In my book, “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” I discuss the twelve key elements of building a successful business. These elements are, in many ways, as timeless as John Steed and Mrs. Peel, if not always quite so sexy. They are, however, the key points that any entrepreneur needs to work with if you want to maximize your chances of creating a successful business.
We now come to team development. John Steed and Mrs. Peel work together so well because they complement one another, and just on their clothes. Let’s recognize something: you have a team because you can’t do it all by yourself. If you can, then having a team is a waste of time and money. To achieve maximum effectiveness, your team needs to become a network of mutual helping: every member of the company must become comfortable giving and receiving help. This means developing a great deal of trust since asking for help is an implicit admission of weakness in most cultures. Part of developing that trust is recognizing that when people start to argue it’s not a sign of trouble, but a sign that people are really starting to care. Your job is to help the team learn to manage conflict well and argue effectively. If you can’t comfortably referee that process, get someone who can: if you allow conflict to fester or if the team never learns to manage it, you’re company is an explosion waiting to happen. Instead, that focus on strengths that started with motivation needs to continue in order to enable each member of the team complement the others: properly developed strengths overcome weaknesses, making the team greater than the sum of its members.
Building the team requires leadership. There are some people who claim that a team needs a leader like a fish needs a bicycle. Those are the same people whose teams are highly dysfunctional. The concept of the leaderless team is a myth: without a leader, the team doesn’t move. Conversely, without a team, a leader is just some joker taking a walk.
As a leader, your job is to provide structure, direction, and emotional support for your team: if you don’t seem confident, why would they be confident? If you don’t know where you’re going, neither will they. Don’t play games; ask directions. That may mean sitting down with your people and brainstorming the next step. Start out being highly directive; as your team becomes more capable of effective decision making and problem solving, put more and more power into their hands. While it’s possible to learn these skills by trial and error, the cost is burning out your team. Michael Dell was famous for succeeding anyway. He is an exception.
A very common leadership tactic is to fiercely charge forward, crushing all opposition. Anyone who disagrees with you is the target of your wrath. This can be a very satisfying approach, although not a particularly effective one. Brute force is not the most efficient or useful way of doing things: there’s a reason why “the helpless Emma Peel” is an oxymoron despite Mrs. Peel being small and slender. Emma Peel is a jujitsu expert; by the same token, good leaders become experts in the gentle art of management jujitsu. When you learn to let people have your way, your power dramatically increases.
Now some people tell me that negotiation means giving in. In jujitsu, when someone tries to punch you in the face, you move your head and let them smash their fist into the wall. This can be quite dramatic. Well, negotiation is giving in just as letting someone pulverize their fist against a wall is losing the fight. The three maxims of effective negotiation are “don’t get mad, don’t get even, just get what you want.”
Some things never change
The point of this article is that some things really never change. However, plenty of other things do change: technologies, markets, economic conditions, the needs of the workforce, the strategies your competitors are employing, and so forth. How you respond and manage change makes a big difference to whether your company is a flash in the pan or a lasting concern. They, whoever they are, claim that people don’t like to change. Not so, people change all the time. People don’t like to be changed: that’s coercion. Successful change starts with showing people where you’re going: in other words, leading the way. Leading change is about showing people where you want to go and then making it easy for them to get there: tolerating mistakes and providing opportunities for experimentation and learning. If you can’t lead or negotiate well, change will be a painful, torturous experience that will leave you exhausted and your employees burned out and demoralized.
Key parts of successful change, or just about any other aspect of running a business, are the twins of problem solving and decision making. If you can’t solve problems, it’s going to get pretty sticky the first time things don’t go as expected. If you can’t make decisions, you won’t be able to implement the solutions even when you have them. For that matter, you won’t be able to choose between competing solutions! Problem solving occurs well when the team is strong and the leader knows how to get people involved in brainstorming. Effective decision making isn’t just about ending debate: it’s about building buy-in for whichever solution the team chooses! At RC Systems, a software startup, decisions were handed down as the word of god, or at the least CEO. This led to a notable lack of enthusiasm and excitement in how the team executed those decisions.
Effective problem solving is also a key element in innovation: being able to brainstorm issues, experiment, and not blame when things don’t work out are essential to successful innovation. Innovation also involves avoiding the four key traps that many once innovative companies fall into: Perfection, Protection, Identity, and the Creeping Box. Simultaneously you must also take the four steps necessary to build an innovative work force: continual learning, making mistakes, taking breaks, and patience!
Finally, we come to time, or scheduling success. Time is a funny thing: no matter how much we save, it’s never there when we want to make a withdrawal. It is an ironic reality that even though being ahead of schedule increases motivation and excitement, and being behind causes discouragement and stress, most companies are always behind schedule. Indeed, at Coil Manufacturing, being ahead of schedule was seen as proof that people weren’t working hard enough, so the deadlines were always moved up! Management couldn’t understand why product quality kept going down.
The point of the schedule is, like time itself, to make sure that you don’t try to do everything all at once. Scheduling success means building schedules that people can beat with reasonable effort, so that your team is always feeling excited and like they can handle anything.
That’s it. The twelve step process of building your company. When I give talks, someone frequently points out that many companies don’t follow all of these steps. That’s true. Many companies also fail. Indeed, most companies fail not because their competitors were so strong, but because they made themselves so weak that their competitors could administer the final push. If you’re starting to think there’s a connection, you’re right!
Stephen Balzac is a consultant and professional speaker. He is president of 7 Steps Ahead (www.7stepsahead.com), an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses to increase revenue and build their client base. Steve is a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play,” and the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” published by McGraw-Hill. Contact him at 978-298-5189 or [email protected].