The company way

I’ve always known they do things differently in big companies, but just why has just struck me: it’s a matter of whether the people or the systems hold sway.

My wife works for a multinational financial institution. Over the weekend she had to go into work because the project she has been running for the past nine months is finally being implemented.

The rollout of the new systems is occurring over the weekend and testing is occurring most nights. Her team is working together well, but the strain is showing as they approach their deadline.


I compare that to my project management experiences in small business: the deadline is normally missed, critical staff use the deadline to demand better pay, and stakeholders in the project are only interested in appointing blame for failure.

There is no esprit de corps and projects regularly vanish before completion.


So I am thinking: why are my experiences so different from hers. Why have my people generally seemed to be less competent and less committed? Why does she seem to spend the majority of her week in meetings?

At 42, I’ve worked for 13 different organisations and 10 of them have been small businesses, of which I have owned five. So I thought I would have enough experience to see the shortfall between how her projects run and mine.


On mulling this over, on and off for years, I have always been of the opinion that the word business was too generic. Both she and I both work in businesses but how they run is so different that we should almost have different words for it.

But this weekend I had an insight. I don’t know where it came from – no flash of light or smack over the side of the head; just a thought that stopped me in my tracks.


My wife works in businesses where “people support the systems”. Where I work, “the systems support the people”.


Neither way is right or wrong, but “people supporting systems” type businesses are generally large, mature businesses. Their staff run around tweaking the machine and pulling the levers, and making steam come out at the appropriate intervals.

It’s pretty hard to change their course or stop these businesses from making money; it takes years of concerted effort and bad culture’s to wreck these businesses (or make them a tasty acquisition by Wesfarmers).

Unfortunately, it’s hard for staff to excel or be rewarded for excelling. In most cases innovation to the business comes from outside, from consultants who don’t spend their day tapping dials to make sure the steam pressure is up.


The other type of business, “systems supporting people” organisations, are generally smaller, growing business. Staff spend little time working on the business, because operating the business takes up their time. Satisfying customers, chasing up accounts, building their products is where the day goes.

The success of this business is very much dependent on the quality of the people in can attract, and nobody ever talks about innovation because it occurs on a daily basis and usually goes under the name of “reacting to crises” or “competition”.

These businesses are very dynamic, early adopters of technological advances and cope easily with changing markets. Their projects are focused on visualising what the machine could look like and building the prototype.


So why does the difference matter? I would argue that attracting quality people is difficult for both organisations. The difference is that only businesses where “systems support the people” are going to be damaged when they can’t get great staff.

The solution is to invest in your systems, so anyone can operate your business. These descriptions of course aren’t absolute; most organisations are full of a mixture and pockets where one type of business is emphasised. You may always want to have “systems supporting people” in leadership roles and at the customer interface.



To read more Brendan Lewis blogs, click here.



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