Earlier this year, I was approached by the owner of a small environmental consulting firm that had started small, but had recently experienced rapid growth. They had won a few large contracts in a short period of time and had hired new employees accordingly, moving from a staff of just one to seven full- and part-time consultants, with all of them working in different combinations and on several projects simultaneously.
While the owner and founder of the company was thrilled by this success, she started to feel that her control over the various aspects of the business was slipping, like she was driving a car with neither a firm grip on the steering wheel nor a sure footing on the pedals.
Like most small businesses just starting out, my client devoted the vast majority of her time and resources to business development during the first year. Once the firm won its first contract, most of that energy was directed to building a top-notch team, completing project work, and managing client relations. Because the business was only two or three people at that point, there wasn’t much need to think about operational systems and processes; everyone just did whatever needed to be done, and communication among such a small team was easy.
Now about three years in, my client realized that between managing multiple projects, overseeing the work of several teams, handling administrative tasks, attending and following up on networking opportunities, and working on business development and strategy, the time had come to think about how things should function -- about what she wanted her infrastructure to look like and how her business operations should function.
She had a long and constantly growing list of tasks on her to-do list, including changes she wanted to implement, but she didn’t know where or how to begin.
Imagine you’re starting a jigsaw puzzle. The first step is to dump out all the pieces, and then to spread them out and turn them all right side up, so they’re no longer an unorganized heap.
The same goes for the operational needs assessment I conduct with my clients: we need to examine and organize all of the ideas, overlooked business functions, needs, and to-do list items. We needed to get them out of the owner’s head -- like dumping out the box of puzzle pieces -- and onto paper, where they can be organized, prioritized, and implemented.
For this client, we started listing out all the pieces of information using multi-colored post-it notes and whiteboards. Our first priority was to list all the important business activities and functions. Next, we did a few visual and mapping exercises to answer two big questions:
How are things working now? What works and what doesn’t? And where does she have ideas that she hasn’t gotten around to implementing?
How should things work in the future? When she closes her eyes and envisions the ideal version of her business, one that’s perfectly run, what does that look like? What functions will she be spending her time on? What problems are no longer occurring?
Going back to the puzzle analogy, the first question is like turning the puzzle pieces over and spreading them out so you can see them all. The second question is like looking at the picture on the box and developing a strategy to sort the pieces, such as separating out the edges of the puzzle and anchoring the corners.
The next step, and my role in the process, was the needs assessment. I looked at all the information from the first two steps and started to sketch out a plan to get the business from its current place to their ideal vision. I had in essence been grouping the puzzle pieces by color and pattern, so it became clear how to go about assembling them into a complete puzzle.
The end result of the needs assessment was a report detailing all of the different actions and steps needed to start building her ideal vision for her business. I also provided recommendations for how she could start implementing these actions internally, and suggested areas where additional outside expertise could be useful.
When the needs assessment was done, the client had a blueprint to start putting the pieces of her operational infrastructure puzzle together. The report helped her realize what systems were needed first and what skills and capabilities she needed to build or strengthen within her team. She realized she would need to bring a full-time operations manager on board sooner than expected to keep up with the pace of growth.
There was still a lot of work to be done, but it no longer felt like a huge mess. She had an end goal, and a path to get there.