Regular business success beats heroic efforts every time.
“Oooh, I LOVE that,” one of my clients said to me, “She worked half the night to finish that project. She’s a superhero! How do I find more people like her?”
The only thing small business owners love more than telling stories about how hard they are working, is to tell stories about how hard their team is working. Get them started and you’ll hear about all-nighters, about 100 hour work weeks, and travel stories that go on and on—and they’ll be bursting with pride the whole time.
I have a different reaction to those stories. Sure, it feels great when someone delivers 150% effort on your business’ behalf; but at what cost? When I hear about someone who worked all night, or who took a client call from their family vacation, or who finished a proposal while they were deathly ill, I don’t think, “That’s awesome!”. I think, “Oh no, there’s something seriously broken here.”
If your business success depends on heroic efforts you are seriously screwed. Superheroes are hard to find. They can be very expensive and are notoriously unmanageable. Instead, we want to have a plan for success that takes the ordinary efforts of committed people and combines them—for extraordinary results. To have sustained success you need steady (read: no-heroes-needed) progress. Yes, things happen and you will sometimes need someone to go “above and beyond” the call of duty to achieve success. And yes, you should thank and praise that person. And yet, that occurrence is a sign of a potential problem!
So what do we do?
Build a crystal ball
“I didn’t know all these deadlines were going to land in the same week!”
Many of these late night heroics happen because when deadlines come up, we discover that we haven’t planned well for all the work. Sometimes deadlines pile up on one day; sometimes work is backed up from a deadline we were working hard on last week. We need a way to see the future. Thankfully the Sumerians invented the calendar! Ok, you may need something more robust than just a calendar, but it’s a great place to start! If you have a master calendar with all the project due dates on it, then when a client says, “Can I have this on the 29th?” You say, “Let me check the production calendar.” This will eliminate lots of bottlenecks!
“Mike’s sick? I don’t know anything about where he is on this project, or how he does it!”
To the extent that you can build a system —a way we do things, like an assembly line—to accomplish anything your business needs to deliver in order to keep moving forward, then you can help eliminate much of the need for heroics. By breaking down “what needs to get done” into concrete steps, and then creating procedures or recipes for those steps, it makes it possible for us to know who can do what, how to do it, and how long it will take. It also makes the work more consistent and enables us to improve our process (because we all do it the same way).
If those steps can be assisted or traced using a software tool, even better.
“Our deadlines are OK, it’s just that one department; the writers are always holding us up!”
OK, so that’s a resource management problem. You’ve got to know what the workload looks like in each department so that you can anticipate bottlenecks and get additional resources (or extend projects) to accommodate them. There’s all kinds of resource management solutions that you can look at, but you can start with a good old spreadsheet to diagnose the problem.
“When she goes on vacation we’re screwed. She’s the only one who knows that stuff!”
There can’t be anything in your company that only one person knows how to do (for a long time the solution to that was that you knew how to do everything, but that can be its own problem)! As much as it is possible, we need to make sure that we are cross-training our people so that there’s •nothing• that only one person knows how to do.
If once in a blue moon you need extraordinary efforts, it might not be a big deal. But if your business success is relying regularly on olympic efforts (yours or anyone else’s) you are heading for trouble. Olympians need to be sustained. When they move on or burn out, your business will be in trouble—fast. Olympians are also not easily replaced. So don’t fall into the trap of believing you must have an olympic hero on your staff. By working smart you can support and channel the efforts of your entire team to an end that you are really proud of.