Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Working in, Working on, Working for the business

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the differences between working "in" the business for strategy and innovation versus working "on" the business for strategy and innovation.  This dichotomy is a somewhat classic way of thinking about how people spend their time - either "in" the business doing the day to day work that propels the company forward, or time spent "on" the business, thinking about how the business is positioned, its strategy, how it operates.  For most executives, the majority of time is spent "in" the business, with far too little time spent "on" the business.  You can read that previous post here to get more detail.

What about a third option

That post got me thinking that the tradeoffs between "in" and "on" are incomplete.  That is, there is at least one other perspective that managers and leaders must assume beyond in and on.  As described above, in the business is doing day to day work - going to meetings, completing emails, assigning projects and so on.  Doing work on the business is stepping back and examining how the business actually operates, and trying to define future opportunities or new strategies.

What's missing - at least from my perspective - is the idea of actually running the business.  That is, ensuring the business does the right things day to day, has the right resources and is focused on the right targets.  In other words, actually managing the business, making decisions, establishing priorities.

In vs On vs Running

When you are "in" the business, you may neglect the aspects you would consider if you were in the "on" perspective.  That's because the urgent overwhelms the important.  What needs to get done today becomes more important.  As managers and executives, we must be careful to do today's work effectively but not allow it to consume all of our time and energy.  Executives and leaders should not do work that belongs to their subordinates, and should not become firefighters or paramedics unless it is absolutely necessary.

In the rare times when you are "on" the business - usually when preparing for a board presentation or in an executive offsite, you are considering big picture questions.  Where is the business going?  What are our best opportunities?  The "in" the business issues will constantly hound you even when you are trying to be on the business.  The vast majority of businesses already spend too little time in the "on" perspective, because it does not feel like work.  

Running the business is a critical third perspective that I think often gets overlooked or ignored.  In some sense, we denigrate this task because it has connotations of "managing" the business, and we've been led to believe that good businesses should manage themselves.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  A business without good management is like a ship without a rudder - it will go wherever the wind and the tides decide to take it.  This is especially true in companies that are growing quickly.  Without clear strategy (on the business) and clear leadership and management (running the business), a company will follow the easy money, pursue trends and find itself in a business cul-de-sac.

Good management (running the business) takes good strategy (from the on the business perspective) and creates a business that realizes the best outcomes of the strategy.  Good outcomes don't happen by accident, or simply by having a good roadmap.  Decisions have to be made, people put into important positions, priorities set and upheld.

What's so hard about running a business

What's difficult about the third option - running a business - is that it often seems uninteresting and is considered overhead.  Great management of a company, especially a growing company, means implementing operations and tactics that feel like bureaucracy.  It means optimizing the way things work, putting in processes, getting staffing right, getting the right people in the right seats.  It can mean hard decisions that bring in new people with skills to help grow a business beyond its current state.  Good management also brings with it the sense of planning and accountability - holding people to the plans they created and ensuring that what was promised is delivered.

Running the business is often overlooked because to some degree it sits between the "on" the business strategy pronouncements and the "in" the business sense of getting things done.  Running a business seems somewhat operational, not that interesting or sexy for entrepreneurs who want to grow a business and take it public.

Which perspective matters most?

An interesting question arises:  where should executives spend their time, and how much of their time should they devote to each perspective?

I think for many executives this is a difficult decision, and in many cases they revert to form.  Entrepreneurs are often deep experts in coding or software or technology, and may prefer to spend their time "in" the business, especially where they believe their company has a competitive advantage.  In mid-sized and larger firms, many executives come from finance, so they are entranced by the numbers.  In the modern, "data driven" companies (and I put data driven in quotes because there is a lot of talk about being data driven without a lot of outcome), people become entranced by the data they get.  

Running the business requires action and decisions, placing bets and improving operations, motivating people, moving assets around.  This is a vital orchestration function, and without it, businesses reach a point where the organic nature of the business and lack of operational management hamper direction and growth.  Can these decisions be influenced by having a deep knowledge of technology, or having expertise in numbers or finance?  Of course, but each of those perspectives is limited.  Companies need management expertise and leadership beyond one business function or technical expertise.

In my mind, once a company leaves the entrepreneurial phase, executives should spend far more time on running the business and time "on" the business, leaving the "in" the business activities to those closer to product or customers.  It's difficult to say just when this shift needs to occur, but many companies that I work with suffer from too little direction, too little day to day operational management.  Executives spend too much time enthralled with data, or dividing into the business, rather than thinking about the future growth opportunities (on the business) or making the business operate more effectively.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:50 AM


Post a Comment

<< Home