I think of businesses as a bit like an eco-system; the larger and more complicated the business, the less impact any particular individual has on the business. The smaller the business, the greater the impact can be, particularly if it’s the business owner. Understanding this can be a good way to identify and rectify problems. Let me explain in more detail.
In an ancient wood there is a well-established eco system which is likely to be stable and in balance. It will have thousands of different organisms dependent upon it. There will be big animals such as deer, small animals such as mice, owls and squirrels. There will be a myriad of trees, plants and tiny micro-organisms you can’t even see. The wood as an entity is not dependent on any of the individuals that make it up for its survival; if a great oak falls in a storm, the wood remains. Indeed, although the wood is not a species it behaves in a predictable way. A space in the canopy created by a fallen oak will soon be filled.
An ancient wood is likely to be in balance and therefore, all things being equal, remain the same over many years, even as the individual trees and animals grow old and die. Indeed death and rebirth are part of the system. However, it is possible to intervene to change such a balanced system and people have done this throughout history with varying degrees of intention and desirability of outcome: for instance in this country, exterminating wolves or planting specific trees may have generally had positive outcomes; introducing grey squirrels wasn’t great for the native red squirrel and our Victorian ancestors won’t have anticipated the impact of industrial pollution.
Clearly most small businesses do not have as many interdependencies as ancient woodland, nor are they likely to have as big an impact on the world as the industrial revolution. However, I believe that looking at our businesses as an eco system can help us identify strengths and weaknesses and enable us to make sensible, timely and proportional interventions.
When I started The Accountancy People with just myself and Chris, the business was not very sophisticated. We had a very simple eco system. There are 10 of us now and the interdependencies between us are much greater.
That means there is no way that I could control every action of every individual that works for me – even if I was foolish enough to want to. So much goes on that I don’t even know about. To get the actions I want, I need to create the eco system within the business to deliver the desired actions and outcomes that enable me, my staff, our clients and therefore the whole business to flourish – just like the well-balanced ancient woodland.
This doesn’t mean things stand still. Quite the opposite. I try and make changes to improve my business, or ask people to do things to improve it, all the time. Indeed I live in the expectation that the team that work with me will naturally want to improve the business and give excellent customer service and quality of work. The thing about an eco-system though is that you can’t impose something on the system that is unacceptable to it; you can’t expect a palm tree to thrive in Saddleworth. I have to be aware of the environment I create if I want my business eco system to flourish.
Take customer service as an example: there‘s a myriad of elements required for a business to give great customer service. (It’s for others to say whether we at The Accountancy People get this right every time!) To give great customer service:
- the people you employ need to feel happy and valued in their work; you can’t make other people feel good unless you feel good yourself.
- everyone needs to have enough work but not too much; too much work and there’s a danger clients become seen as a hassle – not the route to great service!
- you need the right sort of people who are naturally service orientated.
- you need to hold on to good staff. The labour market is quite tight just now; any good member of staff can go out and get another job pretty quickly but keeping good people is key to the relationships your business has with your customers.
There also needs to be a balance here between getting enough work out and spending time with people so they feel valued – whether that’s the business owner with staff or staff with clients. It’s a crucial part of a healthy eco system. As the boss it’s easy to be impatient or even aggressive and demand that work is done to a deadline. However this will have a direct impact on how your team feels, their customer service and whether they stay with you.
I’ve also found that you really can’t bring successful initiatives to your business without your staff wanting to do them. Maybe it’s me but I find that if you try to impose an initiative on an unwilling team you’ll tend to get people agreeing with you at the time but then they’ll find reasons not to do it while generally paying lip service to the idea. Just like planting a palm tree in Saddleworth your initiative will die unless you’re going to constantly work at it and get it accepted and understood by those who have to make it happen.
So how to spot if your eco system is healthy or in need of some attention? If you have any of these issues troubling you at the moment (and it’s not an exhaustive list!) why not look at the environment that creates the problem rather than the immediate problem that presents itself?
- Poor staff retention
- Unhappy customers
- Ideas not being put into action
- Staff delegating upwardly to the business owner
- Insufficient billing
- Cost over- runs
If any of these are ringing alarm bells it may be time to ask yourself how you can improve your eco system. If you’d like to talk through some ideas please ring or email me – details at the bottom of the page.