Small Within Big

IStock_000002647543XSmall "We need to stay small within big." It was one of the core ideas our founder, Jerry Swartz, preached from our earliest days at Symbol, right through to the point where we had grown to be pretty big indeed (5600 associates, $1.6B top line, $4B market cap). Jerry understood that our ongoing success would depend on maintaining many of the behaviors that come naturally as a small company, but that can fall by the wayside if not continuously reenforced as an enterprise scales.

In may ways, I believe that we were quite successful in living up to Swartz's admonition. I further think this was one of the secrets of our success, and a principal reason so many of us developed and held a deep passion about working there.

Allow me to offer a few thoughts about how to stay small within big…

Keep focused externally, on what matters: customers and competition. Large companies often fall into the trap of getting all wrapped up in their own organizational matters and processes, and fail to pay attention to what's paying the bills.

When focusing on competition, work hard to ensure that your team takes success and failure as seriously as they care about their home town ball team's winning and losing.

Commit to remain responsive. Answer all calls and emails within 24 hours. Manage time effectively to allow responsiveness. Not too long ago, I called to schedule a five minute follow-up phone call with an executive at a major corporation. His assistant offered me two time slots, both six weeks into the future! I thought she was joking; I found out not, and that this sort of thing is routine there.

Use small-as-possible cross-functional teams as the basic organization building block to get things done. One of the things that brings about hardening of corporate arteries is the silo behavior that develops if most work is organized on strict functional lines. Cross-functional teams, properly managed and supported by executive management, break down silo walls. Often, small teams get more done than larger counterparts, especially when it comes to innovation.

Make sure that everyone understands not just what they're supposed to do (priorities), but why it's important (in the big picture). If not, they'll start approaching their work as "just a job", not as a passionate undertaking aimed at big things. You want to laugh at Dilbert cartoons, not become one.

Encourage experimentation and learning (especially from worthwhile failures — those with initial promise that didn't quite work out). Risk aversion is another affliction of companies that have grown too large (in their thinking and behaviors) to succeed.

Encourage unorthodox ideas (and their authors). They are often the keys to breakthrough success. Learn how to manage and nurture productive non-conformists (not easy, but important). You do not want a company of clones.

Put real energy into ensuring that there's a genuine and candid dialogue up and down and all across your enterprise. All hands meetings, online forums, management by walking around are all effective tools. Listening, genuinely listening to what your team is saying is incredibly important.

Don't forget the basic principals that keyed your success and fueled your growth to begin with. Even as you develop and deploy new strategies to address new opportunities and challenges, be careful not to forget or abandon blindly the cultural values and other foundational elements on which your early dreams were realized.

Don't forget to have fun.

Consider using Jerry's "Small within Big" phrase, it worked for us!

I'm sure that there are many other ideas, but the ones above are among those that proved successful in my personal experience. Perhaps they may be of use in yours.

Posted in Business, People, Strategy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *