Monday, August 29, 2011

Vacation: A Management Tool

I'm finally back after a two month blogger's holiday. Three weeks of that was spent teaching high school students marketing and entrepreneurship. The last three weeks was spent on a family vacation overseas in Korea with no voicemail and limited email. During the last three weeks, I was pleased to find that other than a few minor issues, the office didn't fall apart and our staff did a great job of keeping clients supported in my absence.

Chalk up another win for Vacation as Management Tool.

I'm not talking about the mental health benefits of vacation downtime, which are well documented. Rather I'm referring to a practice I started years ago whereby I deliberately absented myself from my job for two to three weeks in order to test how well I had done the following:
  • Trained my staff
  • Created processes and systems
  • Delegated routine operational issues
Two to three weeks seems to be about the right time for any weaknesses in the above to show up but without letting them blow into full fledged crises.  These become targets for improvement.

As a corporate executive, I would use the vacation test to evaluate how well the managers working for me were doing.  While the first criteria was departmental performance, in my book, one of the key jobs of a manager/supervisor is how well they train their people to work without them.  Weak managers tended to be too involved in the day-to-day which deprived their people of development opportunities and left the organization vulnerable to a single point of failure (themselves).  It also limited their advancement opportunities by making it difficult to move them to new positions.  Also, I've found that if you let it, work will expand to fill all available hours;  weak managers tended to be so busy with tasks that could and should have been delegated that they never had the time needed to think about new opportunities or how things could be improved.

Now lest my startup readers think that delegation does not apply to them (after all delegation assumes that there is someone to whom work can be delegated), I would counter with this question:

"How are you expecting to scale?"

Of course the answer is you hire or you contract out.  Either way, you only scale by bringing in people...
  • do specialist tasks for which your team lacks the skills
  • do tasks that someone else can do more expertly and/or efficiently
  • unburden "bottleneck" specialists of tasks that can be done by others (usually cheaper)
When you hire you usually need to develop processes and procedures to enable them to execute and/or train them.  Then you need to delegate the job to them and figure out how to monitor the results.  This is called management* and it is harder to do than it looks.  In a startup, their never seems to be enough time to train;  it's often easier to just do the task than explain and train.  And setting up processes?  Not only is flowcharting out and documenting all the little steps time consuming, it can be BORING, especially to many entrepreneurs who enjoy the excitement of deal making and creation.  And the darn processes are constantly changing!

Nevertheless if you plan to scale, training, process development, infrastructure development, and delegation are necessary.

I run into this issue with entrepreneurs all the time.  Many startups begin with the entrepreneur and a couple of technical guys to do the development.  Initially, when cash is lacking, the entrepreneur/CEO (Chief Everything Officer) is forced to handle everything else from fundraising to key partner negotiations to bookkeeping.  But as money starts to trickle in, while some entrepreneurs can readily relinquish things they are not good at and are necessary but not generating value (e.g. bookkeeping), others have a tough time letting go.  We often have to remind the latter that the value of their enterprise is not going to depend on how detailed their bookkeeping entries are.  Rather it will depend on how well they've demonstrated product/market fit, landed paying customers, and established strategic partnerships.  Any time spent on the former rather than the latter is not time well spent.

The nice thing about Vacation as Management Tool is that if forces one to figure out how to make sure that things don't fall apart in your absence.  You actually have to do the training, establish the process, and delegate the work.  And as an added bonus, the time spent away will hopefully leave you refreshed, renewing your capacity for creative thought and new insights about your business.

*  I sometimes get the smug question from an entrepreneur "why would we ever need managers?"  My answer: "You don't provided all your people communicate with each other perfectly, they self-coordinate tasks seemlessly, all play together well, and they all know the mission and understand the implications of that mission for their own tasks."  In my 20+ years of managing people, I'm still looking for those people.

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