Advice for leaders of SMEs – be agile

Many leaders of small firms focus on making their business work efficiently and on delivering high-quality customer service. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these objectives.  They are both essential aims. However, if they lead to rigidity and the exclusion of variation then they can undermine the key advantage that small businesses have over large businesses – agility.

If you run a small business then your large competitors can outspend you. They have more resources than you do.  But they cannot move as quickly as you can.  The great thing about running a small business is that you can have a new idea today, try it tomorrow and see the customer reaction the next day.  If it works you can reinforce and develop it.  If it does not work then you can adapt it or drop it. You can introduce innovations in products, services, messages and methods more quickly and more easily than your larger competitors.  Typically they have to go through layers of committees and approvals before they can bring a new concept to market.

So by all means focus on efficiency, customer service, operational excellence and so on.  Make the current business model work better.  But at the same time allocate some time, money and people to experimentation. Try some wacky ideas and quickly gauge customer reaction to them.  You should try several new ideas every month.  Many might flop but that does not matter.  Some will have a small benefit and should be retained.  But if you keep doing this then every so often you will hit a home run – a really great and novel idea that customers love.  That then is your opportunity to really accelerate the growth of your business by seizing a new market opportunity.

Here are some ways to increase your agility:

1. Set a target for the number of new initiatives you want to try over the next 12 months

2. Ask your staff, your customers and your suppliers for ideas to improve your product or service

3. Run regular brainstorm meetings with specific objectives relating to innovation

4. Allocate a small budget for prototypes and experimentts

5. Give people time and space to innovate – empower them to try new things.

6. Celebrate success, learn from failure, punish inaction

Paul Sloane

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