How to nail the structure to maintain growth
You probably didn’t realise it last time you flew off on your summer holidays, but time was travelling at a slower pace for you in that aeroplane than it was for everyone you left behind on the surface of planet earth. You can thank physicist Joseph C Hafele and astronomer Richard E Keating for that bit of mind-boggling trivia – more than four decades ago, they proved that gravity slows down time by sticking atomic clocks on commercial airliners and finding that time moves fractionally slower up in the air than on the ground.
Of course, if you’ve been involved in running a business, you’ll already be familiar with the way time bends and warps and accelerates in unfathomable ways, whether or not you happen to have intimate knowledge of the theory of relativity. It’s on those all-too-familiar days when you feel like you’ve only spent 10 minutes focusing on the main point on your to-do list – then you look up to find it’s mysteriously become 3pm already.
Time seems to slide by faster and faster the more you have to manage. Once you’ve got through the two-and-a-half hours’ worth of email that the typical worker has to battle through each day, you lose another 14% of your time to “communicating and collaborating internally”, according to research from McKinsey Global Institute.
And the more senior you are, the more time disappears in a Bermuda Triangle of day-to-day tasks and fire-fighting. A recent study by the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School found that CEOs spend almost a third of their time in meetings, then another five hours every week on business meals, and three hours on calls.
The typical CEO is left with a meagre six hours to work alone in their 55-hour working week.
So it’s little surprise that managers in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) often struggle to find the time to step back and create the plans needed to structure the next couple of years.
Breaking the cycle of running around in circles
Yet it’s that step back to make time for strategic planning that really can make all the difference if you want to grow in the medium and long-term. Just look at Brompton Bikes: the maker of the foldable bikes has become a beacon of British manufacturing. The company turns over £28m, and revenue has grown by more than 25% every year for the last three years. It’s expanded from 24 staff and making 6,000 bikes a year just over a decade ago, to today employing 140 people and producing almost seven times the number of bikes.
Managing director Will Butler-Adams headed up that expansion. When he joined in 2002, “the factory was like something out of the 1950s and the operation was really inefficient,” he says. He could see the company had the potential to be much bigger and better, but he and his team “were like headless chickens, running around in circles trying to get from one day to the next”.
Butler-Adams realised he needed to take time out from the day-to-day to dedicate a chunk of his attention to strategic planning and to work out “where we wanted the company to go”.
It proved to be a pivotal decision in the business’ evolution. Butler-Adams allowed himself time to figure out long-term plans, and to hoover up information. He started taking advice on strategy, operations and growth opportunities from the likes of the Manufacturing Advisory Service, UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) and the government’s GrowthAccelerator, which helps businesses with high-growth potential access the strategy, ideas and connections they need.
As a result, he re-allocated resource, outsourced aspects of the business, introduced budget plans, and started realising the meaty growth the business is still enjoying today.
The discipline of sticking to the planned planning meetings
But how do you handle that all-consuming swamp of day-to-day duties to make the time for proper forward planning?
Toby Babb is the managing director of Harrington Starr, the financial technology recruitment firm he founded in 2010 with a team of four. Three years later, it has 24 staff and will be “just shy” of £5m turnover this year, up around 200% on last year. Babb plans to approach £10m in revenue and build the team to 40 by the end of next year.
He does it through carefully structured time out from his day-to-day, to assess, plan and gather advice. He’s a big believer in scheduling time in to allow for strategic thinking.
The whole company meets for the first half-day of every month to “review everything we’ve done, with a formal agenda to discuss everything we can do better and what we can pick up on next”. There’s also a formal business assessment once a year to “build out a manifesto”, which is then used to track and develop performance in the monthly company-wide meeting.
Individual employees spend one-and-a-half days every year – on the anniversary of their joining date – “going through every aspect of what they’ve achieved so far and what they want to achieve”. Each staff member develops a two-year career plan for what they want to achieve in the two years ahead, which their manager then helps them split into achievable targets.
“We spend lot of time thinking about where we want to go,” Babb says. “You can find it very difficult to get out of the day-to-day, but we have to really force ourselves to give time to discuss all these things.”
It takes discipline to stick to the allocated slots, because it often feels like there is something more pressing at hand than a planning meeting, but Babb believes it’s essential.
“You always think you haven’t got time, but not doing [the planning and strategy meetings] actually makes you more disorganised,” Babb explains. He’s made the sessions “part of the culture of the business”. “It’s when it’s not part of the culture that it becomes difficult.”
Using all the help you can get
Like Butler-Adams, Babb takes in plenty of external advice. His investors are able to give him their perspective, “looking into the business from the outside, but also from the inside”, in a structured and regular way. Other trusted contacts provide more informal mentoring and act as sounding boards. “We try and talk a lot to people outside the industry as well.”
There is a wealth of free information and advice out there. Talk to experienced businesspeople in your network. If you’re struggling to find a mentor, try a service like Mentorsme.
The government offers advice sites like Business Is Great as well as a huge host of support programmes and services in the shape of the Small Business Recruitment Service, GrowthAccelerator, UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), the Manufacturing Advisory Service and many more. Professional and business bodies such as ACAS, ICAEW, UK Export Finance and the British Chambers of Commerce can offer specialist support for specific aspects of your business and help connect you with new opportunities.
“The first thing you need to do is decide where you are going,” says Butler-Adams. “Once you know that, everything else will follow, especially if you access the advice and support that’s out there.”
You just have to make sure you are taking that step back from your daily tasks to create the strategies that really will transform the growth potential of your business. Because you don’t need to be an astrophysicist to realise that time speeds by all too quickly if you don’t make plans for your plans.
The feature is brought to you in partnership with Business is GREAT