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How to Start Working “On” Your Business, Not “In” It
Written by John Hernandez12/07/2020

How to Start Working “On” Your Business, Not “In” It

There are generally two ways to run a business. Working “in” it keeps you busy, but entrenches you in the day-to-day operations and the anxiety that comes along with it. Working “on” the business gives you leverage and control, providing you with the ability to direct your business like a sailor does his ship.

So why aren’t we all choosing to work on our business instead of in it? Because our business naturally demands our short-range attention. It needs us. It calls for us when there is a problem. But much of these demands, especially time-sensitive ones, can be planned or anticipated through a better process.

“…a business doesn’t have to operate with us chasing the wind.”

Just like what Stephen Covey shows us in his quadrant in the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a business doesn’t have to operate with us chasing the wind. Covey’s quadrant shows us that some things can be handled today, and others can be rescheduled for another time. The message? Priorities mean everything. And that’s why taking a step back and weighing in on what matters most can be the most effective thing you can do for the business.

The best way we can explore how we can begin to transition to working “on” our business is by studying what it takes to do it and some practical steps that will move us forward.

The Problem with Working “In” Your Business

Many leaders struggle with reminding themselves that they are in control of their business, not the other way around. Without clear boundaries, processes, and a high-performance focus, anyone is vulnerable to letting their business control them.

When we work “in” a business, we can put our company in danger. Our views become narrowed to what is in front of us. We miss opportunities to grow and expose it to threats hanging in our peripheral.

For example, Blockbuster needed short-term gains. They were focused on what was in front of them. With time, they developed their business model on making a large chunk of their revenues on late fees. They were making money by punishing their customers.

A young man offered Blockbuster his fledgling startup. It was a video rental service designed for the customers, the way they preferred. Blockbuster didn't see the value in it. That tiny startup became what we know today as Netflix while Blockbuster went bankrupt. Netflix saw the big picture. Blockbuster was focused on keeping their old business model, even if it meant the death of them.

The best thing we can take from this story comes from the leaders behind the Swiss Army Knife. After 9/11, travel restrictions banned their famous knife. This was a real problem considering it made the majority of their sales. Instead of fighting for that product, they decided to focus on outdoor gear. Today, the knife only makes a portion of the sales and now the company is the most diverse and healthiest it’s ever been. The leader behind it said, “We think in generations, not quarters.”

When Working “In” Your Business, You Can Expect…

  • Narrow views (what you see in front of you)
  • Low employee engagement (they are just trying to keep up)
  • Absence of the "Big Picture" due to the presence of current challenges
  • Absence of long-term planning
  • Lack of continued education and progress
  • Stunted company growth
  • Low employee/owner morale and high levels of anxiety

Here are some ways we can transition to working “on” our business.

Step Back from the Day-to-Day

When we take a step back from what's going in front of our eyes, we get the chance to see the bigger picture. This isn't a reason to become absent, far from it. It's about empowering the team around you to make it possible for you to truly lead. You are still in the trenches, but now you have a team on the frontline.

So how do we empower a team to lead the day-to-day operations? Our first instinct is to delegate. But when we give people tasks, it’s very rare for them to take ownership, freely think and innovate. The best way to create a team that can operate your day-to-day better than you can is by giving away authority, not roles.

When we train someone, provide boundaries, give them room to fail, and let them innovate and lead in their responsibilities, we create a high performing team.

Keep it Lean so You Can Focus on The Big Picture

When we measure our results effectively, we can innovate and plan ahead. Measuring might be a strong suit for your company, but consider all areas, like how 44% of businesses can’t measure their impact on social media. If we can find ways to measure everything we do, we can better predict the future of our company.

Eric Ries’s book, The Lean Startup, provides us with a way we can produce effective innovation and measure its ROI. He gives us his methodology which is Build => Measure => Learn. This constant cycle holds companies accountable for everything they do. They build something, measure its results, and learn if it's effective or not. Then they build again based on what was learned, repeating the cycle.

When we take a step back from day-to-day operations, we can analyze what’s working, or not, and what needs improvement.

See from Your Customers’ Perspective

The biggest negative consequence of not working "on" our business is the danger of neglecting the true experience our customers go through with our product or service. Do we really know what customers experience? This is the best way to find areas of improvement for your company and the value it provides.

Richard Branson is famous for his obsession with his customers. It's why he discreetly flies on his Virgin Atlantic in the main cabin to understand what customers experience. He uses these moments to find the small annoyances, opportunities, and authentic feedback he can utilize for better ideas and innovation.

When we find ways to see from our customers’ perspective, we choose to build a business for the future.

Focus on Your Strengths

As leaders in your companies, it’s easy to want to do everything, or try to improve your areas of weaknesses. These are good things, but too much of it can distract you from the future of your business. If you focus on your strengths, you can take your business to a new level. It saves you time on trying to improve in areas you aren’t too good at, and instead, gives you more time to multiply your giftings.

When we transition to focusing on strengths, we empower our team and company. Surround yourself with people who complement your weak areas. This builds a better company.

Leadership expert, John Maxwell, tells us that in this day and age, we need to learn to get better, faster. By focusing on our strengths, we can accomplish the right goals. Teams that make a good fit will allow you to lead your business effectively.

Wayne Cordero is credited with developing the 5% rule. He says, 85% of what you do anybody can do; 10% of what you do, anyone who is trained can do; and 5% of what you do only you can do. Focus on spending the majority of your time on the 5%.

Define Your WHY and Stick with It

A popular culprit with leaders getting stuck working “in” their business is forgetting their Why. Simon Sinek made this concept popular in his TED Talk and book, Start with Why. When we don’t know our why, we commit to things or try to solve what seems like time-sensitive tasks, when in reality they shouldn’t have the priority at all.

If your company sells software for the medical industry, what are you selling? Your “what” is software, your “how” is providing great solutions for the industry to make things easier, but “why”? More and more, people are attracted to buying your "why" than anything else.

In this case, your "why" could be, changing the medical industry so that health professionals can create a better experience for their customers and save lives. If that company puts this why front and center, you can imagine how much their daily decisions will be affected by it. "Does this fall in line with our Why?”

Find your Why and stick with it when deciding what takes priority, what should be pursued and what represents who you are.

Simplify and Use the Right Tools

Technology moves fast. And for some, it’s tempting to try everything or try nothing at all. Both can cause real damage to a company. It can be a distraction if you use too much technology and a chunk of your job might be trying to catch up. Not growing in the right tools will also leave your company behind.

Choosing technology that is essential and that promotes simplicity will always give you better control over the company.

Tools like Profit Frog allow you to measure with visual modeling and scenario planning, allowing you to compile, compare and contrast complex business scenarios quickly and effortlessly. This can lead to actionable goals and planning for the future. By using tools that make your business better, you can facilitate future growth.

When it comes to transitioning from working “in” your business to “on” your business, start with these areas. When you can take a step back and direct the future of your company, your growth opportunities multiply.

Imagine, instead of worrying about getting your short-term goals accomplished, you can instead walk around your building or speak to your clients, and begin planning a course for future success. When that happens, you'll go from running a company to building a business for generations.