We often encounter one or more of ‘the three f’s’ in SMEs: feelings of frustration, of running ‘flat out’ or of fear. In this blog, we are going to look at frustration, in particular. What causes it, what can we do about it, and what can we expect to happen once it is relieved?
A root cause of frustration is often that an SME’s ways of working have not kept pace with the growing and often relentless demands placed on them. Systems, structures and processes that were perfectly designed to get the business up and running are no longer fit for the challenges of today or the next phase of growth. Cracks are starting to appear into which responsibilities fall that no-one seems to own. People are understandably frustrated, annoyed and even unnerved by the resulting inefficiencies that are eroding otherwise healthy margins. There is a sense that things no longer work as they used to.
How Can Business Leaders Diagnose The Causes of Frustration?
Let’s imagine we are the owner or CEO of such a rapidly evolving business. As the demands on the business evolve, how can we get a useful ‘snapshot’ of the way our people and workflows are organised, and so be sure that there are no cracks or, equally frustrating, duplications of effort?
It simply doesn’t work to have to dig out and read a pile of org’ charts and role descriptions to get the overview we need. The likelihood is anyway that role descriptions have evolved, at least to some extent, ‘from the bottom-up’ as the business has responded to growing pains by creating new roles. It may no longer be that taken together in a context that has since evolved, these roles and the associated division of responsibilities make sense when viewed ‘from the top down’. Nor does the remedy to frustration lie in understanding who reports to whom and at what levels in the hierarchy.
A Functional Chart Will Provide a Clearer View
As CEO, we need a clear overview (a list, in its simplest form) of all the areas of activity in our business (business functions) and which role is accountable for each one. This is called a functional chart and it ignores reporting lines or hierarchies. It concentrates solely on business functions and accountabilities, and we can use it to confirm (or otherwise) that:
- All the functions that need to be fulfilled are identified
- Accountability for each area of activity (business function) is assigned to one role holder only
- The scope of each activity is clearly defined such that the associated responsibilities can be identified and assigned, and the whole fits together coherently
Such a functional overview will enable us to step back, review the whole and ensure that our team is, at the very least, sensibly organised to meet the challenges it faces.
Assuming this is all in place, and that’s already a big assumption, we can then review (and probably update) the work-flows in our business to ensure that they are consistent with and reflect the functional structure.
The Difference Between Accountability & Responsibility
In the midst of most functional reviews, ambiguity surfaces – specifically about the difference between accountability and responsibility. It is our experience that these two terms are often used interchangeably. This is incorrect and further exacerbates the prevailing frustration.
Let’s clear up this ambiguity. We are accountable for something (i.e., a noun: gross profit margin, health and safety, client satisfaction) which is usually outcome-related. And here is the key point: accountability can never be delegated! Once we have accepted it, we are stuck with it. We are accountable for health and safety, or client satisfaction, whether we are in the workplace, away on holiday, or off sick.
Responsibility is discharged by doing things, or delegating them and ensuring they are done (i.e., responsibility is about verbs, raising purchase orders, writing blogs, drafting monthly reports, checking fire extinguishers). Hence responsibility is related to task-performance and can, and often will be delegated. Such tasks usually contribute towards the achievement of outcomes for which someone is held ultimately accountable.
The result of accountability: a culture shift
It is invariably fascinating to watch this ambiguity gradually fall away. The ownership of decisions becomes clearer, as does the need for an appropriate balance between accountability and authority. Meetings become more productive as all are clear where accountability and responsibility lies, and the time and energy that was previously wasted tripping over each other, or looking into the cracks, is channelled more productively.
The culture starts to shift as role holders feel empowered to exercise their judgment and express their opinions. Frustration is replaced by determination, which can now be translated into action. Equally, there’s nowhere to hide for passengers and consequences begin to be felt. We come to understand that just because a task we delegated wasn’t performed as expected, doesn’t mean we are absolved of accountability for the outcome. With accountability comes the responsibility to ensure that the appropriate understanding and standards are in place, and that all necessary tasks are indeed delegated and performed appropriately.
Frustration: A Symptom of Success
Frustration then can be a symptom of success: it arises in businesses that have survived long enough to outgrow their original ways of working, and now need a metaphorical ‘tidy up’. As we delve into the dark corners that have understandably arisen in a business, we may well unearth issues that have long since needed resolution, which may or may not be comfortable for all concerned. However, the health of the whole system invariably improves, and with it, the morale of those who are committed to making it a success.
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