in the U.S. Navy, he found inspiration in many sources. Here’s a sampling of the items he recommends to people who want to think more creatively, along with his comments on how they’ve influenced his own development.
“Lead Like the Great Conductors”
TED talk by Itay Talgam
We can learn from professions we have no understanding of. People are people—and recognizing the commonalities is useful.
by Orson Scott Card
This novel illustrates how tactical and strategic teams can be adaptable—and how genius can emerge at a young age. It’s especially apropos reading in the military, where we promote on seniority and not merit.
by Frank Herbert
A compelling story about insurgency and taking on established powers, Dune explores the ambiguous nature of messianic saviors.
Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error
by Kathryn Schulz
We’re wrong a lot, and yet we almost never admit it. Schulz helped me critically evaluate my own biases and better understand how people view and portray themselves.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things
by Ben Horowitz
Horowitz doesn’t merely talk about how to lead; he lives it. And who doesn’t love a guy who starts his chapters with rap lyrics?
The (Mis)behavior of Markets
by Benoit Mandelbrot
Mandelbrot is the father of fractal theory, and his insight into how that plays into the stock market transformed my understanding of luck’s role in managerial successes and failures.
Letters to a Young Contrarian
by Christopher Hitchens
I’m a person of faith, but I appreciate the way Hitchens incisively questions everything, even faith. I’ve used his methods many a time to develop contrarian positions and win debates.
Each episode is pure fun—but yields lots of learning at the same time.
Research suggests that fellow innovators are the best evaluators of original ideas. They’re impartial, because they’re not judging their own ideas, and they’re more willing than managers to give radical possibilities a chance. For example, Stanford professor Justin Berg found that circus performers who evaluated videos of their peers’ new acts were about twice as accurate as managers in predicting popularity with audiences.
Categorizing the problems and small business growth patterns in a systematic way that is useful to entrepreneurs
seems at first glance a hopeless task. Small businesses vary widely in size and capacity for growth. They are characterized by independence of action, differing organizational structures, and varied management styles.
Yet on closer scrutiny, it becomes apparent that they experience common problems arising at similar stages in their development. These points of similarity can be organized into a framework that increases our understanding of the nature, characteristics, and problems of businesses. Ranging from a corner dry cleaning establishment with two or three minimum-wage employees to a $20-million-a-year computer software company experiencing a 40% annual rate of growth.
For owners and managers of small businesses, such an understanding can aid in assessing current challenges. For example, the need to upgrade an existing computer system or to hire and train second-level managers to maintain planned business growth.
It can help in anticipating the key requirements at various points—e.g., the inordinate time commitment for owners during the start-up period and the need for delegation and changes in their managerial roles when companies become larger and more complex.
also provides a basis for evaluating the impact of present and proposed governmental regulations and policies on one’s business. A case in point is the exclusion of dividends from double taxation, which could be of great help to a profitable, mature, and stable business like a funeral home but of no help at all to a new, rapidly growing, high-technology enterprise.
Finally, the framework aids accountants and consultants in diagnosing problems and matching solutions to smaller enterprises. The problems of a 6-month-old, 20-person business are rarely addressed by advice based on a 30-year-old, 100-person manufacturing company. For the former, cash-flow planning is paramount; for the latter, strategic planning and budgeting to achieve coordination and operating control are most important.
Developing a Small Business Framework
Various researchers over the years have developed models for examining businesses (see Exhibit 1). Each uses business size as one dimension and company maturity or the stage of growth as a second dimension. While useful in many respects, these frameworks are inappropriate for small businesses on at least three counts.
Exhibit 1 Growth Phases
they assume that a company must grow and pass through all stages of development or die in the attempt. Second, the models fail to capture the important early stages in a company’s origin and business growth. Third, these frameworks characterize company size largely in terms of annual sales (although some mention number of employees) and ignore other factors such as value added, number of locations, complexity of product line, and rate of change in products or production technology.
To develop a framework relevant to small and growing businesses, we used a combination of experience, a search of the literature, and empirical research. (See the second insert.) The framework that evolved from this effort delineates the five stages of development shown in Exhibit 2. Each stage is characterized by an index of size, diversity, and complexity and described by five management factors: managerial style, organizational structure, extent of formal systems, major strategic goals, and the owner’s involvement in the business growth. We depict each stage in Exhibit 3 and describe each narratively in this article.
About the Research
We started with a concept of business growth stages emanating from the work of Steinmetz and Greiner. We made two initial changes based on our experiences with small companies.
The first modification was an extension of the independent (vertical) variable of size as it is used in the other stage models—see Exhibit I to include a composite of value-added (sales less outside purchases), geographical diversity, and complexity; the complexity variable involved the number of product lines sold, the extent to which different technologies are involved in the products and the processes that produce them, and the rate of change in these technologies.
a manufacturer with $10 million in sales, whose products are based in a fast-changing technical environment, is farther up the vertical scale (“bigger” in terms of the other models) than a liquor wholesaler with $20 million annual sales. Similarly, a company with two or three operating locations faces more complex management problems, and hence is farther up the scale than an otherwise comparable company with one operating unit.
The second change was in the stages or horizontal component of the framework. From present research we knew that, at the beginning, the entrepreneur is totally absorbed in the business’s survival and if the business survives it tends to evolve toward a decentralized line and staff organization characterized as a “big business” and the subject of most studies.* The result was a four-stage model: (1) Survival, (2) Break-out, (3) Take-off, (4) Big company.
To test the model, we obtained 83 responses to a questionnaire distributed to 110 owners and managers of successful small companies in the $1 million to $35 million sales range. These respondents participated in a small company management program and had read Greiner’s article. They were asked to identify as best they could the phases or stages their companies had passed through, to characterize the major changes that took place In each stage, and to describe the events that led up to or caused these changes.
A preliminary analysis of the questionnaire data revealed three deficiencies in our initial model:
the grow-or-fail hypothesis implicit in the model, and those of others, was invalid. Some of the enterprises had passed through the survival period and then plateaued—remaining essentially the same size. with some marginally profitable and others very profitable, over a period of between 5 and 80 years.
there existed an early stage in the survival period in which the entrepreneur worked hard just to exist- to obtain enough customers to become a true business or to move the product from a pilot stage into quantity production at an adequate level of quality.
several responses dealt with companies that were not started from scratch but purchased while in a steady-state survival or success stage (and were either being mismanaged or managed for profit and not for growth), and then moved into a growth mode.
We used the results of this research to revise our preliminary framework. The resulting framework is shown in Exhibit II. We then applied this revised framework to the questionnaire responses and obtained results which encouraged us to work with the revised model:
* John A. Welsh and Jerry F. White, “Recognizing and Dealing With the Entrepreneur,” Advanced Management Journal, Summer 1978.
Exhibit 2 Growth Stages
Exhibit 3 Characteristics of Small Business at Each Stage of Development
Stage I: Existence
In this stage the main problems of the business are obtaining customers and delivering the product or service contracted for. Among the key questions are the following:
Can we get enough customers, deliver our products, and provide services well enough to become a viable business?
Can we expand from that one key customer or pilot production process to a much broader sales base?
Do we have enough money to cover the considerable cash demands of this start-up phase?
The organization is a simple one
The owner does everything and directly supervises subordinates, who should be of at least average competence. Systems and formal planning are minimal to nonexistent. The company’s strategy is simply to remain alive. The owner is the business, performs all the important tasks, and is the major supplier of energy, direction, and, with relatives and friends, capital.
Companies in the Existence Stage range from newly started restaurants and retail stores to high-technology manufacturers that have yet to stabilize either production or product quality. Many such companies never gain sufficient customer acceptance or product capability to become viable. In these cases, the owners close the business when the start-up capital runs out and, if they’re lucky, sell the business for its asset value. (See endpoint 1 on Exhibit 4). In some cases, the owners cannot accept the demands the business places on their time, finances, and energy, and they quit. Those companies that remain in business become Stage II enterprises.
Exhibit 4 Evolution of Small Companies
Stage II: Survival
In reaching this stage, the business has demonstrated that it is a workable business entity. It has enough customers and satisfies them sufficiently with its products or services to keep them. The key problem thus shifts from mere existence to the relationship between revenues and expenses. The main issues are as follows:
In the short run, can we generate enough cash to break even and to cover the repair or replacement of our capital assets as they wear out?
Can we, at a minimum, generate enough cash flow to stay in business and to finance growth to a size that is sufficiently large, given our industry and market niche, to earn an economic return on our assets and labor?
The organization is still simple.
The company may have a limited number of employees supervised by a sales manager or a general foreman. Neither of them makes major decisions independently, but instead carries out the rather well-defined orders of the owner.
Systems development is minimal. Formal planning is, at best, cash forecasting. The major goal is still survival, and the owner is still synonymous with the business.
In the Survival Stage, the enterprise may grow in size and profitability and move on to Stage III. Or it may, as many companies do, remain at the Survival Stage for some time, earning marginal returns on invested time and capital (endpoint 2 on Exhibit 4), and eventually go out of business when the owner gives up or retires. The “mom and pop” stores are in this category, as are manufacturing businesses that cannot get their product or process sold as planned. Some of these marginal businesses have developed enough economic viability to ultimately be sold, usually at a slight loss. Or they may fail completely and drop from sight.
Stage III: Success
The decision facing owners at this stage is whether to exploit the company’s accomplishments and expand or keep the company stable and profitable, providing a base for alternative owner activities. Thus, a key issue is whether to use the company as a platform for growth—a substage III-G company—or as a means of support for the owners as they completely or partially disengage from the company—making it a substage III-D company. (See Exhibit 3.) Behind the disengagement might be a wish to start up new enterprises, run for political office, or simply to pursue hobbies and other outside interests while maintaining the business more or less in the status quo.
In the Success-Disengagement substage, the company has attained true economic health, has sufficient size and product-market penetration to ensure economic success, and earns average or above-average profits. The company can stay at this stage indefinitely, provided environmental change does not destroy its market niche or ineffective management reduce its competitive abilities.
Organizationally, the company has grown large enough to, in many cases, require functional managers to take over certain duties performed by the owner. The managers should be competent but need not be of the highest caliber, since their upward potential is limited by the corporate goals. Cash is plentiful and the main concern is to avoid a cash drain in prosperous periods to the detriment of the company’s ability to withstand the inevitable rough times.
the first professional staff members come on board, usually a controller in the office and perhaps a production scheduler in the plant. Basic financial, marketing, and production systems are in place. Planning in the form of operational budgets supports functional delegation. The owner and, to a lesser extent, the company’s managers, should be monitoring a strategy to, essentially, maintain the status quo.
As the business matures, it and the owner increasingly move apart, to some extent because of the owner’s activities elsewhere and to some extent because of the presence of other managers. Many companies continue for long periods in the Success-Disengagement substage. The product-market niche of some does not permit growth; this is the case for many service businesses in small or medium-sized, slowly growing communities and for franchise holders with limited territories.
Other owners actually choose this route
If the company can continue to adapt to environmental changes, it can continue as is, be sold or merged at a profit, or subsequently be stimulated into growth (endpoint 3 on Exhibit 4). For franchise holders, this last option would necessitate the purchase of other franchises.
If the company cannot adapt to changing circumstances, as was the case with many automobile dealers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it will either fold or drop back to a marginally surviving company (endpoint 4 on Exhibit 4).
In the Success-Growth substage, the owner consolidates the company and marshals resources for growth. The owner takes the cash and the established borrowing power of the company and risks it all in financing growth.
Looking Back on Business Development Models
Business researchers have developed a number of models over the last 20 years that seek to delineate stages of corporate growth.
Joseph W. McGuire
Building on the work of W.W. Rostow in economics,* formulated a model that saw companies moving through five stages of economic development:†
Traditional small company.
Planning for growth.
Take-off or departure from existing conditions.
Drive to professional management.
Mass production marked by a “diffusion of objectives and an interest in the welfare of society.”
Lawrence L. Steinmetz
Theorized that to survive, small businesses must move through four stages of growth. Steinmetz envisioned each stage ending with a critical phase that must be dealt with before the company could enter the next stage.§ His stages and phases are as follows:
Direct supervision. The simplest stage, at the end of which the owner must become a manager by learning to delegate to others.
Supervised supervision. To move on, the manager must devote attention to growth and expansion, manage increased overhead and complex finances, and learn to become an administrator.
Indirect control. To grow and survive, the company must learn to delegate tasks to key managers and to deal with diminishing absolute rate of return and overstaffing at the middle levels.
Roland Christensen and Bruce R. Scott
focused on development of organizational complexity in a business as it evolves in its product-market relationships. They formulated three stages that a company moves through as it grows in overall size, number of products, and market coverage:‡
One-unit management with no specialized organizational parts.
One-unit management with functional parts such as marketing and finance.
Multiple operating units, such as divisions, that act in their own behalf in the marketplace.
Larry E. Greiner proposed a model of corporate evolution in which business organizations move through five phases of growth as they make the transition from small to large (in sales and employees) and from young to mature.|| Each phase is distinguished by an evolution from the prior phase and then by a revolution or crisis, which precipitates a jump into the next phase. Each evolutionary phase is characterized by a particular managerial style and each revolutionary period by a dominant management problem faced by the company. These phases and crises are shown in Exhibit 1.
*W.W. Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth(Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1960).
†Joseph W. McGuire, Factors Affecting the Growth of Manufacturing Firms (Seattle: Bureau of Business Research, University of Washington, 1963).
§Lawrence L. Steinmetz, “Critical Stages of Small Business Growth: When They Occur and How to Survive Them,” Business Horizons, February 1969, p. 29.
‡C. Roland Christensen and Bruce R. Scott, Review of Course Activities (Lausanne: IMEDE, 1964).
||Larry E. Greiner, “Evolution and Revolution as Organizations Growth,” HBR July–August 1972, p. 37.
Among the important tasks are to make sure the basic business stays profitable so that it will not outrun its source of cash and to develop managers to meet the needs of the growing business. This second task requires hiring managers with an eye to the company’s future rather than its current condition.
Systems should also be installed with attention to forthcoming needs. Operational planning is, as in substage III-D, in the form of budgets, but strategic planning is extensive and deeply involves the owner. The owner is thus far more active in all phases of the company’s affairs than in the disengagement aspect of this phase.
If it is successful, the III-G company proceeds into Stage IV. Indeed, III-G is often the first attempt at growing before commitment to a growth strategy. If the III-G company is unsuccessful, the causes may be detected in time for the company to shift to III-D. If not, retrenchment to the Survival Stage may be possible prior to bankruptcy or a distress sale.
Stage IV: Take-off
In this stage the key problems are how to grow rapidly and how to finance that growth. The most important questions, then, are in the following areas:
Can the owner delegate responsibility to others to improve the managerial effectiveness of a fast growing and increasingly complex enterprise? Further, will the action be true delegation with controls on performance and a willingness to see mistakes made, or will it be abdication, as is so often the case?
Will there be enough to satisfy the great demands growth brings (often requiring a willingness on the owner’s part to tolerate a high debt-equity ratio) and a cash flow that is not eroded by inadequate expense controls or ill-advised investments brought about by owner impatience?
The organization is decentralized and, at least in part, divisionalized—usually in either sales or production. The key managers must be very competent to handle a growing and complex business environment. The systems, strained by growth, are becoming more refined and extensive. Both operational and strategicplanning are being done and involve specific managers. The owner and the business have become reasonably separate, yet the company is still dominated by both the owner’s presence and stock control.
This is a pivotal period in a company’s life.
If the owner rises to the challenges of a growing company, both financially and managerially, it can become a big business. If not, it can usually be sold—at a profit—provided the owner recognizes his or her limitations soon enough. Too often, those who bring the business to the Success Stage are unsuccessful in Stage IV. Either because they try to grow too fast and run out of cash (the owner falls victim to the omnipotence syndrome). Or are unable to delegate effectively enough to make the company work (the omniscience syndrome).
It is, of course, possible for the company to traverse this high-growth stage without the original management. Often the entrepreneur who founded the company and brought it to the Success Stage is replaced. Either voluntarily or involuntarily by the company’s investors or creditors.
If the company fails to make the big time, it may be able to retrench and continue as a successful and substantial company at a state of equilibrium (endpoint 7 on Exhibit 4). Or it may drop back to Stage III (endpoint 6). Or, if the problems are too extensive, it may drop all the way back to the Survival Stage (endpoint 5) or even fail. (High interest rates and uneven economic conditions have made the latter two possibilities all too real in the early 1980s.)
Stage V: Resource Maturity
The greatest concerns of a company entering this stage are, first, to consolidate and control the financial gains brought on by rapid growth. And, second, to retain the advantages of small size, including flexibility of response and the entrepreneurial spirit. The corporation must expand the management force fast enough to eliminate the inefficiencies that growth can produce and professionalize the company by use of such tools as budgets, strategic planning, management by objectives, and standard cost systems—and do this without stifling its entrepreneurial qualities.
A company in Stage V has the staff and financial resources to engage in detailed operational and strategic planning. The management is decentralized, adequately staffed, and experienced. And systems are extensive and well developed. The owner and the business are quite separate, both financially and operationally.
The company has now arrived.
It has the advantages of size, financial resources, and managerial talent. If it can preserve its entrepreneurial spirit, it will be a formidable force in the market. If not, it may enter a sixth stage of sorts: ossification.
Ossification is characterized by a lack of innovative decision making and the avoidance of risks. It seems most common in large corporations whose sizable market share, buying power, and financial resources keep them viable. Until there is a major change in the environment. Unfortunately for these businesses, it is usually their rapidly growing competitors that notice the environmental change first.
Holidays are over and it’s back-to-work time. Not feeling inspired in the dreary month of January? No worries – I especially appreciated artist Chuck Close’s observation that “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
There’s that project you’ve left on the backburner – the one with the deadline that’s growing uncomfortably near. And there’s the client whose phone call you really should return – the one that does nothing but complain and eat up your valuable time. Wait, weren’t you going to try to go to the gym more often this year?
Can you imagine how much less guilt, stress, and frustration you would feel if you could somehow just make yourself do the things you don’t want to do when you are actually supposed to do them? Not to mention how much happier and more effective you would be?
The good news (and its very good news) is that you can get better about not putting things off, if you use the right strategy. Figuring out which strategy to use depends on why you are procrastinating in the first place:
Reason #1 You are putting something off because you are afraid you will screw it up.
Solution: Adopt a “prevention focus.”
There are two ways to look at any task. You can do something because you see it as a way to end up better off than you are now – as an achievement or accomplishment. As in, if I complete this project successfully I will impress my boss, or if I work out regularly I will look amazing. Psychologists call this a promotion focus – and research shows that when you have one, you are motivated by the thought of making gains, and work best when you feel eager and optimistic. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, if you are afraid you will screw up on the task in question, this is not the focus for you. Anxiety and doubt undermine promotion motivation, leaving you less likely to take any action at all.
What you need is a way of looking at what you need to do that isn’t undermined by doubt – ideally, one that thrives on it. When you have a prevention focus, instead of thinking about how you can end up better off, you see the task as a way to hang on to what you’ve already got – to avoid loss. For the prevention-focused, successfully completing a project is a way to keep your boss from being angry or thinking less of you. Working out regularly is a way to not “let yourself go.” Decades of research, which I describe in my book Focus, shows that prevention motivation is actually enhanced by anxiety about what might go wrong. When you are focused on avoiding loss, it becomes clear that the only way to get out of danger is to take immediate action. The more worried you are, the faster you are out of the gate.
I know this doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, particularly if you are usually more the promotion-minded type, but there is probably no better way to get over your anxiety about screwing up than to give some serious thought to all the dire consequences of doing nothing at all. Go on, scare the pants off yourself. It feels awful, but it works.
Reason #2 You are putting something off because you don’t “feel” like doing it.
Solution: Make like Spock and ignore your feelings. They’re getting in your way.
In his excellent book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman points out that much of the time, when we say things like “I just can’t get out of bed early in the morning, ” or “I just can’t get myself to exercise,” what we really mean is that we can’t get ourselves to feel like doing these things. After all, no one is tying you to your bed every morning. Intimidating bouncers aren’t blocking the entrance to your gym. Physically, nothing is stopping you – you just don’t feel like it. But as Burkeman asks, “Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it?”
Think about that for a minute, because it’s really important. Somewhere along the way, we’ve all bought into the idea – without consciously realizing it – that to be motivated and effective we need to feel like we want to take action. We need to be eager to do so. I really don’t know why we believe this, because it is 100% nonsense. Yes, on some level you need to be committed to what you are doing – you need to want to see the project finished, or get healthier, or get an earlier start to your day. But you don’t need to feel like doing it.
In fact, as Burkeman points out, many of the most prolific artists, writers, and innovators have become so in part because of their reliance on work routines that forced them to put in a certain number of hours a day, no matter how uninspired (or, in many instances, hungover) they might have felt. Burkeman reminds us of renowned artist Chuck Close’s observation that “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
So if you are sitting there, putting something off because you don’t feel like it, remember that you don’t actually need to feel like it. There is nothing stopping you.
Reason #3 You are putting something off because it’s hard, boring, or otherwise unpleasant.
Solution: Use if-then planning.
Too often, we try to solve this particular problem with sheer will: Next time, I will make myself start working on this sooner. Of course, if we actually had the willpower to do that, we would never put it off in the first place. Studies show that people routinely overestimate their capacity for self-control, and rely on it too often to keep them out of hot water.
Do yourself a favor, and embrace the fact that your willpower is limited, and that it may not always be up to the challenge of getting you to do things you find difficult, tedious, or otherwise awful. Instead, use if-then planning to get the job done.
Making an if-then plan is more than just deciding what specific steps you need to take to complete a project – it’s also deciding where and when you will take them.
If it is 2pm, then I will stop what I’m doing and start work on the report Bob asked for.
If my boss doesn’t mention my request for a raise at our meeting, then I will bring it up again before the meeting ends.
By deciding in advance exactly what you’re going to do, and when and where you’re going to do it, there’s no deliberating when the time comes. No do I really have to do this now?, or can this wait till later? or maybe I should do something else instead. It’s when we deliberate that willpower becomes necessary to make the tough choice. But if-then plans dramatically reduce the demands placed on your willpower, by ensuring that you’ve made the right decision way ahead of the critical moment. In fact, if-then planning has been shown in over 200 studies to increase rates of goal attainment and productivity by 200%-300% on average.
I realize that the three strategies I’m offering you – thinking about the consequences of failure, ignoring your feelings, and engaging in detailed planning – don’t sound as fun as advice like “Follow your passion!” or “Stay positive!” But they have the decided advantage of actually being effective – which, as it happens, is exactly what you’ll be if you use them.
At some point during the launch of your startup, it’s likely that a potential investor will ask you about your company’s mission statement. Many business management experts would argue that this should be your company’s cornerstone, inspiring and informing your employees in the years ahead. I can’t agree. The Virgin Group does have a mission statement — one that is brief and to the point. In general, there is too much importance being placed on such statements, but it is interesting to see how they reflect common missteps in business.
Most mission statements are full of blah truisms and are anything but inspirational. A company’s employees don’t really need to be told that “The mission of XYZ Widgets is to make the best widgets in the world while providing excellent service.” They must think, “As opposed to what? Making the worst widgets and offering the lousiest service?” Such statements show that management lacks imagination, and perhaps in some cases, direction.
At the opposite end of the scale is the statement that fails through flowery waffling. An example: “Yahoo powers and delights our communities of users, advertisers and publishers – all of us united in creating indispensable experiences, and fueled by trust.” That sounds wonderful, but what does it mean? Whoever wrote it should try listening to the company’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, who said in a recent speech, “Yahoo is about making the world’s daily habits inspiring and entertaining.” It’s not perfect, but it would be a step in the right direction.
Some companies are not actually able to carry out their mission. The reasons can range from a disruption in the markets to a merger or acquisition, and then there are cases like Enron’s: Before the giant energy company went bankrupt in 2001, ruining the lives of tens of thousands of employees and investors, its vision and values statement was “Respect, integrity, communication and excellence.” Say no more!
While some mission statements consist of one vague statement, others are too long, which may reflect management’s lack of understanding of what a company really does. The Warwickshire Police recently produced a new mission statement; to the police chief’s dismay, the resulting 1,200-word screed gained the attention of the media and was nominated for the Golden Bull award “for excellence in gobbledygook” from the Plain English Campaign, a group that helps organizations to provide clear communications. Not only was the rambling epistle filled with buzzwords and jargon, but the word “crime” was not mentioned once.
Still other companies don’t know what differentiates them from their competition. The mission statement for the pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers reads, “To discover, develop and deliver innovative medicines that help patients prevail over serious diseases.” Well, you can’t argue with that, but surely this can be said of every drug company on the planet. Why would a person choose to buy Bristol-Myers’ products or invest in its stock, rather than its competitors’?
So that’s what not to do. If you are in a situation where you must write a mission statement, I think you should try for something closer to a heraldic motto than a speech. They were often simple because they had to fit across the bottom of a coat of arms, and they were long-lasting because they reflected a group’s deeper values.
When I was a boy, I was fascinated by such mottoes. One of my childhood heroes was the pilot Douglas Bader, who lost both his legs in a crash early in his career, but went on to fly fighter planes for the Royal Air Force during WWII. After seeing the movie “Reach for the Sky,” which told his heroic story, I remember asking my father about the RAF motto, “Per ardua ad astra.” When he told me that it meant, “Through adversity to the stars,” I thought the idea of battling one’s way to the stars at all costs was the most inspiring thing I’d ever heard. (It’s pretty similar to the “Toy Story” character Buzz Lightyear’s motto, “To infinity and beyond,” which some kids today think is pretty cool – especially some of my friends on the Virgin Galactic crew.)
A few years later, at Stowe School, I was taught the school’s motto, “Persto et praesto,” which means “I stand firm and I stand first.” This motto caused a lot of giggling among our group of adolescent schoolboys, but it was nevertheless excellent for guiding us forward into adult life. Brevity is certainly key, so try using Twitter’s 140-character template when you’re drafting your inspirational message. You need to explain your company’s purpose and outline expectations for internal and external clients alike. Make it unique to your company, make it memorable, keep it real and, just for fun, imagine it on the bottom of a coat of arms.
If we had to put ours on a coat of arms, Virgin’s would probably say something like, “Ipsum sine timore, consector,” which very loosely translated from the Latin means, “Screw it, let’s do it!”