In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses to change. But a growth mentality – backed by the strategic use of IT – helped some companies survive and even thrive.
With many organisations still adapting to the new demands of the hybrid workplace, one organisation found that the Gazelles Scaling Up business methodology helped provide the processes, agility, and discipline needed to successfully manage the new environment.
That organisation was First Focus. It’s not often that a private company reveals the inner workings of their own business, but we hope some of the lessons we’ve learnt on our journey may help others find their own path.
On the 11th of March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
Almost exactly five years earlier, the First Focus management team spent two days locked in a room at Q Station – a heritage site at the entrance to Sydney Harbour that once served as a quarantine station for inbound migrants. In this room, First Focus began implementation of Gazelles, the management framework under which we run the business today.
And it’s this framework that helped us help others take the pandemic in stride.
In Australia, the mandatory shutdowns saw many non-essential businesses close their doors. Some went into hibernation, with government stimulus helping weather the change. Other organisations changed their business models, dropping in-person solutions for remote service delivery. And yet others were able to completely mitigate the impacts the changes had.
At First Focus, we were lucky enough to fall into the last category. Yes, we cancelled face-to-face meetings and cut back to essential only client site visits. But with a bit of work, our operations were able to adapt to the challenges forced by the pandemic.
And it’s all thanks to the technological and operational strategies we made to meet the demands of our Gazelles management framework.
What is a Gazelle?
Gazelles are graceful deerlike creatures that can jump higher than expected and attain high speed from a standing start. You may be familiar with them from wildlife documentaries, a trip to the zoo, or even a safari.
But from a business perspective, a Gazelle is something different.
Author and economist David Birch coined the term “gazelle companies” in some of his early works. Birch noted that around 4% of US companies at the time accounted for 70% of all new jobs on the market.
Birch also noted that Gazelles worked at a rate that the “mice” that accounted for most small family-run businesses could not match. Gazelles also make tempting targets for predatory “cats” – but can avoid acquisition by simply moving fast enough.
Today, a Gazelle refers to any fast-growing organisation that demonstrates a yearly trend of sustained revenue growth. These firms are usually based in technology or other growth industries and remain good job creators for open, entrepreneurial economies.
How Gazelles helped us mitigate the pandemic shutdown
The fast-moving and flexible nature of the Gazelles management framework means that an organisation can sustain a growth mentality and pivot quickly to mitigate challenges as they arise. While organisational culture itself requires time to change, a culture that accepts and promotes change is more likely to adjust to changes in everyday workflows.
The four pillars of the Gazelles framework are:
- People – fostering a culture of accountability
- Strategy – processes that generate sustainable revenue
- Execution – turning revenue into industry-leading profits
- Cash – fueling business without reliance on others
These four pillars have proven just as relevant in the COVID-19 crisis as they are for planning a period of sustained growth.
More importantly, the decisions these pillars enabled over the previous 20 quarters had set the First Focus up to adapt to the changes required.
Pillars: People, Execution
People are the building blocks of most organisations, especially in a service-based business such as our own. This reliance is why “best people” is one of our core promises and why we developed our distributed team model.
To decentralise our operations and make sure we could employ the best people (wherever they might be), we had to get a few things right, including actions that many other organisations have suddenly needed to emulate. And while People might be an essential part of the Gazelles framework, Execution is where most organisations fail.
By adopting a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) approach to Execution, we’ve been able to stop doing things that don’t look like they’re going to work early on or adjust where required. As a case in point, choosing software to tie into existing company processes and other products can be tricky. We’re not afraid to say that we’ve abandoned solutions after an initial MVP launch because they didn’t work the way we wanted them to.
One MVP rollout that has worked well is the use of Slack within First Focus. Slack has replaced the water cooler conversation and non-work banter in our online world while allowing our distributed teams to communicate valuable work-related information. From an initial trial within one team, Slack has become a highly integrated piece of our software platform and a virtual extension to office culture.
Pillars: People, Strategy
It’s surprising to hear how long some teams at some organisations go without meeting – including management teams! You may have seen this in person or heard friends complain that they never get to meet with their colleagues. And when meetings do happen, it’s common for them to devolve into off-topic conversations, with little actionable outcomes or helpful knowledge transfers.
With these factors, it’s easy to see why some organisations may loathe hosting more regular meetings – they view them as a waste of time.
These short daily meetings are essential. But once a week, there should be an extended meeting where the team dives into operational issues, challenges and improvements. And it doesn’t stop there – every month needs to be a more extensive review of where the business is with more significant initiatives. Then, every quarter, a meeting is held to review the business strategy’s relevance and performance and set the initiatives for the following three months.
Having a reliable unified communications technology platform has been vital to having valuable meetings with a distributed team. Our decision to invest in video conferencing software and hardware – and embedding its use with staff – has proven invaluable by allowing us to maintain the flow of information while enabling remote work.
Today, most businesses have dived into video conferencing to help support these kinds of meetings, and while it has its pros and cons, it’s here to stay!
But thanks to Gazelles, every team at First Focus meets daily at a set time and with a pre-defined short agenda. These daily huddles or stand-ups are part of how we work and communicate things through the organisation.
Regular meetings also make up for any lack of face-time that some of our staff have with their teammates. With our distributed model, it’s common for teams and managers to be located in another state or country.
When working from home, these daily stand-ups are essential, and many businesses are adopting something similar. We have designed the timing of these meetings to allow communications to flow.
Data and metrics
Pillars: Strategy, Cash
All these meetings would be irrelevant without good data. While both in-person and remote chats help promote good culture, decisions made without reliable information are inherently flawed.
This is why business needs accurate, well-defined data that measures the metrics that matter, while presenting the details in a way that’s easy to make use of.
Do you have a dashboard that tells you how your business is going TODAY? Not last year, not last month – but rapid real-time financial and operational metrics that let you adjust quickly and make intelligent decisions.
From an initial “dashboard” in Excel five years ago when we started our Gazelles journey, we now have a Business Intelligence platform integrated with every source of data across our organisation. This platform displays dedicated dashboards for every team, and are accessible remotely.
Investment in technology is critical for this, but embedding a culture of data integrity across the organisation is even more vital. What use is sales pipeline data without all opportunities entered in and kept up to date? And while we can create dashboards and reports once data is there, does what you’re measuring line up with your Strategy?
Getting data integrity right has another plus side – it means that all staff can access the information they need when they need it. Again, this is critical in a distributed workforce, as you can no longer rely on being able to walk up to someone and ask a question.
Using technology to make a difference
When talking about COVID-19 shutdowns and the work-from-home phenomenon, one of the most common detractors raised relates to trust. If no one is in the office, how do you know your employees are still working hard?
But the simple answer is that trust goes both ways. Employees need to be empowered and trusted to do their job before they can start producing results.
The flexible tech stack that that enabled our COVID-19 response
Cloud technology enabled the free flow of information now ensures that remote workers can access what they need when they need it.
Unified communications platforms help support regular meetings and agendas now enable the work culture that helps drive our performance.
Business intelligence systems installed to help team members make intelligent decisions with up-to-date data also remove barriers to trust by letting team members access transparent metrics on demand.
Gazelles have been a great framework to run our business. And technology has been a great enabler. Combined, these two factors have allowed us to be ready for the unexpected, pivoting quickly and communicating efficiently. In the future, technology will enable us to communicate as if we’re together, have the data we need at our fingertips, create accountability and measure actions, and do our job from almost anywhere.
Our purpose is to help people use technology to make a difference, and we’re living that every day.
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