Six Bold Steps for Reinvigorating and Strengthening Your Business

Team of business professionals working on a problem at a table
GettyImages/Martin Barraud

As businesses grow and change the processes for running the business naturally need to evolve. I describe all of the processes and events necessary to share results, discuss future plans, identify problems to tackle and keep managers and employees focused on the right issues as the operating routine of a business.

A defined operating routine backed by a consistent cadence of the right meetings and activities is essential to running and growing a healthy business.

This article offers guidance on creating an operating routine for your business or team, whether you are the chief executive, general manager or functional line manager.

When Growth Demands Change to the Operating Routine: A Case Study

The members of this small software firm were proud of remaining true to the casual culture the founder had created during the early startup days. They credited this loose environment free from process and bureaucracy with making their firm a great place to work and allowing maximum creativity to flow from the firm’s engineers.

This loose style of operating worked fine while the business remained small. However, thanks to some of that fantastic creativity and a resultant hit product, the firm caught an updraft in sales and the employee population exploded in a sea of new hires. So did the problems. In an employee survey the following issues were highlighted as serious concerns:

  • Poor communication and coordination between functions.
  • Lack of collaboration for daily problem-solving.
  • Confusion over key project and strategic priorities.
  • Lack of understanding of company performance and future targets.
  • Process bottlenecks that remained unresolved for extended periods of time.
  • Lack of connectivity between individual goals and organizational goals.

    Sensing that the casual culture of days gone by no longer functioned in a fast growing firm, the managers and key contributors set about creating an operating routine—a series of meetings and processes designed to improve communication and collaboration.

    While the idea of adding process to their creative environment was uncomfortable, the addition of just the right type of processes and events helped dramatically improve communication and coordination across the organization. Subsequent employee surveys reflected less of a crisis or firefighting tone and focused on strengthening what was viewed again as a great place to work.

    Six Steps to Creating an Operating Routine That Strengthens Your Firm:

    The software firm described above designed their operating routine in stages, focusing initially on improving communication and collaboration and later focusing on getting more people involved in the work of strategy. Here are the six steps this firm's managers took to strengthen their firm:

    1. Find the right starting point. Given the communication challenges, the team in the software firm decided that managers in all functions would meet weekly to identify and share major problems or opportunities where help was required.

    Instead of serving as a status meeting where every attendee would describe their current activities, the participants with challenges or opportunities would describe their situation and needs. People volunteered or were assigned to help and the initiative was tracked to conclusion in a report available to all employees. Ultimately, the team adopted the name of Issues and Opportunities for this weekly meeting.

    As coordination and collaboration around the items identified in the Issues and Opportunities meeting improved, the duration of the weekly meeting reduced to less than 30 minutes. The participants agreed that this was a small time investment with a big payoff.

    2. Build on successes. Emboldened by the positive progress created by the Issues and Opportunities meeting, the software firm’s managers next sought to improve awareness of financial results and alignment around key goals. They established a Monthly Results Discussion forum that took place via webinar.

    The CEO and executives would describe the prior month’s results, identify progress and problems with key performance indicators and review the high level goals for the balance of the quarter and year. Employees were encouraged to ask questions via instant messaging and all questions and answers were recapped in a follow-on email distribute no later than the next day. The recordings were archived for easy viewing of associates unable to attend the live session.

    As this new Monthly Results Discussion gained momentum, the time necessary to prepare and deliver it reduced to less than one-hour subject to the volume of employee questions. Employees who had grown accustomed to never hearing how the firm was performing became the biggest cheerleaders for this new session and its transparency around numbers and performance indicators.

    3. Start new employees off on the right footing. Given the rapid pace of new hiring, the firm’s top managers and individual contributors determined that the new employee onboarding process would include a “Lunch With the Executives” session where the executives would introduce themselves and their functions and talk about the firm’s history, present and future. No topics were off limits and new hires were encouraged to ask about strategy, financial results, market opportunities, key priorities and how to get ahead in the organization.

    4. Look inward once per quarter in deep-dive operating reviews. The sessions described above provided immediate help for improving communications and collaboration and ensuring that everyone was on the same page for results and goals. However, what was needed was a way to objectively look at how the business was operating and identify needed improvements. The Quarterly Operating Review was born.

    In contrast to the Issues and Opportunities and Monthly Results Discussion sessions, the Quarterly Operating Review focused on reviewing each functional area and examining overall performance and key indicators. Sensitive to not wanting these to serve as “brag sessions,” ground rules were established to encourage identification of problem areas and to allow for questioning from all other meeting participants. After the few rough early sessions, this meeting developed into an important part of the firm’s continuous improvement process. Functional and business managers learned to be transparent about their challenges and successes and importantly, key targets for strengthening were identified for each area with results to be reported at next quarter’s meeting.

    One additional step that helped these quarterly review sessions flourish included extending involvement to a group of observers. Each reporting manager or business leader was allowed to invite multiple team members to the session to listen in and learn about the overall business. These quiet participants were then charged with reporting back on the meeting content to their broader teams.

    5. Formalize the process of looking outward. A number of the software firm’s technical leaders grew concerned that the new Operating Routine was focused exclusively on internal activities and did not allow for insights and observations from the outside world. To help stem these concerns, the technical managers were given budgets to work with to encourage external exploration, including attending conferences and seminars, visiting clients and exploring markets unrelated to but potentially interesting for the firm. The only conditions of the investment were that the technical managers were required to include employees from other functions in their explorations and to report back on and curate the content and ideas generated from the external exploration. Eventually, the process involved into one where ideas were generated and business cases developed for new pursuits.

    6. Create market and customer-focused teams to work on strategy. The above sessions focused on communication, collaboration, problem-solving and continuous improvement, but they did not address the sticky issue of strategy and strategy execution development. This was solved by creating market-focused teams charged with defining needed strategies and identifying the plans necessary to bring these strategies to life. Each team was assigned an executive sponsor and project manager, and members were drawn from key functional roles, not just managerial roles.

    While these teams did not replace the responsibility of top executives for overall strategy guidance, they offered an outstanding way to draw more employees into the process for both input and coordinated execution. The executives served as sounding boards and made the final decisions on overall investment levels, and the teams owned bringing the strategies to life. The project management approach for strategy execution proved incredibly helpful for organizing and controlling the various initiatives.

    Eight Key Takeaways for Managers:

    1. Improving coordination and control of a business does not have to mean imposing sudden, large volumes of process and bureaucracy. Walk before you run.
    2. Communication is always the issue: start there first.
    3. Expand involvement instead of limiting it.
    4. Go beyond the short-term communication fixes to creating processes and events focused on improving the business longer term.
    5. Be consistent and diligent with your operating routine.
    6. Challenge people to look outside the business as a key part of strengthening the business.
    7. Kick strategy out of the boardroom and into the hands of your employees, but guide and coach them.
    8. Use project management practices to facilitate strategy implementation.

    The Bottom Line:

    In a world characterized by change and increasing complexity, you cannot afford to retain yesterday’s operating approach, even if it is casual and comfortable. Good managers and business operators constantly strive to identify approaches and processes that improve communication and engagement and provide all employees with increased opportunities to contribute. If your firm has a stale operating routine, consider refreshing it with the ideas from our software firm example. If your firm has no coherent operating approach, it is time for managers and key contributors to step up and create one.