Are You and Your Workforce Just Too Busy to Scale?

Chaos doesn’t scale.

When I work with CEO’s and general managers they often tell me about their plans to scale the business.

When I ask, “So how’s that going?” it often leads to a conversation about how they are doing business today, and the fact that “this won’t scale.”

Me: So, why don’t you change the way you do business?

CEOBecause we don’t have enough time and resources.

Me: The issue is that you are too busy being a $200 million company to become a $1 billon company.

Companies get stuck

The thing that keeps most companies from scaling is that they try to keep doing everything that they started. It’s simply not possible to scale too many things.

This is common occurrence because early in the life of the company, you kind of have to do everything.

You have to get the deals that you can get. You have to do things to support those deals that may not be part of a single coherent strategy. But, you do them to get revenue and build momentum and confidence.

The problem happens when you reach a certain size where everyone in the company is working more than full time to simply hang on. You are accustomed to working really hard, and everything people are doing is focused on revenue, so it seems like you are doing the right thing.

But you are stuck.

You are stuck because there is not a moment left to do the things that will be required to scale. So you keep doing what you are doing — which is not scaling.
Let’s continue the conversation.

If not now, when?

CEOWe don’t have time or resources to build the infrastructure that is necessary to scale.

Me: When you are a $1 billion company, will you be doing [insert overwhelming function here, sales, support, pilots, etc. …] the same way you are doing it now?

CEO: Of course not. That would not work

Me: So at what point between now and then do you think you should implement this new, scaleable way? If it can’t be the same when you are at $1 billion, at what point do you need to build this new thing, that by definition will exist when you are at $1 billion?

No time for infrastructure

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying this is easy. It’s not.

But if you want to scale you need to start making some decisions about what you will be great at and what you will stop doing, or what you will do differently, so that you can make time to put in place the new processes or infrastructure necessary to enable scaling.

You need to start making some decisions about which area of scaling you will invest in first, and then make a realistic plan to do it.

Let me give you a specific example.

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I was working with a company who had two infrastructure projects in their plan to enable scaling, and no one was working on them for more than a year.

As we worked together, I realized that there was one guy — one super-brilliant, super-knowledgeable, super-connected guy — who had conceived of a new way to service customers that would be dramatically more efficient and scalable, and he was on the hook to implement that.

However, basically every five minutes the sales guys would call him to get on a plane and save the day — to close the deal, to fix the deal, to fix the post-sales issue, etc. …

This went on for more than a year, and there was no end in sight. Revenue and customer opportunities always won over implementing process and infrastructure necessary to scale.

This is an excellent example of being too busy to scale, and being too busy being a $200 million company to become a $1 billion company. There is no way that they could acquire and service more customers. And there was no way that they could build the necessary infrastructure to scale. They were totally maxed out.

Choose an initiative and make a change

To follow through with this example, there were a couple of options.

  1. Never go in alone. This guy couldn’t drop the VIP sales support role immediately, but he needed to clone himself. He needed to reduce the call load on himself. I suggested that he never go by himself. Always bring another person that can learn and build relationships along the way, so over time you can delegate these emergency calls to others who have developed knowledge and earned the trust of the sales force.
  2. Train the sales force to respect a more regular schedule. Instead of jumping on a plane every time the phone rings, I suggested that he publish a schedule for which week each month he would come to each region. This didn’t solve all the emergency requests of course, but the sales team got used to the idea that they could organize more visits to occur when he would be in the area anyway. This in itself was a good scaling idea.
  3. Commit additional resources on the scaling initiative. Hoping that this one guy would just get it done was proving unrealistic. They had to make another organizational change to provide addition support to this initiative, instead of just hoping that it would happen as they had for the last year.
  4. Put short and mid-term milestones in place for the strategic initiative. This is really a key area of focus when I work with leadership teams to help them execute better on strategic initiatives.

Mid-term measures

The problem with actually making progress on strategic initiatives is that even if you can make some room to invest in scaling, the next big problem is how to get your organization to stay focused on something strategic long enough to finish it.

Even though everyone can agree on the important outcome that needs to be true a year from now, it’s really hard to get people to start doing — and stick to doing — something new and strategic — outside their habitual day jobs.

Inspiring end goals are easy to agree on. But the problem is that after that agreement is reached, everyone goes back to work thinking, “Well we have a year, so this week I don’t need to change what I’m doing… There’s plenty of time.”

After a couple of weeks, the emergencies assert themselves as more important and everyone reaches an unspoken agreement that this strategic infrastructure scaling stuff is less important, and they stop worrying about it.

You need hard measures

But, if you can put hard measures in — at the beginning — for things to be accomplished each month in order to hit that one-year goal, then everyone leaves the meeting thinking, “Oh crap, I need to make progress on this in the next two weeks if I’m going to meet that measure.”

I can tell you that forcing your team to put hard, short and mid-term measures in place for scaling initiatives is the magic key to getting people not just doing their day-jobs, but following through on those strategic initiatives necessary to scale.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at patty@azzarellogroup.com .

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