Work On The Business, Not In The Business

There’s a saying among entrepreneurs that a person should work on the business, not in the business. Let that distinction sink in for a moment. It’s certainly true that managers should work on the business as their scope and span of control and influence increases. Meddling in details when you have managers reporting to you is a sure sign of someone managing the wrong problems. When we do this, we dilute our power, and we fail to capitalize the biggest opportunities.

Here Is The Problem

When we have a complex or stressful problem, it’s easy to get caught up in it and keep hacking at tree branches. Instead, we need to step back and get a view of the entire forest. Often, we’re so immersed in the specifics of a situation, we can’t see it objectively. This is all just another way of saying the oft-repeated advice to “see it from another point of view”. Unfortunately, sometimes we become so attached to the first issue or evidence we find, we can’t or won’t step away to see the entire situation. If you think this isn’t true, think about the most vexing problem you’ve ever had. How much did it “have” you emotionally, at some point before you finally solved it?

Focusing on the first symptom we see is the equivalent of bailing water when there’s a hole in the boat. When this kind of behavior becomes cultural, the people and systems around us have become so attached to the observed problem (water in the boat) they refuse to calm down and focus long enough to see the forces at play that are causing the visible symptoms (the hole in the hull). In cultural systems like this, it’s almost a certainty that this behavior  in policy and procedure, is encouraged, and even rewarded. It’s a good thing some of us are in really high margin industries!

Here Is The Opportunity

Experience has shown repeatedly that often the first identified problem is just a symptom of another problem. Six sigma practitioners will be familiar with the idea of asking “Why?” five times, to get to the root of a problem. How often do we do this in life, or even in business, where we often pride ourselves on our scientific management approach? In my experience, the management “flavor of the week” or even entire “strategic initiatives” are too often just one-off attempts to address a symptom.

Here are two examples of failure to address the real problem:

Here’s an example of someone who successfully worked “on” his business, and saw great results!

I will assert that the probability of an initiative succeeding is directly related to its relationship to the cause of the problem. People eventually get wise and cynical to the cosmetic solutions repeatedly applied to existential problems. You can fool some of the people all the time, and you can fool all the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time. Eventually they start getting wise. Others just won’t get on board with a “solution” that doesn’t address the real problem. Address the root of the problem and you’ll seize on the real opportunities!

Consider And Act

  • Share a time when you’ve seen people in organizations address symptoms (work in the business), overlooking the root cause of the opportunity.
  • Consider a time when you’ve seen people address symptoms in their personal lives, overlooking the root cause of the opportunity.
  • Share a time when you saw people effectively work on the business, and the results they achieved.
  • Share a time when you were able to successfully work on the business, and the results you achieved.
  • Consider a time when you saw people effectively work on the root cause of the problem in their personal lives, and the results they achieved.
  • Share a time when you were able to successfully work on the root cause of the problem in your personal life, and the results you achieved.

Also published on Medium.

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