‘Think’, don’t ‘do’ – why avoiding the day-to-day business can reap rewards for a small company owner

The role of an entrepreneur should be ideas generator, so it's crucial to make time to think, argues Jonathan Richards.

Why does there never seem to be enough time in the day? As entrepreneurs and small business owners we’re always busy – products to sell, problems to solve and ideas to develop. So many people demand our time that it often feels like we’re no longer in change of our own day.

Three years ago when my main business was heading into some pretty dramatic market changes, I was struggling to get to grips with how we should respond. We were busy and had plenty of exciting ideas (probably too many) but weren’t doing anywhere near enough strategic thinking. I knew that it was my job to set the strategic direction for the company but I never quite got around to doing it.

Anyone who runs their own business will know the saying ‘work on your business, not in it’ but that didn’t seem possible at the time. It all came to a head when a business coach I was working with suggested I could be neglecting my business. He convinced me that the long hours we were putting would be wasted if the company had no strategic direction.

That powerful conversation started a process that transformed my business and led to the launch of my current company. Any strategic conversations had to involve my core management team so I booked us a meeting room at a hotel in the Surrey Hills (no mobile signal and patchy wi-fi so no interruptions). We spent an initial day working with a facilitator to understand where the business was, where we were individually and where we wanted to go.

That first day didn’t achieve any where near as much as I wanted (ever the optimist) but it offered enough promise for us to repeat it two weeks later and every subsequent two weeks for around three months. Each meeting had an agenda but was unstructured enough to allow a free flow of ideas and we had a great facilitator to keep us on track. This was valuable time away from the office firefight – time to think not do. At the end of each meeting we agreed an action list with tasks like ‘explore …’, ‘research’, ‘plan’…

By the last meeting we had a clear strategic direction that everyone understood and most importantly were ‘bought in to’. I personally returned to the office with a clear understanding of where we were going and how we were going to get there.

As it turned out we didn’t follow that plan for long but it was the catalyst that led to us moving the business online and then to subsequently developing breatheHR. This past Christmas I found some of the flip chart pages from those meetings and it’s amazing how many of the idea have come to fruition. Having the space to think, let in new ideas and gave us permission to play with them for a while. The best ideas survived the attention and the others fell by the wayside.

That whole process taught me that my job in the business is to ‘think’ not ‘do’. To be good at my job I need to spend time away from the day-to-day work of the business. Our office is open plan and as I don’t believe in having a private office – I needed to find somewhere to go to think. That’s where my love of good coffee came in handy – I started booking regular time slots in my diary to visit all the local coffee shops. Armed with a latte and laptop I took time out to think, plan and ‘chew over’ what was going on. At first it felt wrong to be away from the office but pretty soon I began to feel that I was more in control.

I still take time out to think and I hope I always will; it’s made me a lot happier and the business a lot healthier. I’ve also become a firm believer in ‘changing the view’ occasionally so at our company we’ve extended this to include occasional offsite development sessions, management meetings and of course quarterly strategy sessions where we take time to review and revise our strategic direction.

Further reading on entrepreneurship

Jonathan Richards

Jonathan Richards

Jonathan Richards is an experienced non-exec director and CEO at HR software provider Breathe.

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