Why business growth can sometimes be a costly problem

Growth is good, for the most part. As entrepreneurs we want our businesses to grow. And although we want our businesses to grow all the time, the result of the growth isn’t always ideal.

When I say “result”, I don’t mean bigger orders or bigger bills. These are the result, of course, but I’m talking about a different result: I’m talking about the challenges that come from organic growth.

Most growth happens organically, even when we try to strategize and systematize it. Organic growth is represented by a series of short, “effective-for-now” solutions that may work for a season but may not necessarily work over the long term.

Think of a building. It may have been built in one decade and be adequate for that time, but over the decades new additions are added onto it as the needs of the occupants change. I went to a grade school like this: The original building was a small, brick two-storey edifice. A large brick extension was added on. And when I attended, there was a ridiculously long corridor of metal portable structures that had been added on year after year. By the time I got there, the school was quite large and it was also an aesthetic eyesore.

Your growing business is the same: It starts out with a series of “structures” — processes, offerings, procedures, software, roles, etc. — and over time it develops; organically growing to meet the changing demands of your business.

The result? It isn’t always pleasant, although it happens so slowly that you might not even realize the patches and workarounds that develop.

A great example comes from a part time job I held in college. It was a pretty mindless data entry job at a large medical center. Each day I would work through a stack of information slips that the various medical practitioners had filled out for their patients that day. The problem was, the system may have started out as an efficient color-coded system with a handful of sensible colors for various purposes, and as it grew, it would have made sense to the person in the role before me (because they had adapted to the changes over the years). But when I showed up — as a complete outsider — I saw workaround after workaround for these slips: The yellow ones meant on thing and the blue ones meant something else… UNLESS the blue ones had a code on them that ended in the letter A. And the green ones meant one thing if they were stapled to a blue sheet of paper and something else if stapled to a pink sheet of paper. I quit within a couple of days, only because I was worried that I couldn’t keep it all straight and would endanger the patients.

Although you might not realize it, your business is full of workarounds exactly like this. Maybe you have to copy-and-paste a contact name from and old CRM into a newer contact management system. Maybe your website has been retooled so often that links go nowhere or take customers on bizarre paths. Maybe your invoice system used to pull data from the shipping software, until you outgrew the shipping software and now you have to input your invoices manually.

These workarounds may have been patches to keep your processes going, but they can be time consuming and can lead to errors… and if you ever bring on another employee, they can cause confusion and waste your money by making your staff inefficient.

Finding and fixing your workarounds and patches isn’t easy: You’re so familiar with your business that you just don’t see them. And fixing them is just as hard because it can require you to break and rebuild processes and systems that generally work (and seem efficient to you, even though they aren’t).

TWO FAST WAYS TO FIND YOUR WORKAROUNDS
The first way you can find your workarounds is by shopping for new software that will automate parts of your business. Yes, it’s rare that the simple act of shopping for something can help, but it’s true: Look for software that connects multiple aspects of your business together (i.e., marketing, sales, and customer service or shipping, invoicing, and bookkeeping). Seeing how things operate in one system can highlight the fact that your efforts to move information from one system to another is a simple workaround you developed years ago that you now perform out of habit.

The second way you can find your workarounds is by writing out your procedures. It’s a good idea to do this anyway, in order to build an operations manual to use when you add staff to your business. Just go through your day with your favorite notetaking device nearby and record every step you take in every business procedure. It sounds like a lot of work but it goes fast and it helps you to create a really useful operations manual while making you more efficient. That’s a good investment of your time!

HOW TO FIX YOUR WORKAROUNDS
It’s harder to make recommendations about fixing workarounds since there are so many ways that workarounds can happen and each person will create different workarounds for different reasons. (I used to ghostwrite ebooks all the time and had some standard snippets of legal disclaimers and copyright text I used over and over. I just kept these in a .txt file, which isn’t bad but there are more efficient places to keep that text).

Ultimately, if you can identify where your patches and workarounds are, you need to focus on smoothing them out: Automate them; invest in more robust software to handle them for you; delegate that part of your business; try eliminating the step altogether.

Business growth is good, but organic business growth leads to workarounds and patches that can end up costing you a lot of time (and money). Get rid of them to streamline your business!

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