Lesson 4 - Removing Yourself as the Bottleneck | 20 Years, 20 Lessons

Lesson 4 - Removing Yourself as the Bottleneck | 20 Years, 20 Lessons

January 13, 2022

To celebrate our 20th year of business, Mytech is looking back on what we’ve learned over the past two decades. 

Most small businesses never expand beyond 20 team members. There are many pitfalls to growth, but one of the most daunting is overreliance on the business owner(s). We asked Nate, our Co-Founder and VP of Business Development, to talk about how he and Mytech’s other founders learned to let go of the reins and grow past owner-led everything.

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You can’t be everyone’s boss.

Once you’ve got more than a few team members, there just aren’t enough hours in the day. And while most owners recognize and acknowledge the dangers of micromanaging individual team members, they often fall into the “owner-led” trap of structuring the business around themselves, long after doing so has become unwieldy.

As Mytech grew, we became increasingly aware of this problem. Projects became inefficient, progress was slow, and everything seized up, because our process funneled too much important work into a single workflow labeled “Pending Owner Approval.” Everyone was waiting for us to greenlight their projects and changes, instead of feeling trusted to carry out Mytech’s work themselves. And as a result, our growth stagnated, and we got stuck in a rut, doing what we’d always done instead of bigger and better things.

 

Micromanaging instead of delegating

When we founded Mytech, the process was much simpler. All of the founders worked together in close proximity, so we knew each other’s workstyles and projects. If we needed to collaborate with someone, it was as simple as turning to them. The others would get looped in on the conversation automatically, because we were all within earshot in the same room. And everything passed across our desks, because there was nobody else to do the work.

As we grew and added more people, that “same room” mentality remained. Any miscommunications were easy to fix because, for now, we all worked together in the same space. The additional team members took some tasks off our plates, but we were still plenty involved in their work. After all, we were right there anyway, so we could advise on how we’d done that project in the past. But underneath that setup, we were unconsciously structuring the business around us as the only ones who could actually make any decisions.

The problem started to become truly apparent when we hit about 20 team members. By that point, we had become the bottleneck for everything. Projects couldn’t move forward until we’d approved them. Managers didn’t feel empowered to guide their direct reports unless we were signing off. Mytech’s owners couldn’t always be in the room for every important conversation. But since it was the only method we knew, we kept trying to make it work – clinging to an outdated system that required our interaction and a ton of extra work, frustrating both us and the rest of the team.

Investing time to clarify onboarding

Our problem was clear: Mytech’s owners couldn’t oversee everything directly anymore, so we had to establish policies that allowed others to make decisions aligned with Mytech’s philosophy. This was hard to do deliberately, because we were so comfortable in our “same room” habits: we were accustomed to organically training new team members on our values & strategy by proximity, without stopping to put extra effort into it.

But as the teams grew larger, we just couldn’t directly train everyone, and as a result they wouldn’t always learn those aspects of Mytech’s vision and philosophy automatically. The end result was a team that could do the job skills-wise, but felt obligated to consult the owners on anything new instead of feeling informed enough to make those decisions.

To solve this, we had to slow down and take the time to properly explain Mytech’s decision-making process as part of our onboarding. It wasn’t just about on-the-job training: we had to clarify our values, our go-to-market strategy, and our underlying philosophy about our work. And it wasn’t just a single training session, either: we had to establish several milestones to check in on progress, and ensure that each new team member was learning more than just the everyday details of their own responsibilities.

Defining duties & responsibilities

However, that doesn’t mean everyday responsibilities were easy to set either. With such a large team, we would exhaust ourselves (and everyone else!) if we tried to micromanage their workloads. But how could we make sure they knew their tasks, if we weren’t directly assigning them?

Once again, the solution came down to spending the time to train and explain. It might have felt “faster” to manage workloads on the fly ourselves, because making a single decision seems faster than establishing a complex process to make decisions on your behalf. But in reality, we were simply making everyone wait for us to make dozens of “quick” decisions each time.

Even though it took more upfront time to establish clear definitions, expectations, and requirements for each role in our organization, we saved far more time and energy on the backend. Our team members were no longer battling ambiguity in every decision, and were able to act with a clear understanding of what was expected from them. We remained connected to the process, of course, and could advise a manager or team member whenever necessary. But when the day-to-day process was no longer dependent on our decisions as owners, we could focus on tasks that actually required our unique roles and skillsets.

Prioritizing and tracking progress via metrics

Even after we removed ourselves from these day-to-day operations, though, we needed a way to track overall progress and help clarify when necessary. As owners, we wanted to track the company’s operations to determine any big-picture patterns, miscommunications, or needs, especially because we could no longer sit in a single room and learn about everything going on. And because we didn’t have that “finger on the pulse” of the business anymore, there was a serious risk that we’d get antsy off of a gut feeling that “something” was wrong, and insert ourselves needlessly.

The answer to this uncertainty was refining our use of metrics. Even though “metrics” can be an uncomfortable topic to team members or even owners, they don’t have to be. Metrics are simply clear expectations for a role or team. By setting these expectations in a constructive environment, owners can help their teams distinguish between “business as usual” and “headed for trouble.” Instead of relying on a gut feeling for whether or not an operation has encountered a problem, owners will have an established and reliable measurement that tells them whether to get involved or not. Done properly, metrics will improve clarity for team members, help them prioritize, and reduce micromanagement instead of increasing it!

Metrics are so useful, in fact, that every role should use them, in some mixture of quantitative and qualitative. By using humanized, realistic measurements, a team member or manager can track progress and effectiveness according to each specific role. Think of metrics as lane-change alerts in newer vehicles: they tell you if something is drifting off course, and how seriously, but you and your team are still empowered to course-correct in the manner you think most appropriate.

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Even with all of these improvements, Mytech still encounters plenty of hurdles, and our operations can still get off track. This is the nature of every business! However, by improving our employee orientations, assigning roles & responsibilities more deliberately, and tracking with metrics instead of gut feelings, we have equipped our staff to make confident decisions on the hundreds of minor decisions required to do their daily work, even when the owners aren’t in the room.

Of course, some decisions will always rely on a business’s owners. But thanks to this new approach, we can actually focus on those decisions, instead of spinning our wheels trying to do our team members’ jobs for them. The rest of the team can focus on their responsibilities and make decisions informed by Mytech’s values, feeling empowered by us rather than micromanaged! As a result, we’ve grown beyond that daunting barrier of 20 employees – in fact, today our team is over four times that number, working in both Minnesota and Colorado towards providing the best IT experience in North America.

 

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