“A sustainable way to deal with growth is to focus on creating the conditions for people to fulfil their potential, rather than introduce controls and processes that get in their way.”
Once your business reaches a certain number of people (too many for a single person to manage – over 100), I’d describe that business as mid size. After this, the complexity you have to deal with in terms of corralling those people into doing the things you need them to do is of a much higher level than for a smaller SME.
Looking back, we have gone through what were probably quite predictable stages of change as we responded to the challenges that growth brought. As we moved from a small to a mid size business, we started spending time on the company rather than working in the company.
There was definitely a stage we went past – for us it started around 30 people – where we had to reorganise ourselves to deal with the new complexity that more people brought. This invariably led to a need to systemise aspects of our process and introduce measurement to focus and understand performance.
As we moved from a practitioner role into a leadership role, we had to focus much more on creating clarity and embedding it in the business. We started to think about where we were going, what the plan was, and how to steer the business to that future. Apart from having to communicate with a greater number of staff than we ever had to before, we faced the challenge of getting them to collectively adapt to the changes we saw we needed to make.
How did that impact on you as one of the leaders?
As an individual, there was a moment where I started to understand that my role was managing the business and the problem – I wasn’t particularly well prepared for that!
I was an accidental leader, a practitioner at heart with an instinct for leadership. I was running a good business, but the growth brought challenges that I was unprepared for.
What impact did growth have within the business?
The positive impact of growth has been the opportunities it has created. Growth has opened the door to working with bigger brands, more exciting work, attracting better staff and, from a personal perspective, has meant that my job has remained challenging and I have continued to grow professionally.
The negative aspects come when the changes you make to deal with growth start to impact on your culture and the recipe that had delivered your success in the first place. For example, as a small, sub-20 company, we were operating as a high-performing team that benefited from the efficiencies that great team dynamics brought. As we grew, we introduced layers of management, and did predictable things like move our practitioners into departments and introduce roles focused on efficiently trafficking work through the business. Of course, there was a hidden cost to all of this in terms of the silos we had introduced and the lack of staff motivation due to the removal of autonomy. It taught me a valuable lesson as a leader that a sustainable way to deal with growth is to focus on creating the conditions for people to fulfil their potential, rather than introduce controls and processes that get in their way.
As we have now become part of a much larger business, we have experienced some of the new challenges associated with larger silos of different P&Ls and centralised services such as HR, finance and operations where making broad decisions can be done at a group level. These decisions are often driven by what the person in the position of responsibility can control, and they don’t always consider the long-term impact they might have.
I've also witnessed, in some of the larger organisations we have worked with, the inefficiencies created by individuals building their own empires or pursuing agendas to benefit their careers.
It’s rare that these individuals are actively trying to be disruptive, more that the measurement frameworks that define whether they are successful or not drives non-collaborative behaviour and prevents togetherness as a business.
How do you solve these problems?
As an SME, we did it with a combination of non-executives that brought some wisdom and progressive insight to us, and the employment of more experienced people in the business with better ways of doing things.
We had the exuberance of youth on our side and, in some respects, this naïve confidence did us a favour as we weren’t frightened to experiment with change. However, the experience these people brought showed us the full picture and put the issues we were facing into context.
Funnily enough, in later life I’ve now understood that sometimes just getting moving with things is more important than being right about them or getting them perfect – so you need a balance.
Do you have any guidance on how MSBs should approach innovation?
If we’re talking about how we keep evolving the way we’re doing things as an organisation, then perhaps that requires more of an iterative evolution – and there’s an aspect of innovation within that. If we’re talking about real, new product development and being first to the market, that’s a different kind of innovation.
I think innovation and attitudes to experimentation and change is driven to quite a large degree by the personalities of your leadership team. I personally am excited by change, and I’m always interested in what’s next – or slightly paranoid that we need to keep moving and adapting.
The challenge is to make this central to the culture of your business, to ingrain it within the belief system. In a new world economy, you need to be running continual experiments to improve your business just to keep up with the competition.
Part of the way to do that is to design continual evolution into the day-to-day habits, routines and way you organise yourselves as an organisation. This both democratises innovation and makes it unavoidable. At Code, we look for certain qualities in potential new team members when we recruit; we expect our staff to be constantly improving themselves and the world around them, and we reinforce this through our hiring and career progression routines.
I think, because of the nature of being a digital business, innovation is also to some extent what we sell – our job is ultimately to help organisations navigate the opportunity that digital creates.
We purposely built the flexibility to be innovative into our business. We’ve standardised some things and created a way to run our client work that is quite robust and streamlined. Then around that we have created more autonomy within the structure of the business and the way we operate.
More recently, we introduced some lean methodologies to give us a much more outcome-oriented approach to innovation. When I talk about culture, it includes the methodologies and the actual processes we have in the business, not just what our values are. We are what we do.
What’s the best training you’ve been on? And how did that help you as a leader?
One of the things that has helped us grow is being able to step foot in other places and come out of our bubble. To see other organisations and how they’ve done things has moved us forward because our perspectives have shifted.
From a training perspective, the most valuable thing I ever did was go on a leadership course with a Swedish training organisation called Hyper Island.
It was at a time when we were starting to face the complexities and difficulties caused by the very things we had introduced to deal with our growth.
Inevitably, the processes and changes we had introduced to manage the growth had started to undermine the ingredients that had driven our success in the first place. We started to lose the very magic that had got us to that point. As we saw inefficiency grow, we dealt with it by concentrating more and more on the outputs – trying to control profitability and introduce new business to increase revenue, rather than stand back and look at the inputs.
Ultimately, Code is a talent business; our success is dependent on our ability to attract, retain brilliant people and help them fulfil their potential while they’re here. The Hyper Island course allowed me time outside of my organisation to look in and get a different perspective.
I studied our business model and the value profit chain, and I started to see that we were going about things the wrong way. For the first time, I realised that it wasn’t my job to have all the answers – and I recognised that some of the things we had introduced to improve short-term effectiveness had actually undermined people’s motivation and reduced their autonomy to do the right thing. I saw that it was my role was to set the direction, define the lines to work within, and provide the right platform for the brilliant people I’d brought into my business to perform.
The programme was aimed at accidental leaders like me. It was practical and experiential – learning by doing, which was perfect for me. It provided me with many different tools mainly focused on self-leadership, collaboration and continual learning. I brought those back, embedded them in to how we work, and they are still there today.
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