The most valuable companies get good at doing one or two things really well. Southwest Airlines, for example, flies only one type of plane. Their mechanics get really good at fixing 737s, and when something breaks, they always have the spare parts they need. Southwest pilots master their controls, and their ground staff can turn planes over faster than anyone else in the industry. Not surprisingly, Southwest has been the most profitable airline in the United States for decades.
But does all that focus come at the expense of the satisfaction of their employees? Isn’t doing one thing over and over again kind of boring?
Mental vacations for your mind
Have you ever noticed that you get some of your best ideas in the shower? Every morning, you’re stuck there for a few minutes doing something you’ve done since you were a child. Your mind knows it has a couple of minutes to think.
Employees get the same mental holiday when you specialize in offering one thing and then give them a formula for routine tasks.
Ethos3 is a Nashville-based design company. They specialize in creating PowerPoint and Keynote presentations. Doing just one thing allows them to systematize their processes much more efficiently than most other design firms. They have a standardized business development method. It’s a templated proposal that includes the number of slides you’ll get, the number of revisions, and the pricing formula. For project management, they use Basecamp. Again, there’s a set of templates for each stage of the development process, and the project delivery approach is the same every time. It’s a recipe - just add water.
I asked Ethos3 founder and CEO Scott Schwertly if his firm is too boring. His response: “It's our boring processes that enable us to focus more on the creative and the art of presentations, rather than [getting trapped in] the ‘what do we need to do next’ mentality. Simply, our routines compounded over an extended, predictable, boring cycle allow us to achieve some amazing creative results.”
When you give people a procedure to follow for the boring stuff, they can stop worrying about what to do and pour their creative talent into how to do it. Ethos3 has finished second in the World's Best Presentation Contest, and Apple pioneer Guy Kawasaki is among its fans. (My company, Sellability Score, is also a customer).
As entrepreneurs, it’s easy to assume that everyone likes the adventure of bushwhacking their way through life, not knowing what’s around the next bend. In fact, a lot of your employees would prefer some consistency and structure.
Systems are not the enemy of creativity. And author and consultant Kathy Kolbe has developed a personality test that proves it. The so-called Kolbe Index ranks users on four personality attributes.
Fact Finder describes the extent to which someone likes gathering data before making decisions
Follow Through measures how much someone likes systems, structure and routine
Quick Start quantifies one’s inclination to start new things
Implementer measures one’s knack for building stuff
Kolbe’s test shows that we all have a little bit of each attribute, yet we all also have a dominant operating style. Most entrepreneurs score high on “quick start” and low on “follow through.” It’s a classic combination. Most of us love starting things but quickly tire of the details.
Most of your employees will score higher than you on follow through, which means they need more structure to thrive. They may also score higher than you on fact finder, suggesting they need more data than you would before making a decision.
Specializing, and giving your team standard procedures, gives your employees the mental breathing room they need to do their best work.