You've heard the saying "as busy as a bee", right? We've all seen them; especially in summer the bees are out, flitting from one flower to the next, and if you're close enough you can see the pollen building up on their legs and the magic of pollination taking place right before our eyes. Their main job is to collect nectar in their honey stomachs, which they will take back to the hive, pass it on through their mouths to other worker bees who will chew it, eventually storing it in honeycomb cells. It takes at least eight bees all their lives to produce about a teaspoon of honey.
Building a business can feel just as busy as bees collecting nectar. You have a million things to do, from marketing and sales to business development, delivering your products and services, keeping your admin up to date and dealing with suppliers. Especially in the early stages of a business it can feel that there is so much to do that you can't decide what to focus on - and sometimes this gets so bad we get overwhelmed.
But in reality, right now, there is only one thing holding you back; only one thing that you need to do to move your business forward.
The Theory of Constraints
In his 1984 book The Goal, Eli Goldratt introduced a management philosophy called the Theory of Constraints. Originally applied to the manufacturing world, Goldratt adapted the theory for project management and published a book in 1997 called Critical Chain to explain this.
The central tenet of the Theory of Constraints (TOC) is as follows:
In any system, there is only one constraint that determines the throughput of the system
I first learnt of the Theory of Constraints in about 2004 and it became one of the key tools we would use to design high-throughput systems for clients in the broadcast TV space. Since then, I've used it with numerous clients across a variety of industries, and even to helping small businesses design their overall businesses.
It turns out that the Theory of Constraints is particularly useful in small businesses.
Your business as a system
When you're small - a solopreneur, freelancer or small business owner - a lot of the work in your business has to be done by a small number of people. Sometimes that number is as small as one.
In many ways, you are the constraint in your business (because you have to do everything), but when you stand back and think of your business as a system, where marketing generates leads, leads have to be nurtured, sales have to be made and so on, you can probably see where your constraints are very quickly. That is because your business can be viewed as a system; a system that creates and delivers products or services for your clients.
The top layer of the Tornado Method framework is the Revenue Engine; the five stages of your business that you have to operate effectively to make money. Your Revenue Engine is a system; one that generates leads so you can nurture them, eventually sell to them, deliver your products or services and then follow up to get them to come back for more.
Most business owners, especially when they start out, recognise that their constraint is in marketing; they are not generating enough leads. If they can solve that constraint, they will of course be able to make enough money to have a viable business.
But the interesting thing about any system is that you can't have infinite throughput (at least not yet). When you solve the current constraint holding your business back, you will find the next constraint that limits your throughput. So it's a continuous process of finding the current constraint, solving it, seeing throughput improve and then moving on to the next constraint.
Just one thing
We've all experienced those days when we wake up and the sheer volume of stuff we have to deal with is so much we don't even know where to start. Your to-do list is overflowing, there's a ton of urgent stuff that needs to be dealt with, and you're overwhelmed before the day starts.
As much as we like to think we can multitask, we can really only do one thing at a time. We can only have one phone conversation at any one time, or answer one email or work on one new product offering. You can cram a lot of these things in one after the other, but at any one point in time you're only working on one thing.
We get overwhelmed when there are too many things vying for our attention, and we try to pay attention to all of them at the same time. To get something done, especially something non-trivial (something that takes more than a couple of minutes to get done) we have to realise there's only one thing holding us back right now.
The concept is not difficult to understand, but most of us have trouble in two areas:
- finding the one thing we need to focus on now; and
- then focusing on that one thing alone until it is done.
So let's look at each of these in turn.
How do we find that one thing?
So how do you know what you need to work on next?
The first thing you need to do is make some time. You're going to need time (an hour or so) to do an analysis of where you are and find the current constraint in your business. So the first thing to do is get the urgent stuff out of the way so that you can make time for constraints analysis.
The next thing you need is a framework for identifying all the stuff that needs to be done. I developed the Tornado Method as such a framework because there was nothing else on the market. You can use the Tornado Method framework, or if you have something else use that; but you have to have a framework. Without some kind of framework - a way to group together the things that belong together - you will just have a very long list of stuff to be done.
Use your framework to do two things:
- identify your current constraint; and
- list all the things that can be done to lift that constraint.
Identifying your current constraint is the same as asking "where is the problem?" Most businesses will list sales as their current constraint; get more sales and all other problems disappear.
But to solve the sales problem, you need to have more leads, and to get more leads you have to improve your marketing.
What you've just seen is the process of working back from the apparent constraint to the root cause. To fix sales you need to fix marketing.
And that is how you find the next thing you need to work on. If you know that you need to fix marketing (you need to generate more leads), you can dive into marketing and see what's working, what not, and decide what you can do now to improve your marketing. In the Tornado Method we call this the Domino Sequence; the sequence of things you need to do in order to achieve an end result.
The power of focus
Now that you have the one thing you need to work one, you need to solve it. And the fastest way to solve it is to focus on it.
If you know, for example, that the next thing you need to work on is the frequency and consistency with which you show up on social media, you need to focus on that task only until it is done. Yes, you will still need to do other stuff day to day to keep your business running, but outside of those items this is the one thing holding you back right now. Until you've solved that problem nothing else you work on is going to matter; you have to solve this one thing before you can move on to the next.
Both Bill Gates and Warren Buffet attribute a lot of their success to their ability to focus. Focus like a laser on getting one thing done; when it is done you can move on to the next thing. If you can develop this ability, and not let all the other "busy" work distract you, you will get more done faster than most.
Focus has a great upside; when you get something done you feel a sense of achievement, there's one less major task you need to deal with and you've solved the next constraint holding you back from building a great business, or achieving something great. One step at a time, and before you know it a journey of a thousand miles will be behind you.
We can so easily get overwhelmed by all the stuff we need to do. One way to deal with that overwhelm is to identify the one thing in that swarm of to-do's that needs to be solved next, and focus on that one thing until you have it solved. Let the other stuff go; deal with emergencies if you have to but focus like a laser on that one thing.
Sometimes you may feel like there's a lot things that you need to focus on now. If that happens, pick one and get it done. Just one - get it off your plate so you can get it off your list. And keep chipping away at those things one by one, and before you know it you will have a bunch of them done.
Over time, you will develop more ability to identify the next thing that you need to work on. Getting stuff off your list is the first step in creating that sense of achievement and reducing the length of the list; the next step is to develop the ability to identify the next important thing to work on.
Busy as a bee
Some days I feel as busy as one of those bees flitting from one flower to the next collecting nectar; but I know that at any one point in time I can only focus on one flower. That's the one I'm working on now, and when I'm done with it there's more to come. But get this one done first; otherwise we have to come back to it again and again until it's done anyway.
What you can do now
If you don't have a framework for organising all the stuff you need to work on, check out the Tornado Method. I developed it because I needed something to organise all my stuff, and it has become a guiding framework for entrepreneurs to build and grow their businesses.
In the Beginner's Guide to the Tornado Method you will also find the Domino Sequence - the tool we use to identify the one thing holding you back right now.