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Designing your business to test the boundaries of change

The business world is changing rapidly – and companies failing to test the boundaries of change will soon struggle to compete.
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Facebook and Google are becoming jack-of-all-trades and the smallest firms are establishing a niche as a unique identity. Like an hourglass, companies that don’t fit into either camp, will struggle to compete if the boundaries of change aren’t tested.

So how can bosses adapt to the new state of play, and design their companies for growth? One way is to start by thinking of businesses as living entities, with people at the core. Smaller businesses may not always have the luxury of time and process to provide people with space and responsibility, but it’s by truly empowering and enabling people that great things happen.

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The smaller the business, the more its purpose becomes the uttermost motivating factor, but we’ve seen that spiral into toxicity in some recent Silicon Valley examples – not just Uber. By thinking of a “living business” we can avoid this.

Although it sounds like a step into the world of science fiction, the idea of a living business can provide more freedom for your products, services and structure to evolve over time as your people adapt and grow, finding the right ways for strategy to evolve and find new solutions.

Taking stock of your business’ vital signs

To understand how a business acts as a living entity, testing the boundaries of change as it grows, let’s think about how we measure its vital signs. These are the characteristics that define your business from others in its sector or industry, and can track how healthy the company is at any moment. These vital signs include:

Personality: What’s the purpose and the values of the organisation – the things that draw people to work for you, people to buy from you?
Instinct: How does the business make decisions and collaborate – not the processes but the cultural ‘way of doing things’ that you can rely on?
Craft: How much does the organisation value its people’s talents, skills and inputs?
Relationships: How does the business interact with its customers, employees and partners?

Understanding a company’s personality is the first step in recognising the rest of its vital signs, building its identity and testing the boundaries of change. For example, Uber defined its business mission as “to give you your time back”; meanwhile, Snapchat claims to be “a camera company”. The definitions may appear broad, but these mission statements allow these firms to rapidly expand and evolve with the needs of customers because there is no defined direction of travel.

From this emanate the types of relationships we want to have with customers, employees and suppliers. Then comes ways of working – instinct – that try to bring that personality to life, from small office management questions through to strategic objectives. This in turn applies to how you nurture and build craft.

Great examples include the employee value proposition at AirBnB, a now-famous focus on employee wellbeing and productivity that has direct links to top and bottom line growth. Another is the way FedEx is introducing EQ training for all managers, or Doubletree by Hilton empowering its front-line staff in new ways.

Learning from your employees to bring these vital signs to life

The vital signs are starting points to help map out the soul and structure of a business, but the people who bring functions, products and ideas to life are truly what enables you to test the boundaries of change. Just like any living thing, a business will not grow without a healthy heart.
It may sound unintuitive to design around your team, rather than around your customers. But teams won’t perform at their best without care and investment.

It allows a business to adapt on the fly, as you continue to support your team’s growth and help them do their jobs even better. Focussing on your employees to shape the company also empowers customer-facing teams to excel in their roles and take pride in the work they’re doing. They’ll empower the business’ instinct, craft and relationships, shaping how it will react in real-time to the world around it.

Abbie Walsh is group director of Fjord

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As the champion of UK enterprise for 20 years, Real Business is the most-read SME website dedicated to high-growth businesses and entrepreneurs. Through daily news, unique insight and invaluable guides we are an essential resource for thriving businesses.

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