My interest in the stability paradox — the need for a solid foundation to support organizational agility & resilience — has deep roots within my career. (Read my other posts here and here. Read about ARA theory here). In the late 2000s, I had the unique opportunity to work with a number of small businesses. Many were successful, family-owned and displayed an extreme passion for the products or services they provided. These organizations were filled with remarkable people, who had nurtured deep ties with the community and intended on leaving a lasting, positive impact.
After spending time with both leadership teams and contributors, I quickly realized that their challenges were a microcosm of what might occur in larger companies. There was far less “noise” bureaucratically, so to speak, and the challenges were much easier to identify. However, the consequences of inaction would be equally as devastating and would mover at a much faster pace.
Most were already experiencing some level of distress. Some had survived the economic crisis — only to realize they were one of the last companies standing of their kind. They were relieved, yet stunned. Others were facing new and disruptive competition. But, they all sensed they were on shaky ground as to how to move forward effectively and continue to grow.
But, regardless of the industry, there was a certain similarity in their predicament — and the thread that connected them was growth. Rather, how these organizations were unprepared to support further growth.
To my astonishment, most had managed to grow rather ferociously with a sparse internal structure — until they reached an inflection point where the “informal” structure no longer supported the organization. Then all hell began to break loose. Communication channels began to fail. Cross-functional teaming was in disarray. Response times expanded. Customers were unhappy. Tempers would flare.
I was challenged to help them, but soon realized that increased internal stability was required. Without a stable underlying foundation, nothing would work. (Read more about this here.) However, preserving what made them both innovative and unique, was also important. That became the goal: a set of best practices that reinforced the supportive skeleton of the organization — such as mission, values and communications channels — but still allowed for flexibility that helped these organizations survive and thrive.
We would usually focus on a few elements:
- Discuss mission & strategy. It was usually time to revisit the core principles of the organization. Did the mission still fit ? Was there and agreed strategy to support that mission? Without these elements, the moving parts that drove growth would become locked.
- Stabilize communication. By the time an organization reached 80 or 90 people, the informal communications network became stressed and or had fractured. Investing in intranet software, for example, to facilitate conversations and collaboration became critical critical. A technology investment was also needed — especially if a sizeable group of contributors were in the field.
- Examine software solutions. Software does need to match the demands within an industry. However, in many cases platforms were added as a particular need presented, with little consideration concerning how the addition impacted employees and customers. So, the “house that Jack built” became the plan. Solutions didn’t work together, and in some cases they competed, adding needless steps and little added value.
- Review talent needs. Inevitably positions needed to be added that could serve a strategy function for key functions. These individuals could keep an eye on growth opportunities and what the organization would need to do to respond effectively. Moreover, role clarity for existing roles, was usually weak or absent.
- Look at development. Contributors need to believe that they have room to grow. Adopting practices that encourage feedback and coaching are also factors which affect internal stability. In small business, when an individual departs, a library of experiences goes with them. A completely new role may not always be possible — but a discussion of what a contributor may want to learn may be possible.
I was awestruck by the risks that small business owners happily shoulder for the good of both their customers and employees. Helping them in some small way was incredibly rewarding. Pointing them in the direction of stability, with the goal of preserving flexibility — seemed the right move.
Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She is a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. Her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.