By Beth Borrego / Published November 2014
As your small business grows, the prospect of managing it will be challenging. At times, you’ll be faced with the need to make important decisions that will impact the future of your company, its resources, and its clientele. There is no doubt that decision making can be stressful, but keeping these tips in mind throughout the process will help you to make wiser decisions that guide your business down the best possible path.
Keep a list of decisions you need to make. Give each problem that needs to have a decision made as much definition as you can to increase the clarity of the problem or issue surrounding the need for the decision. All issues have more than one possible outcome that can be made. Sometimes you may have multiple options to select from; at other times, there may be only one option. Review what you believe will be the result in each scenario to the best of your ability, so that you can carefully weigh each option before making your final decision. It’s also important to prioritize those issues requiring a decision, since some may have more immediate or time-sensitive deadlines impacting them. Keep in mind that the decision to not act, or to make no decision at all, is in fact a decision that may have consequences. It’s important to also weigh in on what will happen if no decision is made. Simply ignoring a problem means failing to take the appropriate action, and it may have a detrimental effect on your business.
Brainstorm and write down as many alternatives as you can think of for each problem you are trying to solve. When you are faced with a particularly important decision that impacts your business substantially, it might be prudent to call upon various resources like experienced colleagues, business mentors, friends and family, and professionals like your CPA or attorney, if needed. While many small business owners won’t seek out the opinions of others for fear of being thought less of, it’s the wise business owner who realizes that every business begins somewhere and that no one knows everything. Networking with other professionals when making high-risk decisions helps to reduce the risk involved, by offering perspective that you might not have thought of. Sometimes it’s simply a very affirming discussion, and at other times, you’ll discover that you may need to do more research before making a decision.
As a part of the decision making process, practice the exercise of visualizing the outcome of each alternative. Do you feel more satisfied or comfortable with one outcome than with others? As you explore each potential decision and consider the long-term impact of it, do any of your options become less appealing? For example, if you are considering a substantial equipment purchase and have several options to select from, you might visualize how well the various options would serve your business over time, what scenarios would limit each of them, and how well the employees using the equipment would benefit from each option. This exercise should help you to discover how each option would impact your business longterm.
As you work through the list of alternatives, cross off the options that most likely will not occur for whatever reason. Some of the options will be easily removed while others may prove to be more challenging to eliminate. Once you’ve made your decision, proceed with confidence! If you have done all of your research and due diligence, you should be able to set aside the worry. Try not to second-guess yourself or let doubt or buyer’s remorse take over, since it will only cause stress. Look for the positive side of your decision and what it means for your company and tap into that energy instead.
There are common mistakes associated with decision making. Taking on too many new things all at once is mentally overwhelming. Our brains can only process so much new information at one time. If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed and not retaining information, simply slow down, and reduce the number of tasks you are trying to accomplish at one time.
Our perceptions are based upon what we know and what we have learned. They are based upon societal norms and values, and so is everyone else’s. Experts are people too, so be careful not to rely completely on expert information. That is not to say that expert information should be ignored, because it should not be. However, automatically taking advice without weighing in other factors, which may pertain to your unique situation, vision, and goals you have set for your business would be unwise. Experts are human too, each with their own sets of biases that influence their decisions, and even an expert may make a bad call. Consult with more than one expert and you may find a consensus, or perhaps you will discover a variety of viewpoints. The bottom line is simple; never let anyone rubber stamp your decisions for you.
Making well-rounded decisions is a challenge for all small business owners, both new and seasoned. Sometimes we overestimate the value of opinions coming from those in certain groups, like experts and authority figures; however, we often underestimate the value of opinions and viewpoints coming from other groups too. Never underestimate the opinions of those who may offer a perspective that is not expert, or seen through the same lens you view your business through. We have a tendency to dismiss the opinions of those whom we feel may not have anything to offer. Opinions coming from children, women and homemakers, senior citizens, those with less education, and those not directly connected to our business or the industry it serves should not be discounted, and may offer a perspective on your problem you have not even discovered yet. The greater the number of perspectives you discover prior to making a decision, the more well-rounded your decision will be. Just remember to keep in perspective that the person who knows the details and potential ramifications of the challenge you are facing best is you.
One of the biggest pitfalls of decision making is hearing only what we want to hear and seeing only what we want to see. Filtering out what feels uncomfortable, complex, or critical is something every business owner has experienced. It’s natural to want to filter out what is unpleasant. Learning to accept that criticism is a positive opportunity, for example, is not easy. Our expectations are based upon our own business standards and personal biases. We view situations based upon our perceptions and reach conclusions and decisions this way as well. Problems may arise when we’re unable to remain objective when presented with a problem, especially if we fail to listen in a neutral and open manner while considering the point of view where the criticism is stemming from. In other words, we may simply shut down and tune out what we don’t want to hear. This common mistake can negatively impact your business in many ways. The key is to be aware of your own prejudices and expectations, while at the same time remaining open to feedback from others. Remember not to take criticism as a personal attack. It’s just business feedback, and it’s an opportunity to better your business. When you get feedback of any kind, good or bad, thank the person who offered it to you.
We often have an instinctual feeling or intuitive reaction to challenges that we are presented with. Sometimes the stress of making a decision may even lead to physical symptoms like tension headaches, upset stomach, or heartburn. Remember that reducing your stress by making informed decisions that you’re confident are correct will benefit your business and your health as well. Try to avoid the notorious “knee jerk reaction decision” if you have not carefully weighed the ramifications of your decision. If you are uncomfortable with a decision you are about to make, stop and ask yourself why and evaluate it again. You may avoid a costly error. Otherwise, later on you may find yourself saying “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Don’t let time manage you; you should always manage your time. As you are working, keep yourself as organized as possible, and plan blocks of time for specific activities. The time you set aside relative to making decisions about major issues facing your business should be relatively uninterrupted. Everyone is busy, so if you plan a meeting or a call with someone regarding a challenge you are facing, remember that they too have a business to run, or a day full of activities to contend with. It’s up to you to manage the interference of other activities. Let others who depend on you know what must be done, let them know when you are unavailable, and once you become available again, follow up with them as needed.
The key to learning how to manage your time is to develop a general work schedule and then stick to it. This schedule should include time for yourself as well as time for the maintenance of your business. By managing both your personal and your business time well, you’ll reduce your stress, improve both business and personal relationships, and make better decisions.
Try breaking down your day and the items you must complete. You might begin by breaking them into three categories, labeled as important deadlines, routine tasks, and personal time. Next, identify the items you have to attend to and place each one into a category, allowing how much time each task is expected to take. This exercise should help you to identify and to prioritize your workload and to determine how much time you spend on various tasks. Over time, you’ll discover unique ways to work more efficiently, and you’ll also discover what items must stay with you and what can be delegated to others. Owned items would be in the column designated with a Y for yes, while those items delegated to others would be marked with an N for no. Your task list may look something like Figure 1.
• Review and approve next year’s annual budget for capital equipment expenditures. Yes? No?
• Check applicant references. Yes? No?
• Review vehicle performance to decide if our fleet provider is adequately fulfilling our needs, prior to purchasing three new needed trucks. Yes? No?
• Review escalated customer satisfaction results. Yes? No?
• Personally visit each job we complete. Yes? No?
• Meet with managers to receive reports on current issues. Yes? No?
• Pick up tickets for big game. Yes? No?
• Pick up dry cleaning and milk. Yes? No?
• Block off time on the calendar for anniversary. Yes? No?
In the examples given, you’ll notice that one set of action items are marked as something that can be delegated. In the case of checking applicant references, if you have a human resource manager, he or she would be able to do that task for you. The item requiring you to visit each job may be an ineffective use of your time. Today, cameras and evaluation forms provide many service business owners with much of what they need to perform quality assurance. And of course, that personal item referring to dry cleaning and milk, well that can perhaps be done by a family member, or at another time.
It’s easy to see that setting up a routine schedule and identifying important priorities allows you to manage your time more effectively. What other time management strategies can you use? Well, consider these:
• Delegate the tasks you don’t have the time, expertise, or staff to complete. Work within your skill set, and recognize your limits.
• Start the day with the most challenging task. Get it over and done with and look forward to a positive day.
• Remember to have a sense of humor. Humor is much like armor; it really helps to get you through many things.
• Crank it out! If you can, complete tasks with deadlines ahead of schedule. It will reduce your stress, lighten your workload, and you’ll feel great!
• Feeling overwhelmed? Take a short break and then get back to it.
• Get up and move around. Walking, stretching, and just about any physical activity are not only important for your health but reduce stress as well.
• Allow yourself a few peaceful moments to look over your schedule and evaluate any high priority items. Think, reflect, clear your head, and continue forward.
• Re-organize your desk at the end of the workday and refresh your to-do list. Some items will be removed, and, of course, new ones will be added.
There will be times when you’ll have to be flexible and adapt your schedule to unforeseen circumstances as they arise. Having contingency plans for various business scenarios is important when you’re trying to continue the forward momentum. For example, let’s say a truck or major piece of equipment goes out of service. Do you have a contingency plan for that? Do you have backup or spare equipment? Can you re route jobs assigned to a specific truck with ease and re-allocate the human resources elsewhere? Is your staff prepared to call clients when this happens? These kinds of contingency plans will make your job, and for that matter, everyone else’s jobs much easier and less stressful.
Planning and goal setting should not be limited to the short term, but should cover long-term plans as well. Map out your long-term goals and objectives for your business and also for your personal life. Make sure to include a timeline as a guide to see how well you are progressing. Consider the impact that your long-term goals will have both on your business and your personal life and your family. It’s important not to underestimate the impact that stress has on your health and your ability to concentrate on your business or for that matter, enjoying time with your family. Always make sure to try and maintain a healthy balance and make time for those you love and for those life events that come with them. Remember that while you are working hard on your business and for your future, you need to allow time to enjoy life so that you don’t miss it.