One of the biggest complaints many of my clients make when we first start working together is that they feel like they spend their day fighting fires as opposed to being productive business owners. They tell me they are constantly required to handle problems from technical breakdowns and staffing matters to supplier issues, and the list goes on, preventing them from working on their business. If you can relate and feel that you’re at your desk about to get stuck into work one minute and called away to solve the latest problem the next, you would likely be feeling overwhelmed and frustrated at your lack of productivity. In this article, I offer some practical strategies to break through this issue and move to the next stage in your business journey. Being in a constant state of reactivity is not only unsustainable for you personally, but you will never build a successful business and team working this way.
Before we explore a case study highlighting how to move from a state of reactivity to proactivity as a business owner, let’s consider why the problem occurs. Based on my experience working with business owners who struggle with this issue, below are the main reasons.
No goals or strategy for the business. The wise adage, “If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail”, comes to mind here. When we don’t have clearly articulated goals and a plan (strategy) to achieve them, it is very easy to get distracted, overwhelmed and fall into the trap of constantly putting out fires as things will keep coming up. You’re also less likely to be able to work out what is important and needs your attention versus what is not, meaning you are more likely to be pulled in many different directions.
No structure for running the business. Every business owner needs a company structure that clearly documents all roles and responsibilities and policies and procedures for every role and task in the business. A company structure cuts down so much wasted time explaining your expectations to staff and how to do something. If you are interrupted multiple times a day by your team asking you how to do something or what the policy on something is, then you need to do this as soon as possible.
Disorganisation. If you haven’t implemented points 1. and 2. within your business, you might experience disorganisation. However, other sources can also lead to disorganisation. To be successful in business and cut down on the overwhelm and constant firefighting, you need to get yourself organised. This is not negotiable. However, it can look different for some people, depending on their business and the way they work. Some examples of getting organised include:
Keeping track of your work and your team’s work in a systemised way. For example, you might consider investing in project management software relevant to your industry or a to-do list or task management software like Asana or Trello;
Holding yourself and your team accountable to deliver on commitments. Conducting regular workload meetings is a good start;
Getting yourself and the team into a routine that facilitates productivity and getting work done;
Organising your emails and having a system to process them;
Adopting a standard calendar that you and the team can follow and stick to. For example, have set days or times for meetings and others for work that demands intense focus.
An ineffective team. This is a crucial factor. The saying, “You are only as good as your weakest team member”, rings true here. If you don’t have a team that is highly functioning, highly productive and runs like a well-oiled machine, then you will definitely be faced with significant challenges. Not only would you have to fill in the workload gaps missed by the team, but you would also likely have to deal with mistakes, extra time in training, customer complaints, etc. The solution is to have robust hiring, onboarding and training processes in place to ensure you get the best people working with you.
Working in the business rather than on the business. This is an issue that stumps most of my clients who are struggling with the need to put out fires constantly. As the owner, it is important to elevate yourself out of the day-to-day operations of your business and focus on strategy and growth. Unless you do that, you will be putting out fires forever. See my article, Working on the business, not in the business, for a step-by-step guide on how to elevate yourself out of the business operations.
I have a trade-based business client who is about to start his third year with me. When the owner first came to me, he was experiencing every challenge listed above. He was overwhelmed, constantly putting out fires and unsure how to get out of the situation. On the positive side, however, he had firm, albeit broad, business and personal goals to grow the company and be able to step away from it more to start a family.
In our first year together, we achieved the following:
Differentiated between his long and short-term goals and put strategies in place for achieving them;
Documented the whole business by creating a company structure to show workflows and creating role descriptions and playbooks that included every policy, procedure, checklist, form, etc., each role needed for the job to be done effectively;
Addressed the inefficiencies and disorganisation by reviewing every process in the business and creating best practice policies and procedures;
Implemented Microsoft Sharepoint as their intranet and document storage platform to ensure everyone had access to all the company documents and a streamlined way to communicate;
Assigned key roles to the right people in the business, including the owner and his business partner;
Identified that there was work to be done with the team and started dealing with ineffective team members while also implementing a thorough hiring and onboarding process.
In our second year together, we addressed the following:
Goal setting and strategy creation;
Refining the business operations and identifying cost savings;
Implementation of all the company documents and staff training;
Building a productive and effective team.
As you can see, there is a lot of work that needs to be done to get you out of the overwhelmed firefighting stage and into a position where you are running the show and can be a proactive leader rather than a reactive one. However, it’s worth putting the time and effort into it because once you do the work, you will be able to elevate yourself out of the day-to-day operations and work on refining what you have built rather than just coming to work each day and operating in an ad-hoc manner. So it is definitely possible to break through your firefighting habits and achieve the goals you set for yourself and your business. If the idea of tackling it on your own is overwhelming, I am always happy to have a chat to see how I can help. You can contact me here.