Shifts Happen: How to Lead In Times of Constant Change
Shifts happen in startups as often as they do in big companies, but small businesses need a different approach to handling them.
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Thanks to the pandemic, there's little doubt that things can change — and fast. Sometimes those adjustments can mean awesome opportunities, while the burst of new entrepreneurial ventures shows that it doesn't all have to be doom and gloom. But anyone who wants to survive, even in "normal" situations, has to shift. And with that comes the need for change management.
This is the process of controlling shifts in the way people in your company think and work. Most of the time, people talk about this process under the assumption that you've already got a huge workforce or customer base to consider. They talk about breaking silos between departments or how to talk about the shifts in different layers/levels of your organization.
Small companies need to be more agile and flexible simply because they don't have as much capacity to bounce back when they hit a hurdle. While larger corporations are bouncing back from COVID, for example, small and medium-sized businesses are seeing a closure rate of 22 percent, even with support like the Payroll Protection Program. And arguably, because startups make up the bulk of net new jobs, they're really the ones that drive change and set trends in the first place. So as you launch and develop your venture, it's critical that you be aware of a handful of change management fundamentals specific to small companies.
Weigh even small shifts against your goals
Lots of larger retailers reacted to the pandemic simply by expanding their existing online offerings. But if you're a small company, then you might not be able to manage both brick-and-mortar and digital shops financially, or digital might run contrary to the intimate feeling you're trying to use to connect with your base.
Because this is the time when you're solidifying your brand, understand that even small changes have the potential to take you in a different direction than you originally set out for. Lean back on your objectives and ask yourself if the change you're considering is consistent with your intent. If it isn't, then reconsider.
As an example, take Hoboken Doulas in New Jersey. The business, run by Trang Onderdonk, provides not only doula services, but childbirth and yoga classes. Traditionally, businesses in this niche rely on in-person interaction. But Onderdonk seized the opportunity to use technology to stay connected. She found that Zoom actually helped, because the video platform provided more face-to-face interaction that allowed her to form great relationships, even when physically meeting wasn't possible. The shift was consistent with her company mission of supporting women and allowed her to fulfill that goal to a higher level.
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Take a growth mindset
Most large companies still want to expand, but they usually approach change management with the idea of staying competitive, not necessarily getting there. For them, it's all about improving efficiency, going lean, and finding even more markets to tap. If something doesn't work, then they can pivot and try something else.
As a small business leader, your shifts can't be directed as much to cutting excess fat or exploring. Changes have to be growth-oriented within your selected swim lane. This means that you focus on options that can stay with you as you scale and that center on building trust with more people. It's less about specific innovations and more about enabling relationships while defining a healthy work culture.
Here, a good example is Scough, a scarf/bandana company in Brooklyn. The pandemic caused demand for their products to skyrocket, but it also disrupted the company's supply chain. In response, founder Andrew Kessler is looking into alternatives, similar to many other businesses that struggled to get materials or deliver. This shift is a temporary hassle, but exploring the alternatives will leave them with a more stable supply chain that can handle greater customer demand.
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Demand higher accountability
In big businesses going through changes, there's a huge emphasis on leaders advocating for the shifts with their whole heart. But if Boss A doesn't do a great job of this, the board can replace Boss A with Boss B. And it's more likely that you're going to have a lot of people involved with getting the change to happen.
In a small venture, people aren't as replaceable. It's more important that everyone take more accountability for their role in the shift. They have to be more proactive because no one else is going to pick up where they left off or swoop in to fix mistakes. So set a high bar when it comes to integrity and task completion.
To further improve accountability, Jigsaw Performance recommends that you clarify what each worker is accountable for, set expectations, set targets and make them public, and track progress and communicate results. Additionally, they offer five questions you can ask yourself five questions to foster accountability — you can encourage others to use them, as well:
- Have I been clear enough about my expectations?
- Have I applied any consequences for not meeting expectations?
- Have I communicated how this employee's work contributes to the success of the business?
- Have I provided the necessary tools and equipment to get the job done?
- Have I removed all of the obstacles that make it hard to get work done?
At the same time, the fact you've got fewer people on your ship means that you have to see them as human beings who are going to make mistakes. Give people positive pathways to fix the errors that happen through the shift, rather than just doling out discipline.
Large businesses that have hundreds or thousands of workers need to worry more about how to bring all of those people on board. So they have advocates who can disciple on the main leader's behalf and they focus on showing everyone how the changes will be personally beneficial to each employee.
As a small business leader, your web becomes an advantage in that everyone can align faster. You don't have to do as much work to prove to everybody that the shift is worth it for them. That means, however, that you have to be prepared to implement and be done with the change quickly. This doesn't mean that the shift necessarily is easy, because the few people you have might have a lot of work to do, and the shift you're working on might influence a lot of things for the company. But you're likely not going to have to wait as long to share information, do analyses, get approvals and so forth. Make sure that you've asked about and laid out necessary resources early so that people can jump in confidently without feeling like everything came in out of nowhere.
Look at Farmbox Direct, founded by Ashley Tyrner. During the pandemic, demand for the company's services was doubling every 24 hours. They shifted by bringing on employees from other suppliers that had been put out of work, such as people providing food in restaurants, schools and hotels. That allowed them to accommodate the immediate demand while simultaneously supporting larger community economies.
Change always has been part of business and it always will be. Lean on the above principles until you're more established. Then start implementing the more popular fundamentals oriented to larger companies to keep your business humming.
Related: Managing Change in 2021: Systems, People, and How They Must Work Together