There’s a phrase that is used by entrepreneurs and promoters of “startup culture”: You need to be working on your business, not just in your business. It’s a differentiation attributed to Michael Garber, a popular and well-recognized small business consultant.
It’s a useful point. And it’s one that is easy to lose sight of. I’ve been a consultant—and owned my own consulting company—for an astonishingly long period of time (now best measured in decades). As someone who very often gets paid based upon an hourly rate, I’ve spent many thousands of hours working in the business. Meaning, doing the revenue producing work that defines—if I can use such a term—my “job.”
I’ve also spent a good deal of time working on the business. But that is time that has ebbed and flowed. And it’s that ebb and flow that I want to talk about. And particularly, I want to talk about how it relates to you.
Now, you might not be an entrepreneur. You may not own your own business, or have any aspiration to do that. You might be gainfully employed working for an organization, and entirely happy with that reality. And that’s awesome. But what I have to say is—I’m pretty sure—going to be entirely relevant for you nonetheless.
The point of working on the business is about investing time, focus and effort on getting better at what you do. In the context of being a business owner, that’s often attributed to things like strategic planning, marketing, putting systems in place to manage the day-to-day administration. And unquestionably, if you own a business—and want to stay owning that business—it is work that you absolutely need to make happen.
There’s a greater refinement that’s possible here, though, because we can also think about working on the business as clarifying how we actually deliver our work. The way that we interact with the work. The way we approach our processes and tasks. The way that we collaborate, support and serve others.
This starts to bring in a number of other dimensions. And it highlights aspects of how we do our work that may not get a lot of thought and attention. It can be thinking about—and optimizing—the experience of our stakeholders. Making it as easy and frictionless as possible to work with us. Ensuring that the way we do our work delivers the greatest value. Finding strategies and approaches that allow us to flex and adapt so that we’re always doing our best work, no matter what the situation is. Ensuring that when we make commitments, we have confidence in our ability to follow through on them. And making sure that we do follow through on the commitments that we make.
Once you find this perspective, there’s a breadth of possibilities that present themselves for consideration. This is its own challenge, because we need to decide where to focus our attention. But my point here is that the focus isn’t narrow, and it’s not only limited to entrepreneurs and small business owners. Anyone who develops products or delivers services—and if your work doesn’t fall into one of those categories, then just what are you doing with your day?—can benefit.
What’s key to recognize is that when we’re working on the business, we’re shifting in to a different mode. It’s a different place of thinking, and it’s also a different mode of doing. It’s not getting something done that someone needs right now. It’s thinking through how we might approach differently what someone needs in the future. It’s the work that lives in what Stephen Covey—using the Eisenhower priority matrix—referred to as Quadrant II. It’s the work that’s important, but not urgent. And because it’s not urgent, we often don’t get there.
A few examples of my own experience of working on my personal business of doing might help here. A prominent one, for me, involved a transformation in how I deliver presentations. I speak a great deal in my work, and standing up in front of an audience is a normal occurrence. So I like to think that I’m pretty good at it. In many instances, what I’m presenting is an extension of the project that I happen to be working on. I’m delivering status updates, making a case for change, presenting a proposed strategy or facilitating a decision-making meeting.
Every once in a while, though, my work is the presentation. I’m not a professional keynote speaker, but I get invited somewhere between two and ten times a year to speak to an audience about a topic near and dear to my heart. And when you’re the headlining speaker for someone’s conference, you want to do a good job.
Back in 2009 (and it’s amazing to think that nearly a decade has gone by since) that found me on a plane to New Zealand. I was the keynote speaker for their national project management conference. I was presenting the results of the Value of Project Management research project, which I had co-led and had wrapped up the previous year. The research results were an in demand topic, and I had delivered dozens of presentations in the previous few months. So this should have been a straightforward exercise.
Except it wasn’t. Because a little niggling voice was prompting, “is that really the presentation that you want to deliver?” Now, to be clear, some form of that presentation was happening. There was a title that had been published, and I was being flown halfway around the world to speak on that particular topic. But how I delivered the presentation was an open question.
Part of what prompted that little voice was a book I had just finished reading. Presentation Zen is one of the best books on presentation that I have ever read. It’s a deceptively simple book. It’s not a thick book. But it’s a challenging one; challenging in that it made me completely rethink how I approach preparing for, structuring and delivering presentations. It changed how I think about story, about making sense of complex data and particularly how presentations are experienced visually.
And so I found myself on another flight, story-boarding a new version of my keynote. Once I got to my hotel room at the other end, I started building a brand new—and very different—presentation. The results of the research were firmly present, but how that research was delivered and the story that it told was very different.
That’s not to say that my presentation became a carbon-copy of what Reynold’s outlines in his book. But it took the lessons to heart, and the result is an interesting intersection of the ideas he outlines and my approach, style and presentation delivery. Look at my slides of that presentation—and many that I have delivered since—and there is a consistent look and feel that easily identifies it as being one of my presentations. But it’s one that takes a very audience-focussed approach to design and structure. The slides support the presentation, but they aren’t the focus of the presentation.
Doing this wasn’t easy. It took time and effort to rethink my presentation. It took a lot more energy and investment to rethink my presentation approach. Delivery became more challenging for me, but more relevant for my audience. My slides are now much more visual. They use a lot of pictures, and very few words. That means I need to be comfortable and confident in what I’m presenting. I need to rehearse more, and I need the structure of my presentation in my mind, because it’s not on my slides.
This highlights a really important consideration in terms of how ‘normal’ PowerPoint slides get delivered. They are often text heavy, with lots of bullet points and even more words. And what is significant about that is that the slides often are not there—and have not been structured—for the benefit of the audience. They exist as a crutch for the presenter. And on a very bad day, in a very uncomfortable presentation room, you’ll sometimes see presenters reading their slides verbatim. Word by word, and line by line. There’s a reason they call it “death by PowerPoint.”
This is a personal example of working on the business of being me and doing what I do. It’s an enduring one, in that the insights I took from Presentation Zen—and the prompt it gave me to rethink my presentation approach and the slides that accompany me—have shaped how I present ever since.
It’s also an illustration that what prompts us to work on ourselves—to improve—isn’t necessarily that we are doing something wrong. What we change might not be broken. I gave presentations before the one in New Zealand that were perfectly well received, and got me numerous compliments and accolades. They just weren’t as good as they could have been, and reading the book gave me insights on how I could make them better.
Working on the business—working on you—isn’t your only focus. It can’t be. But it’s an important one to build in, where and when it makes sense to do so. More recently, I’ve been taking the time to rethink my weekly posts, my personal web site and the mailing that accompanies it. Not because it doesn’t work, but because I’ve had thoughts about how it can be enhanced. Some of the reason for doing this is making things easier for me to manage and deliver on a weekly basis. But a lot more of the focus is on improving the experience of those who receive the mailings and read the web site.
I’ve been able to do this because I’ve been blessed (if that’s the term) with some downtime between customer commitments that let me focus my attention on it. There are enough moving parts involved that being able to dedicate attention—even if that is in reality a few hours out of a day, not whole days or weeks—allows me to get into the critical headspace to explore and play and experiment and get to a solution that I’m happy with.
One of the biggest reasons that we don’t work on the business is being able to access that headspace. It’s why we opt for the easier and more convenient routine of “because I’ve always done it this way.” Rethinking what we do—and how we do it—requires attention and time and energy and thought. It involves going to the Quadrant II space of important but not urgent. And more often than not, there is enough urgent to distract us and keep us from going there.
This means that improvement is a choice. But it’s a choice we have to carve time out for. We need to make the space, and prioritize the investment if it’s going to happen. How that works will be different for everyone, but we need to make it work. We need to make commitments—and sometimes appointments—with ourselves that place ourselves first, and that make us the priority.
We really do need to differentiate between the busy-ness of doing (the working in the business) and the investment in thinking about how and where and why we might do things differently going forward. We need to recognize the urgent priorities that demand our daily attention. But we also need to find the bandwidth and time to focus on the less urgent priorities that would make our daily doing so very much better.