Starting or growing a business is tough. Day-to-day pressures can often drain the energy of the owner managers and over time they may even lose sight of why they went into business in the first place.

The key to success is to ‘step back to step up’ and to embrace more strategic and more effective ways of working. Taking some time away from the day-to-day pressures is critical and we all need some time out to think. Often, the office is not the best place to think, so schedule a few hours out to start thinking about bigger issues.

It all starts with you

The best way to start is to forget about your business entirely – at least for a moment – and to think about your personal or family objectives and the life you want to live. Key questions to address include:

  • What lifestyle do you want in the next 3 – 5 years?
  • How important are relationships, family and friends?
  • Where do you want to live?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • How much money do you need or want to be happy and meet your goals?

There are no right answers here. Charles Handy, the Irish born author and philosopher, popularised the idea of a portfolio life in his 1989 book The Age of Unreason, this involved “setting aside 100 days a year for making money, 100 days for writing, 50 days for what I consider good works, and 100 days for spending time with my wife.”

Personal objectives are exactly that, personal. So think about what is right for you.

Put your business in its place

Once you have a clearer view of your personal objectives, the next step is to establish how your business will help you to achieve these goals.

The more basic questions include:

  • What income do you want from your business, by when?
  • What sales or outcomes – e.g. strategic exit – does the business need to achieve to deliver this income, by when?

You also need to ask if you are you planning to run this business forever? If not, what are your exit routes? Do you want to sell the business? Step back from the day-to-day operations and act as the owner? Or hand it over to your kids? Your answer – and the time scale – is important and there will be different pathways to each of these end points.

Find the ‘You are here’ arrow

If you are hiking in a forest park, you might check a map to see where you are – find the ‘You are here’ arrow – where you want to go and the track to get there. In business, it is also a good idea to check the map.

For startups, the typical map or growth pattern passes through what is called the Valley of Death:

Valley of death

Source: Osawa and Miyazaki, 2006

The key is to step back and understand the big picture and how to get out of the ‘Valley of death’ and up the curve to success.

Established companies also need to figure out where they are on the growth curve and figured out how to move up the curve.

Sketch out your business roadmap

Gap Analysis is a very simple and useful technique to show your current business position and where you want to be. Typically, a small number – e.g. 3 to 5 – of well-executed strategies will fill the gap.

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You don’t need an 80-page business plan to figure out where you are going. A business roadmap can be a single graphic showing the key phases of growth, activities, milestones and targets. Alternatively, a set of around 10 PowerPoint slides can be developed and used to pitch the business to investors or just to communicate the direction. Gary Kawasaki provides an example format for a pitch deck in the Art of the Start. 

Making it happen

‘How did it get so late so soon?’ Dr. Seuss 

Time flies in all businesses, the trick is to make it count. Again it helps, to ‘step back to step up’ and this means building in time to think and focus. This can be done on a daily basis – check out the Pomodaro technique that uses a timer to break down work into intervals of 25 minutes.

Tom Potter, entrepreneur and founder of Eagle Boy Pizzas in Australia, said one of the keys to his success was that some days he didn’t go into the office until 10am so he could have time to think about the business. Try this or at least block out time in your diary for time to think.

Beyond this tactical emphasis, businesses at all stages can benefit from regular time out or focus sessions which could involve taking a day out every two months or quarterly to get out of the office and assess current position, where you want to be and how to get there. These focus sessions can be held anywhere and can help build the team and business culture.

Stafan Sagmaiser runs a design studio in New York. Every seven years he closes the studio and takes a year off to try different things. You can hear him talk about the benefits here in his TED talk – The Power of Time Off.

Taking time to step back also involves identifying what you should stop doing, things to outsource, developing better systems, supporting and enabling your team to achieve their potential and enjoying the journey of building a good business.

Colin Graham, Causeway Innovation.

E: cgraham@causewayinnovation.com