Agility is often cited as one of the key advantages small companies have over larger competitors. But small businesses can be equally slow—even if for different reasons.
While massive corporations may be weighed down by bureaucratic burdens, small companies are often stalled by a lack of quality systems. Small-by-design companies, however, strike a balance. They streamline repeatable processes, continually refining for greater efficiency without crushing creativity under over-engineered infrastructure.
True agility requires building a platform from which your team can leap and fly. And these days, whether due to an unexpected huge new project or a difficult demand to scale back, every company needs to remain agile. Below are a few playbook tips based on what I’ve learned about flexibility in business.
Establish the right roles and responsibilities.
One joy of running a small business is the collaborative nature of the work. But clear roles and responsibilities are still required for efficiency. It’s how you ensure all aspects of a client project are handled well while staying clear of competing (and confusing) decisions.
Copying the corporate org charts of others simply may not be right for you. Instead, consider what roles and responsibilities make the most sense for your company’s goals and build from there.
In the early days of my own tech-forward branding agency, I directed both design and development. But in response to Covid-19, I shifted my focus to my greatest strengths. Now I serve as Director of Strategy (we have no CEO): defining our clients’ issues, identifying solutions and bringing resources together to do the job well. Then I step back and let the rest of my small team run the show.
Since creative direction and web development are central pillars of what we deliver, those roles are prioritized in our leadership structure. However, we’re far too lean for a VP of Operations, and our finances certainly aren’t complex enough for a CFO.
Your company’s framework should reflect its unique value. Create well-defined roles to lead what matters most for success, and spare yourself the other overhead.
Standardize your systems.
Not every small business needs a plethora of standard operating procedures (SOPs). But your small-by-design company can benefit from identifying repeatable processes, then standardizing them in SOPs that manage for efficiency and reliable results.
These are particularly important should you need to suddenly scale large or small. By taking time in advance to clearly spell out what you do and how you do it, new members are easily onboarded without a ton of individual training time. Should you lose a key member, their company knowledge won’t vanish with them.
Creating SOPs also builds confidence. Though you’ll revisit them as you evolve, systems ensure everyone knows where the ship is headed and how best to steer it.
Streamline staffing and training.
As a small-by-design business, you won’t hire and train hundreds of people. But you will acquire both employees and contractors, either temporary or permanent. So consider how to identify the qualities and experience needed for these additions. Decide early on where you’ll find them and how they will be selected and trained.
At my agency, for example, I don’t frequently hire people. But in preparation for those occasions, my creative director and I spent days of dedicated time to fully articulate our agency’s culture, values and methods.
Now when someone is onboarded, we hand them what emerged from those in-depth discussions, plus our SOPs. It may seem like a lot of work for an agency hiring only one to two new people per year, but as a result, new teammates don’t have to infer our culture and values from day-to-day encounters. Their full integration is greatly accelerated because it’s already been spelled out. In a world of increasing remote and hybrid work, this has become an even more effective and efficient method.
Develop your digital infrastructure.
My agency brings digital acumen to building brands that work, but I firmly believe that businesses largely succeed or fail based on the quality of their ideas and the capabilities of their people. However, even if technology is not the primary competitive edge for your small-by-design business, digital infrastructure can either empower or impede your best ideas.
What you need will vary widely, depending on your work. Perhaps a basic website with a contact form, reliable email and some simple cloud storage are all you require. Maybe your business could benefit from much more.
The key is to assess your present needs and anticipate how those may change as you scale to bigger opportunities. Then invest in quality digital infrastructure before those most challenging opportunities come along.
Nurture relationships before you need them.
Even in ordinary times, the work of any business depends on strong relationships. You rely on your banker and maybe the print shop down the street. You depend on city services and perhaps the coffee shop downstairs. A caterer, an ad rep, an office supply store. The co-work space you use for an office.
Some of these relationships will become even more important when a sudden challenge or opportunity comes your way. You’ll need responsive partners you can call in with urgency and trust they’ll get the job done.
These relationships cannot be cultivated in a crisis. No one wants a new friend who immediately asks for a difficult handout. So consistently nurture connections well before they’re needed. Send a spontaneous thank you gift, get to know the staff, celebrate their triumphs—smaller personal details will pay off greatly in the end.
Incorporate the full toolbox for success.
The future is uncertain. But even if you don’t yet see huge growth or radical shrinkage on the horizon, our times prove it’s important to be prepared to adapt rapidly (even if temporarily) to meet demands. I talk more about the “how” behind all of this in my new book Small by Design, releasing in May. For now, whatever may come, a solid foundation for flexibility will help you evolve for success.