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Scrappy: A Dose of Entrepreneurial Piss and Vinegar

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By Kim Shepherd, CEO

You’ve probably come across the story of the Lion and the Ant. It’s a great example of what happens when a company loses its scrappiness. The short version is that Ant was a very productive, happy and autonomous worker. Ant’s boss, Lion, reasons that Ant would be even more productive with some supervision, so he brings in Cockroach. To the delight of Lion, Cockroach implements a timekeeping system and provides reports.

From there it escalates, with Lion adding more and more layers — Cicada as department head, Fly to implement IT, Owl to consult on productivity. Ultimately the department’s profit margins plummet and so Lion fires Ant.

Lion is NOT scrappy. Scrappy is about common sense. You’re running your business at a million miles an hour, and you engineer solutions for issues that come up . . . and then solutions for the solutions. It’s easy to get tangled up in your own underwear. That’s exactly when you need to take a step back, take a deep commonsense breath, and get in touch with your inner scrappy.

Here’s an example without the Aesop overtones — you’ve probably seen similar situations. Company A has a Quality Manager, and part of her job is to monitor service engagements for potential fires. If she finds one, she alerts the Quality Director, who puts out the fires. The process and accountabilities are clearly outlined, with a fire-spotter and a firefighter. But can’t the Manager put out some of the smaller fires herself? A scrappy fire department doesn’t have over-engineered layers; it has common-sense firefighters with initiative.

Scrappy also means being focused and on point. Everyone’s big on data, for example, but before you invest in major systems, ask: “What’s the purpose?” If a report doesn’t lead to an outcome, you don’t need that report. Another thing to watch for is job justifiers — people who “own” processes or deliver regular reports that don’t really add value.

Scrappy starts with the recognition that you have to design what you want or deal with what you get. But take that a step further: make sure every process or system is designed to be relevant today. In fact, you should reinvent your entire business every six months. Here are some scenarios to get you thinking:

  • Suspect you might have too many layers? Suppose the person responsible for Layer X was hit by a bus. Would anything change? If the answer is “Not really,” you need to rethink Layer X.
  • Imagine you’re bringing in half the revenue you’re bringing in today. What do you keep and what do you let go?
  • Picture your business as a building made of Lincoln Logs (remember those?), with the roof as one department, the west wall as another, etc. Now take it apart and reassemble it in a different way. Now do it again. One time you might have pieces left over, and the next time you may come up short of pieces. There’s no one right answer. The point is to recognize that your business isn’t set in stone.

Getting scrappy should re-energize your entrepreneurial spirit, and re-open your eyes to possibilities. It should also give you a jolt of the same piss and vinegar that motivated you to take on the business world in the first place. And don’t forget: “scrappiness” rhymes with “happiness.”

This blog is an excerpt from Kim’s new book “Get Scrappy” – now available in both print and Kindle editions.  See more about the book here.

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