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Don’t get me wrong. I love systems. I spend most of my time telling businesses why they’re a good idea but they aren’t exactly ideal for startups. Here’s why.

Even the best-planned startups face a series of challenges during their first months of business. The success of your startup rests with your ability to adapt to the challenges presented. This may mean a slight tweak of your service offering or a full pivot and the emergence of a new business as a result. It’s the flexibility and adaptability that give small business startups the edge in the early days.

In contrast management systems are about having documented, reproducible processes to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your workflows. This is really at odds with the flexibility required by startups who are often in a state of flux.

Sure nothing is set in stone, you can rewrite your systems to suit the new and improved version of your business but this can be a time consuming exercise.

At a time when you and your team are trying to gain traction and get the attention of your target market can you justify the time?

So systems are great when you’ve established your business direction but if you are still adapting and changing frequently, your documents just need too much maintenance, it can be a bit like Groundhog Day, frustrating to say the least. There are a few exceptions though where management systems should be implemented as quickly as possible:

Regulatory requirement: Systems may be a requirement in some highly regulated areas like health. For example, medical device manufacturers must have their systems in place and verified by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) prior to their products being made available for sale in Australia. In this circumstance it is a no brainer. You either have the systems in place or you can forget about making sales in Australia.

Multiple locations: Long gone are the days where everyone had to be in the same office to start-up a business. I’ve worked with a company that had two directors based in Australia and the third in Belgium. Technology has allowed us to break free of the office, we can work from home, from the local coffee shop or from anywhere in the world. The only downside is that where you could spin around your chair and chat to your co founders when in the same office, when located across multiple sites or countries it becomes more difficult to manage communication and decision making. Implementing defined communication and decision making processes will be necessary, without these your productivity will suffer.

Lots of staff: If your start-up is you and your best mate then you can get away without systems in the early days but what about if you’ve got a room full of new team members who need your direction? Whether they are a telemarketing team or a group of programmers if you want consistency of process you’ll need to invest time in developing checklists, project documentation, telephone scripts, an employee manual. Making sure everyone is on the same page is essential if you want your business to succeed. Plan to do this before you engage your staff for the best results.

Systems are surprising, even if you swear they aren’t for you I’m sure you have a customer enquiry form on your website, a system for processing your BAS (even if it is in Excel), work from a list of daily tasks or a social media plan. Even though a fully documented management system can cause some headaches for startups, when you do have your direction settled, don’t wait until everything is perfect, get your systems sorted. They can be a real asset for your business.

Have you implemented systems in your startup? Has it worked for you?

What do you think?

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Mary Gardam

Mary Gardam

Mary Gardam is the Principal Quality Advisor at LogiQA, a Brisbane based consultancy helping small business access the benefits of systemisation. She has previously held a number of senior quality roles across health and scientific sectors and also lectures in Quality Systems at Griffith University.

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