Roger Longden leads the team at There be Giants, who apply the principles of agile to the way clients develop and execute their strategy.
I think the baker’s dozen gets a bad rap. It’s never done me any harm, yet some avoid it like the plague. As a business owner planning and managing rapid growth, I’d like you to embrace the number 13, prepare for it and sail past it with no trouble whatsoever. But what’s so significant about 13, and why should you care about it?
In the work There be Giants does with tech and digital businesses experiencing rapid growth, I’ve come to find that 13 people is the point at which the “old ways” of managing, communicating, planning and executing start to become less and less effective. You begin to see what I call ‘drag & lag’ as the speed and agility of your people and teams starts to slow down – which you can be sure hits the holy-trinity of time/cost/quality within your client projects in some way or another.
The thing is, this doesn’t just suddenly happen, it creeps up on you. It slowly builds, steadily starting to weigh things down, until you feel frustration 6 to 12 months later when you realise that people don’t care as much, and teams are not as driven like they once were.
The renowned author Dan Priestly discovered the number 13 to be key in the research he did for his work ‘The Entrepreneur’s Journey.’ He found that a distinct transition is needed when you move from what he terms a ‘lifestyle’ business onto become a ‘performance’ business. Interestingly, he describes the leap between these two stages (£2 million to £10 million revenue) as a ‘struggle’ zone while the business evolves to create the structures and resources it needs to scale.
So, what are the signs that you could be making 13 work better for you?
1. Distance and disconnect
As the business is growing, you have brought people in and (hopefully) you’re delegating more tasks, so your personal focus is in spending more time ‘on’ than ‘in’ the business. You are likely to be pursuing new clients, new partnerships, and perhaps even new funding.
All that is great in one sense, but it means you’re in the office less, and your distance from the team has likely increased. They are carrying on as best they know how, working on what they ‘think’ are the priorities but there’s no guarantee they are your priorities. Also, how are you keeping tabs on progress, or even confidence for that matter?
As the business starts to place new demands on you that take you away from the shop floor, you need to work differently to make sure the ‘shop floor’ still shares your plan and priorities.
2. The old ways stop working
When you’re a team of up to 10, there’s a sense that everyone gets ‘it’ and if they don’t, it soon becomes clear. There’s nowhere to hide in a business that small. Communication happens organically over the desk, or over a coffee and people can easily see what each other is working on. Also, it’s likely most of the team have been there since the very early days, so they are more likely to share some of the passion and belief you had when you started. All likely to report directly to you.
As you begin to focus on things that take you away from the team, you’ll start to feel like the old ways of communicating don’t work anymore as you’re simply not around as much. You’re not around to catch those emerging ideas, passing comments or sense the mood of the office.
Also, as you increase to 13, that’s when you’ll start to ask someone to begin managing a small team – and this is how your detachment from the front line starts. By 13, you’re likely to have people in your team who haven’t been in play since the early days so might not quite share your passion like the ‘originals.’
All this means you need to start intentionally working on this, making sure the message gets through, listening back, and tracking progress and confidence.
3. Drag and lag
If you’re not around as much, one of two things will happen. Either your team try to keep the ball rolling, but have to make decisions without you – which might mean assumptions get made about priorities or the business’ direction – or they hesitate to make a decision, and the project falls behind.
If you’ve done a great job at helping them to understand what matters most and have given them permission and support to make a decision, then they should get this right. If there’s any confusion, or they don’t feel confident enough to make the decision and they’d rather wait for you, then you’ll lose time.
This drag and lag builds up over time and is what erodes your agility. Your best insurance against it is to make certain that everyone understands the priorities, how they are responsible for meeting them and that you trust them to make a decision and either get it right or learn from it so they get it right the second time.
If you don’t intentionally delegate, communicate and listen, then you will be the reason for the drag and lag and loss of agility.
It’s not unusual for leaders who are driving growth to look to those who are already big to see how they now manage, and then try to retrofit those approaches back into their own business. While this is a tried-and-tested way of learning, I would caution any business owner thinking about doing this. Just because they have size, doesn’t mean they are successful and I’d bet my bottom dollar that they are not as agile as you want to be.
Navigating past 13
So, how do you navigate the perils of hiring person number 13, and keep your agility as you grow?
I believe the answer lies within the way you build your strategy and plan, and then how you put it into play – i.e. how you execute it. If you want to look to others to learn, then be selective and take your lead from other successful tech businesses who live their lives at a similar velocity to you.
I have a personal angle on this. For many years, I had first-hand experience of developing and delivering strategy in large IT organisations. It never failed to amaze me just how ineffective – and downright damaging in some cases – the delivery (some might know it as ‘performance management’) actually was.
In 2014, I’d been free of corporate life for nearly five years, in which I’d been putting my performance coaching skills to good use for clients which took me from high-growth SMEs to Formula 1 and the middle of the North Sea.
My curiosity was twitching, and I found myself wondering how could they do performance management better? I decided to research this with 200 businesses across a number of sectors (all 500 employees or fewer), which lead to the publishing of my white-paper Priming for Performance.
Priming for performance
In the white paper, I propose a model for how you can blend your systems, management and culture to create the right ‘mix’ for great performance management. Since then, I’ve also become a visiting lecturer in Performance Management at MMU Business School.
I find that the businesses who effortlessly sail past 13 and continue to scale have prepared for it. They work to make sure their rising stars/future managers have the skills to hit the ground running as they build up their teams rather than losing valuable time. They also get the right habits and rhythm up and running in the business which help establish annual, quarterly and weekly/fortnightly cycles, each with check-ins to track progress and talk about confidence-to-complete.
This helps the real-time flow up of updates and feedback from the front line and prompt responses if needed. Everyone knows what they are responsible for and what’s expected of them. This is talked about openly at team level, you see more collaboration and resource sharing too.
I’m a big advocate of the OKR (Objectives & Key Results) approach which was made famous by Google who adopted early in the company’s life. They use it to help them solve all of the challenges I’ve mentioned and they’ve done okay…!
So, if you’re approaching 13 and want to prepare for it, or are past it and can feel the drag and lag taking hold, take a look at OKRs to see if they could help you create a win/win for both you, your business and your people. And you’ll find that 13 might just be your lucky number, after all.
Image credit: Melanie Cook / Flickr