You can be too flexible. Take it from me. I know from personal experience.
I have been blessed, or cursed, with a flexibility that exceeds that of the average person. As a result I have had 6 sprained ankles, a broken ankle, and innumerable twists and near misses. When I went to physical therapy after the broken ankle, the therapists affectionately nicknamed me Gumby. And their parting words were: “It’s not if you will sprain or break your ankle again, it’s when.”
Flexibility is good. On a physical level I can easily fold myself in half. But it also means that I have less warning when I am about to do major damage to my body and that means less time to recover and avoid the issue. A small pebble has the ability to take me down and put me on crutches for days or weeks.
In our businesses flexibility is also good. Small businesses especially have the ability to be flexible. Their small, flat structure makes them ideal for quickly changing direction and chasing new opportunities. They can react very quickly to changes in the market place, economy, and technology.
Yet there is danger in small businesses being too flexible. I have seen some small business owners chase after every possible opportunity or sale. “Yes, we can do that,” becomes their mantra. The typical outcome of this behavior is:
- Increased sales at the expense of profitability
- Decreased sales resulting from market confusion
- Growing a company the owner doesn’t really want to work for
Increased sales at the expense of profitability
Did you know that it is possible to increase your sales and actually make less money? Every change that the business agrees to usually has a price tag attached to it. Flexibility may increase time spent in production, inflate material costs, or require higher skilled labor. In the rush to prove flexibility to the customer, the small business may fail to pass all these costs along with the appropriate markup. The result is an increase in sales accompanied by an even larger increase in expenses which means you make less money.
Decreased sales resulting from market confusion
In the attempt to please all potential customers by being flexible and meeting all needs, the small business owner actually confuses their customers. A strong brand is built on consistency and reliability. The customer can ideally describe the company and what they do well in a short phrase. This level of business clarity is challenging to create in ideal situations. When the small business owner starts chasing after sales that are not consistent with whom the business is, customers become unsure of what the business does. When the customer is confused they are less likely to refer business and more likely to take follow up purchases to a company that has clearly defined what they do.
Growing a company the owner doesn’t really want to work for
Stop and think. What is the reason you started your business? What were you trying to accomplish? Why is this important to you? When a small business is busy being flexible in search of sales it is not only possible, but highly probable, that somewhere along the journey they will violate some of these core values, vision and principles to achieve the sale. When these ideals are violated even once, it damages the culture and soul of the business. When they are violated multiple times in the search for sales it changes the reason the company exists. And one day, the owner may wake up and realize that he no longer likes the company he started.
As I said, flexibility is good. Without flexibility you would have trouble bending over to pull on your socks. But excessive flexibility means that stepping off a curb can result in a broken ankle.
The solution for small businesses is to be strategically flexible.
- Identify what is important to your company by developing and documenting your internal brand (vision, mission, values, and company belief systems).
- Create an overall plan of what you want your company to look like in 3 – 5 years and how you will get there.
- Say no to opportunities that fall outside your brand and strategic initiatives – these opportunities are actually shiny baubles that will result in excess flexibility.
What can you do today to improve your strategic flexibility?