The Team Inside the Machine

We are swimming in a sea of metaphors about business. Sometimes doing business is described as a war, where we invade our competitors markets and try to take their share. Companies go on the offensive or defensive. Warren Buffett seems to take this approach, and he is particularly fond of describing a business’ competitive advantage as a moat, something that holds the besieging army out and prevents them from stealing the treasure in the castle. 

Other times commerce is described as a machine (well-oiled or not depends upon the skill of the operator) that takes whatever input the situation demands and spits money out the other end, with humans somewhere along the line cranking the wheels. And of course, other individuals imbue a more moralistic mission for industry, arguing that business is a force for good, a tool to be used to solve social ills.

As metaphors are apt to do, these all build from a certain conception of business as a process with discrete functions that, given the right inputs and performances by humans, will predictably create a desired output – usually but not always money. Give soldiers weapons and vehicles and food and good orders and they will deliver victory. Give an engine gasoline and it will deliver the mechanical energy you need for transportation. If the metaphorists are correct then give a business customers and employees that know what they are doing and its functions will deliver you profit.


Four Functions for Success

The question then becomes what these functions are. At the most basic level any business should be made of four functions that mesh together in a particular order; marketing, sales, operations, and finance. Marketing brings the leads in, sales converts them into customers, operations delivers the product or service they paid for, and then finance collects the revenue (helping ensure profits after taxes).

As those in the operations world are quick to point out, everything can be viewed and managed as a process, and every process that can be optimized should be optimized. While inevitably there are exceptions in very specific situations, overall this basic conveyor belt will apply to any business and provides a useful schema when considering how to optimize your own business.

Rather than seeing each function of the business as something separate that has its own silo, strive to be aware of the interconnectedness inherent among these functions. When you are performing marketing, the goal is not to maximize leads in a vacuum, but to facilitate the journey of those most likely to stay on the conveyor belt all the way through the other three functions.

It sounds almost tautological to say that out loud, but too many business owners get stuck in an insular mindset that hampers their growth and efficiency. When we spoke about The 3 Key Roles for a Successful Business last week, we pointed out how most small business owners are technicians, not entrepreneurs.


Getting Out of Operations

As technicians, they are tempted to see the non-operational functions of their business as nuisances to be dealt with as quickly as possible so they can get back to the revenue generating, golden calf of actually doing the work. But this is precisely how you get stuck as a technician. To carry the conveyor belt metaphor forward, unless the line is constantly being replenished at the beginning, you’ll eventually work through all of your work, and then you become a scrambled marketer desperately trying to find another job, letting the process repeat itself indefinitely.

The value in treating your business’ pipeline as a conveyor belt instead of a treadmill is that you don’t have to panic and sprint up to the front of the belt to do marketing and sales once you burn through your current workload. If your business is properly running as a conveyor belt – planting customers at the front to go down the line – then even if your goal is to remain a technician doing the bulk of the work (and making really good money doing it) then the business will bring customers to you, because it is a process.

If you keep the pipeline well populated, it will take care of you, but it takes work to do this. By constantly thinking of your business as a process instead of a series of tasks, opportunities to refine the process begin to present themselves. When BIG was deciding on our ideal blog audience, we discussed using paid advertising on Facebook. But this came from a mindset of marketing for marketing’s sake. After mulling the issue over further, we realized that organically growing our audience would of course be the best way of reaching those we needed to. While getting your writing in front of as many people as possible is always an appealing thought, it has to serve the larger business process overall. Otherwise, it would just be a vain – and expensive – exercise. Thus, the analogy of using a rifle instead of a shotgun to hit your target with more precision and accuracy certainly applies!

Taking these first tentative steps towards business as a process is essential. There is no universal method or set of steps to take that will guarantee success. Of course, there isn’t – businesses are unique because they are created and operated by people. But, there are generalizations that can be made, and in the vast majority of cases a business run like a process rather than a job will be much more successful – and fun to run. Just like the metaphors people create to speak about their businesses, their companies all have individual characteristics and traits but reflect the same central truth. Only by connecting the four core functions of a business, both in your thinking and in your planning, can you achieve what all these metaphors speak to – a strong, self-sustaining organization that takes an input in, provides and output of value, and generates a profit during the process.

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