Growing Your Business by Acting Small II -- Internal

An image of a young echidna in a suit sharing insight with a big-business, older echidna.

It’s a common refrain amongst businesses as they grow: departments become siloed; co-workers who were at one time intimately aware of all business efforts now feel disenfranchised; in some cases employees from the same company can go weeks or months without interacting.

And, from an organizational standpoint, that sprawl can bring about negatives to your business’ efficiency and innovation efforts. It’s true that a siloed focus and bunker mentality can promote focus, improve development time, and increase expertise – but if that comes at the expense of servicing your customers’ actual needs or creating challenges elsewhere within the organization, is it really worth it?

So can you still be a big business, yet remain connected? Absolutely – you just need to think small.

In part one of this series, we discussed how thinking small and incorporating small-business practices into larger organizations can help your external customer service and communications’ efforts.

Now we will take a more in-depth look at how “small” can help your internal efforts -- potentially a much more important and more valuable benefit that can foster growth!

Improve Internal Processes

As companies grow, they tend to add on or adapt existing processes. After a few years, you find yourself with a patchwork quilt of processes and actions that made sense at one time, but only serve to frustrate your employees, delay product development and delivery, and reduce customer satisfaction.

When you look at the Toyota-derived Kaizen or Motorola-developed Six Sigma methodologies, in essence they’re about bringing together various representatives from all parts of the process to question current processes, identify pain points, and propose solutions.

In my experience with Kaizen, the best questions and proposals are often provided by the ‘outsiders’ to a process. We often get too ingrained with our jobs to start to question “Why?” Sometimes an outsider can see what’s right in front of our face. As well, we can learn how our actions impact others’ jobs.

If you have the skills, experience, and wherewithal to run a full-fledged process improvement session, go to it. But there’s also value in just bringing people together – either in a town hall, through internal anonymous surveys, or focus groups. Maybe something your marketing team does causes problems for your distribution staff – and for years, they’ve just chosen to grin and bear it. Generally, the people doing the job tend to have pretty solid ideas about how to make it better – so why wouldn’t you want to use that resource?

Improve Internal Knowledge and Awareness

Remember the days when you could sit around the table and catch up? Share war stories over a beer or know what everyone was working on just by overhearing conversations in your one-room office? As companies get bigger, sometimes you can go months without talking to a co-worker. And in siloed environments, you may never be aware of what another department does.

Of course, there are those who don’t care to know. They want to come in, put in their time, and go home.

We often focus on external brand advocacy – getting our Twitter followers and Facebook fans to spread the word about our business. But what better advocates can you have than your own employees? I’ve seen the best and the worst first hand. I’ve worked in places where people literally wear their pride on their sleeves (or hats); and I’ve worked in a place where the name of the business was spoken in hushed tones (or not at all).

Pride is a powerful motivator and it’s fostered by making your employees feel not just connected to the company as a whole, but valued.

So maybe the fireside chats aren’t feasible in your 200-employee (or 2,000 employee) organization. You have the virtual tools to foster that conversation, share experiences, and reacquaint staff.

Internal newsletters often get a bad rap. And it’s often well deserved. Too often they’re filled with what senior management thinks people want to read: stories about “leveraged paradigms,” grip-and-grin or execution-at-dawn photos of certificate presentations, and, of course, some half-witty humour article designed to offend no one – which, in turn, interests no one.

We’ll talk more about newsletter content in an upcoming blog, but for now it’s important to remember to market to your employees. Don’t just give them content to read – give them content that they would choose to read, and that’s readable. Don’t focus on processes, focus on the people within those processes. Celebrate success, share stories of innovative ideas that have improved your business, and you’ll find that more people will be willing to get involved.

Oh, and people love to read about themselves.

You can also use newsletters, internal message boards, or wikis as knowledge-sharing databases. Encourage your staff to ask and answer questions in an internal forum. Two CSRs may experience the same challenge on a daily basis, while a third’s already resolved it. Find a way to communicate that and celebrate it.

Improve Idea Generation

When you’re a company of two or three, it’s easy to say, “Why don’t we try this?” and get buy in. When you’re a data-entry staffer in a company of 2,000 it’s tougher to have your brilliant idea reach the light of day.

Silos may be inevitable, but improving communication and cross-role understanding, you make it easier for those great ideas to reach the right ears. Some people don’t like it, but I’m a big fan of anonymity. I’m also a proponent of believing that people will act like adults if you treat them like results.

That’s not the belief everywhere. I’ve had a manager who didn’t accept anonymous submissions, yet created a culture of fear that prevented anyone from speaking up about real challenges and issues with their job. Shockingly, those great ideas that were expressed around the water cooler or lunch room never made it up the ladder – and the company, as a whole, suffered.

Larger businesses need to compensate for that lack of interaction and immediacy. You can use anonymous idea drop boxes, on-line solutions, or – even better – foster an open-door policy amongst management.

But the overriding factor behind this approach’s success is that you actually have to act on ideas. Use them, reward them, and encourage more. And if you don’t use them, explain why – privately or publicly (especially in the case of a great idea that you just don’t have the resources to implement).

People aren’t shy to share their ideas. But if they’re slapped for doing so, discouraged in any way, or feel that there’s no point, that “Why bother?” mentality can set in quickly.

Boost Employee Morale

Back in the early days, many companies need that one-for-all, all-for-one mentality to live, thrive, and survive. By embracing the principles of small-business development but adapting them to work within a larger framework, you can recreate that all-hands-on-deck approach.

And now, instead of benefitting from two or three engaged, motivated, and intelligent staffers, you have a pool of motivated, dedicated, and diverse employees all pulling together to not only keep the ship afloat, but to help steer it into new and exciting waters.

Big business problems? The key to success is to keep thinking small.

Your thoughts are welcome. Comments, as always, are open!

Questions Answered

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