4 ways to avoid bureaucracy as you scale
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As your business grows, you will find that everything starts to get complex. What was once a simple task completed by you, is now a maze of steps completed by multiple teams. For many small business owners, this becomes a big challenge. Many business owners start their business with the idea that they can do it better than existing businesses. This translates to the idea that “if you want it done right, do it yourself”.
While this helps the start-up business owner break into the market, it can hinder growth when delegating work is not possible. This is the great paradox of growth. How do you use the benefits of the Founder’s mindset without it becoming detrimental? Here are some ways to avoid bureaucracy as you scale:
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1. Build the systems
The first step in being able to take advantage of growth opportunities is to learn how to systematize aspects of the business. Going out and selling to a new customer becomes more of a process and less of your own intuition.
You will need to start creating the steps you follow as a process that can be taught. Every aspect of the business should be viewed as a system. Each step taken should be a repeatable process that allows others to follow.
At first it will seem futile. Why take the time to create a sales system? Why not just let everyone off the hook and hope for the best? If it worked so far, it will probably continue to work, right? If the company is satisfied with its current level of success, this argument could be made effectively. But if it grows, the chances of continuing to find employees who exhibit the same abilities and experience with products and services are very low.
Instead, you will find employees with potential. It’s up to you to turn that potential into production. The best way to do this is to have a method that works so you can train them on the right steps to take to master the skills needed.
The systems make it possible to bring in others while maintaining quality control. You can then create overlay systems that monitor team production. Using strategic metrics and key performance indicators, you can quickly identify issues and take action to correct them. Essentially, you are creating an operating system for the business. Instead of everything relying on you, everything relies on the system. Any growing business needs to be able to create these systems. Even with a great founder, systems are a requirement for growth.
2. Make your systems flexible
Systems are needed, but what about those big companies mired in bureaucracy? They tend to create rigid systems that have been created and applied but are no longer optimal. A common refrain is that employees take the action they take, “because it’s always been that way.”
Instead of taking a fresh look at a situation, they rely on outdated methods. There is too much bureaucracy to be flexible. It creates an outdated culture of blame and scapegoating instead of innovation and risk taking.
When I was getting my MBA, one of my professors told us: “Too strong a force becomes a weakness. This is what happens when the structure created from the systems becomes exaggerated. It becomes rigid. While this can help you get out of startup mode, it hinders growth and will deteriorate the essence of the business.
Instead of rigid systems, opt for flexible systems. There are a plethora of methods for creating flexible systems, and these will allow systems to adapt when needed. Instead of a rigid step-by-step procedure, create one that has decision trees to allow for modifications based on the situation. It’s still a system. It still provides control, but it doesn’t hold back the business when agility is required.
Instead of one structure for every similar situation, create modular systems that can be custom built to best address the problem with an ideal solution. Then the pieces can be used interchangeably to create a unique result every time.
To understand modular systems, think about building a house. The designer does not build a toilet or a bathtub from scratch. They use pre-existing formats but interchange them to create something unique. Your business may have the building blocks available, but customize them as needed.
If you think about the customization going on in the world, you will see many examples of flexible systems. Responsive websites tailor the experience based on the device you’re using. Streaming services provide suggestions based on your viewing history. When you connect, the suggestions displayed are different than when your neighbor connects.
Flexible systems can be difficult because it is an advanced systemization technique. But it’s worth it. Sometimes you can just incorporate a flexible process, like using agile project management or a continuous improvement model. But if you need to create a flexible system, be sure to take the time to think about it creatively and make sure that customer experience is always a priority.
Related: Why a Startup Founder Shouldn’t Make All the Decisions
3. Use core values to prevail over a rigid system
One tactic that has been very effective is to create core values in the company that trump bureaucracy. This can become the heart of the business that drives it forward as much as the systems in place.
Create a bias to the action. When employees see a problem, are they taught how to react? It may sound like common sense, but when the company culture is too strict or focused on punishment rather than improvement, employees prefer to sit down rather than offer solutions.
Be sure that sitting still is more punished than stepping in and trying to solve the problem. We want people to try to solve the problem. It could mean that their attempt fails, but if we want them to be empowered to act, we need to encourage risk-taking.
Creating core values that reflect entrepreneurship rather than adherence to bureaucratic rules will allow employees to feel empowered to act, even when the system tries to limit them. What are these core values? Do you prefer that employees always go above and beyond to create a great member experience? It may mean seeing a unique situation that does not match the current POS.
Want your employees to be hungry to try new things? Do you want employees to stick to the founder’s belief that protecting the company’s strategic advantage or confidential customer list is paramount? Either way, you can use core values to provide an overlay mindset to staff.
4. Use training and leadership to encourage entrepreneurship among staff
Once you have the right systems in place, the flexibility with those systems to adapt as needed, and the core values defined to provide the right mindset among workers, you need to follow through. This means that the training must include these aspects. From onboarding new employees to management development, these systems and core values must be recognized.
Leadership must exemplify them. Otherwise, you will undermine your efforts. People are smart enough to see the difference between the written code and the message between the lines. If you say you want an entrepreneurial mindset, follow the actions taken. Promote employees who match what you want, not just the subject matter expert. If you want people to follow the systems in place, don’t give the office cowboy the corner office and the biggest team to manage. There must be consistency between the steps taken regularly by leadership and the structure taught to staff. If these are consistent, you can begin to create the right environment to grow.
Related: Want to Avoid Failure? Let go of rigidity and develop flexibility.
You have the possibility to create a system that is both structured and flexible. You can create an entrepreneurial culture and keep growing. In fact, when you do this, you create a world-class business that can compete with the best competitors in your field and create a sustainable organization to bring value to the market for years to come.