This mindset change could save your business.

To put it mildly, 2020 was one hell of a year for business.

Companies around the world were hit with an unrelenting barrage of issues — supply chain disruptions, lockdown closures, and pivoting to remote work while struggling with extraordinary stress and uncertainty.

Because buying habits changed overnight, businesses were forced to move at break-neck speeds to keep up. As a result, making informed decisions became an unaffordable luxury, and firefighting and reactivity became the norm.

There’s really no sugar coating it. It was a damn mess.

Even if you didn’t make it to 2021 unscathed, you made it. Take a moment to congratulate yourself.

While things will never go back to “normal” (whatever that means), the dust is starting to settle. And to make it through the next inevitable disruption, you need to take advantage of this relative calm. This is the perfect time to decide what the future of your company looks like and how to redesign business operations with scalability and resiliency in mind.

When discussing operations, many leaders compare their companies to “well-oiled machines”. If that’s true, your people are the parts. Not only are they integral to proper function, they need regular care and maintenance to keep going. To proactively plan for your future, you need to understand how to get this maintenance right.

Below, I’ll discuss how a people-focused mindset and approach to business has helped me create measurable improvements as Iversoft’s Chief Operations Officer, as well as the tools you’ll need to get your team running in the right direction.

Summary

Create Aspirational Org Charts

One of the most frustrating aspects of being stuck in a reactionary mindset is never knowing who has the skills to complete last-minute tasks. Does someone need to be hired? How quickly can that happen? Are the skills useful to you after the task is complete?

Thinking about necessary skills only as opportunities arise limits your ability to plan capacity, prevents employees from expanding their skill sets ahead of need, and often results in confusing team structures where many people have comparable skills and lack mentorship.

To be more proactive, you need to know exactly what your dream team looks like, even if you don’t have the resources to hire them right away. By creating a forward-thinking organizational chart, you can plan resources to support future transformations.

For example, if your goal is to open an online shop this year, do you know who will maintain UPCs? Who will do data collection and analysis? Or digital marketing?

When I joined Iversoft, we had fewer than 15 employees and were a jack of all trades software development shop. This meant most of us had to wear multiple hats. As we grew, this model of everyone doing everything proved unsustainable to meet client demand.

So I started to build out an org chart outlining our current team. When I had a better understanding of who we were at the time, I created another org chart that would support a team of 50+ and cross-referenced the two.

As a validation exercise, we defined future roles and wrote job descriptions to prove how this structure would achieve our organizational goals. And we continue to update it regularly as we grow.

At the same time, I identified at what thresholds we would need to add an extra layer of management and why.

Before hiring decisions are made now, we reference the org chart to ensure we aren’t making reactive decisions based on a single contract, but rather to support team size and overall organizational direction.

This has allowed us to scale rapidly without sacrificing leadership or team capacity.

Adding new and transferable skills to our team has also allowed us to increase billables with existing clients who require product managers, tech leads, etc. Essentially, we can loan these resources out as consultants to improve client experience.

When you’re ready to hire, you may be tempted to find resources with very specific skills that align with your industry. But remember that innovation comes from colouring outside the lines.

Be open to hiring people with the right skills who come from other industries. Because while industry knowledge can be taught, experience can’t.

Bringing in fresh perspectives is one of the fastest ways to expedite efficiency improvements and increase team morale. As a software development agency with a diverse range of clients, we have benefited immensely from seeking out talent with equally diverse experiences.

Empower Your Employees to Drive Change

Your employees are the people on the ground day-to-day. No one understands your business or your audience better than they do. Yet, operational changes are often dictated TO them rather than created WITH them.

Not only is this a waste of the talent and insights your employees possess, it accentuates resistance to change.

The best way to get instant buy-in for transformation initiatives is to involve affected teams in decision-making. When people have a say in the solutions they implement, they feel more accountable to them and do what’s needed to ensure success.

But letting go of any control can be intimidating. If the team fails will your head be on the chopping block? If they succeed does it mean that you aren’t needed? Too often, leaders let fear, ego, and experience overshadow opportunities for growth that only their employees can see.

Don’t worry. Your expertise and guidance will always be valuable. No one expects you to drop the reigns and let your team fend for themselves. Instead, you need to find the right balance between prescribing and listening.

Bring your team well-defined objectives based on overall company goals, but give them the autonomy to decide how those goals should be reached, including individual and departmental KPIs.

But don’t assume your employees understand the data the senior team uses to measure company success. In order to create the best plan possible, they will need you to help them understand this first.

With leadership-approved, well-defined KPIs, your team will be equipped to pivot their actions quickly if their proposed solutions aren’t garnering results. It also gives you the information needed to oversee the project and step in to help course correct if it becomes necessary.

At Iversoft, we review project health at a departmental level on both a per-project basis and overall. We establish project baselines using the estimated time to complete vs. actual so team members can diagnose anything that’s gone off course or what is, in fact, working.

As a result, we’ve found efficiencies in our process, reduced overhead, and encouraged collaboration and information sharing.

One such process is a project input plan to foster accountability within the development team. At the beginning of each project, the project manager prepares a breakdown of the scope of the product with the original estimated effort broken down by feature.

The technical lead on the project uses this information to ensure their development approach aligns with the original budget, giving the development team an opportunity to flag scope creep and risk. If no flags are waved, the dev team assumes responsibility over the development budget, confirming that they can deliver the scope within the identified budget.

If you didn’t totally understand our process above, that’s ok. The exact processes are far less important than the key takeaway: giving the talented people we’ve hired the space and autonomy to do what they do best creates better, more efficient experiences for our clients. And as a service-based business, this is invaluable.

Fail With Confidence

Even with empowered employees making informed decisions, failures will happen. No amount of experience, planning, or quality data can save you 100% of the time.

In fact, the expectation that there’s a golden bullet can slow decision-making to a point that allows your competitors to overtake you; the worst decision is no decision.

Successful companies aren’t afraid to break the mould, experiment, measure, and pivot. So, give yourself a deadline to collect the information you need to make your decision, then make it.

More importantly, your team needs to know they’re free to make honest mistakes without fearing consequences. Employees who are constantly reprimanded for failures are far less likely to challenge themselves to find new and better ways to do their jobs.

In a culture where mistakes are treated as teachers instead of attackers, your team gains a lesson instead of a loss.

One of my favourite examples of this philosophy in practice is Ottawa’s F*ckup Nights. Business leaders in the city get together to share stories about how their companies have royally screwed up and what they’ve learned as a result.

At Iversoft, we do our own lunch and learn version with our dev team. Each team shares insights about their projects that can be applied to what other teams are doing or future projects — both f*ckups and successes.

We also conduct post mortem sessions and milestone reviews to assess the data collected in a given project, and collect client satisfaction surveys to learn why clients enjoy working with us and what we can do to improve their experience next time.

Collecting and sharing this information across the company ensures that every project we do makes us better and adds to the institutional memory instead of those lessons living and leaving with the employees who experienced them.

Never Underestimate the Importance of Change Management

When you change how you do business, the products you’re offering, or your services, what you’re really doing is asking employees to change how they do their jobs. And if they aren’t set up to make that transition successfully, your initiative is guaranteed to fail.

Before you start making functional changes, start making mindset changes.

First, identify the people or teams who will be impacted by the change. Then define exactly how their role or a function will change and create a plan outlining what impacted employees will need to transition successfully. This could include education, leadership, new roles or a new departmental structure, coaching/training, etc.

Remember that your employees are not a monolith. How people react to change is individual, so where possible create opportunities for individual support and coaching.

When I was working at a traditional development agency in the past, the Executive team pivoted our core services to better focus on one of our strengths — strategy.

While the pivot made sense, change management was overlooked and this massive functional change was just mentioned in passing at a town hall meeting.

As time passed, the senior leadership realized they weren’t getting the kind of traction and response they expected from potential clients. Upon investigation, they realized external audiences were confused about how the agency could offer value.

At the next town hall meeting, the CEO asked each team member to stand up and give a quick elevator pitch about the agency’s expertise.

Not a single person answered correctly.

They stumbled over their words, trying to modify the previous pitch around the word strategy without really understanding the change or how it would impact their day-to-day. If employees couldn’t wrap their minds around the change, how could a client?

When we, as leaders, understand something clearly, it’s all too easy to assume that everyone else gets it too.

Don’t make assumptions. Instead, provide plenty of opportunities for employees to ask questions and make them a bigger part of implementation by tasking them with defining departmental and individual KPIs aligned with your objectives.

Conclusion

Your people are by far the most important asset your business has. Improving your operations and planning for what the future decides to throw at you next first requires understanding what they are capable of and what they need from you to be successful.

Leadership is so often conflated with making the decisions. But in reality, it’s about creating an environment where your employees can make better decisions, grow in their roles, and provide the best possible experiences for your customers. This is the mindset we all need to forge in 2021 and beyond.

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