How to hold onto the magic as your business grows

In 2010, IBM released the results of a study of the world’s top CEOs. They wanted to find out what the most pressing issues were for business leaders. And the results were pretty surprising. The number one skill they were looking for from their employees turned out to be creativity. Not time-keeping or salesmanship or efficiency. These big corporations wanted their workforce to be able to come up with ideas. 

That certainly surprised me.

To understand why this was their biggest concern, we need to take a step back and look at the natural life-cycle of a company.

The early days of most businesses are highly creative. Your energy goes into shaping your products, creating your brand, bringing in business, working out what makes you different from the competition and hundreds of other things. Everything you do here is about creating the very essence that makes your business special. It’s an exciting and magical time.

But once you’ve found that essence, your business goes into a new stage. Your focus shifts from creativity to systemisation. The business now needs to work out how to reproduce its offering as predictably as possible. It’s about getting the good stuff out of the founders’ heads and turning it into a business algorithm that can scale.

And then the last step is optimisation. Once you’ve got a system in place, the company’s focus switches to efficiency. If you can cut costs by doing things faster, using fewer people, at a larger scale and with better-negotiated contracts, you’ll naturally increase your profits. All the effort goes into small incremental gains. Changes within this finely-tuned system can screw everything up, so the corporate antibodies destroy anything new or different.

And this final optimising stage is where these big companies exist. Their focus is on efficient replication not on creative origination. Like oil and water, these two things just don’t mix. But because these corporate megasaurs are getting increasingly worried about nimble startups eating their lunch, they know they need more creativity if they want to survive the storm. And by that, I assume they mean they need more ideas, more flexibility and more innovation. That’s something they often struggle with themselves. (I should know because many of them call on me to help them).

Of course, not all companies fall into the rigid trap these businesses find themselves in. Some of them continue to grow and innovate and evolve over time. But it’s best to bake this attitude in from the start. And you need to make a conscious effort to hold onto it when you move into the systemisation phase and again when you move into the optimisation phase. Because, if you don’t, it’s hard to get it back.

Here are some things to build into your business from the very beginning.

Schedule time to think beyond the short-term

It’s easy to get caught up in issues like cashflow, logistics, new business and other pressing considerations. I’ve run my own business, so I can sympathise. But if you place your entire focus on the now, you’ll always be reacting and firefighting. Schedule regular time to think about the future and adjust your direction. Even established companies can benefit from the occasional pivot.

Always have a big goal to head towards

If your goal is simply quarterly profits, you’ve lost your soul. Your goal should be a vision that you’re collectively trying to achieve. Your goal is what keeps you striving and keeps your staff on track. It’s what makes things worthwhile and keeps your eye on what’s important.

Ask your employees how you can do better

When a company grows, the captain at the helm becomes further and further removed from the day to day operations. So, if they’re not careful, their decision-making becomes less effective and relevant over time. To counter this, Toyota created a brilliant program that asks their staff for suggestions on how they can improve. Not only does it allow every part of the business to be improved but it also makes everyone feel involved in the organisation. And that’s massively powerful.

Of course, there are different ways of holding onto your magic. But it always comes down to keeping a balance between doing and thinking. It will vary according to your industry, your company structure, your size and all sorts of other factors. Your investors will likely encourage you to concentrate fully on the doing, the systemising and the scaling. Naturally. That what’s likely to lead to the speedy financial returns they’re after. But in today’s ever-evolving business climate, that’s the very approach that could lead to a dramatic disappearing act somewhere down the line.

Or at the very least some vanishing coins.

Dave Birss is the co-host of the “ultimate anti-conference”, the Fast Forward Forum, due to run in Venice on 6th to 8th October 2019. For more details visit

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