Work Smarter, Not Harder

Introduction to Sustainable Business Success Improvement Cycle

Business Owners are Busy People! 
So we developed a routine for getting more done faster using the “work smarter, not harder” mantra

This is our rapid introduction to what to do and how to do it to get you working smarter straight away. 
Sections link off to more advanced discussions as you get better at using the routine.

This material is based on best practice from people and companies that are expert at getting things done.
We have re-packed this material for smaller businesses.

Table of Contents

Clarify What Success Means to You

As the business owner, your business exists to deliver to you what you desire from running your business.

But, it won’t be able to do that very well while your idea of ‘success’ is not crystal clear in your mind.

Until it is, you run the risk of ‘chasing the next bright shiny object’ in an often futile attempt to be ‘successful’. Without having a clear image of what that means in your mind.  Consequently, you won’t know if you reach “success”; and even then, you only get there by accident.

This is the first, and necessary, part of any “work smarter, not harder” strategy.

Picture Success in 3 Year's Time

Your idea of “success” will change over time.  Business owners typically go through a cycle of:

  • Solopreneur / Start-up where success is survival.
  • Micro Business (1-4 staff) where success is affording new staff.
  • Small Business (5-19 staff) where success is hiring the first middle managers and learning more about hands-off management.
  • Lifestyle/ Investor where success is stepping back from a well functioning business and enjoying life more. 
  • Exit where success is selling your business successfully.

As you can see, each stage has quite a different focus.  For you to successfully steer your business now, you need a good idea of where you want to be in (say) 3 years time.  That way all your decisions have to pass the test “is this the best way to get me closer to my destination”.

Your Three Year GamePlan

We use the term GamePlan to refer to the goal or destination you want to reach at the end of some period of time.  This is your ‘north star’ which always brings you back to the direction you should be taking to realize the outcome of your GamePlan.  It helps to avoid the pitfalls of multitasking which, all too often, business owners fall into.

Pause and Reflect

In our experience, these steps will gel better in your mind if you stop at this point

Quickly jot down what your first impressions are of what “success” will look like for you in three years time.

Consider the desirable levels of:

  • Rewards: salary + benefits +profit and any “toys” like cars that you want.
  • Acceptable workload.
  • Acceptable stress.

This might be a bit harder than you first imagined, eh!  Can you see that without a definition of success:

  • You have no real idea of what you are aiming for.
  • What will get you there. 
  • Or even knowing if you have been successful!

Now take the time to write down your 3 Year GamePlan outcome in a place you can refer to it often to keep you focused.  If your circumstances change, your GamePlan can change as well.  It might be a good idea to review the 3 Year GamePlan each financial quarter when you have the experience from each improvement cycle (discussed below) to see if it remains your preferred destination.

More information on the characteristics of Sustainable Business Success is available on this link.

Building a Wall Brick by Brick

Now that you have your 3 year GamePlan in mind (your brick wall), it is clear that we have a number of stages between now and its completion;

  • a foundation
  • laying brick by brick and eventually
  • a capping

It is the same with building your business. 

It is very difficult for anyone to remain focused on something 3 years out.  The time-frame is just too long.  So you need other, shorter term, GamePlans that you can focus on.  This also gives you a sense of achievement more frequently than once every 3 years!

We suggest you have a GamePlan for each financial quarter.  Our reasoning is;

  • given that you have a business to run, you need enough time to fit in meaningful, additional, improvement work in your short term  GamePlan
  • a financial quarter fits in with your accounting cycle so you can measure results in financial terms
  • this time frame allows you to make 4 meaningful improvements to your business a year

Decide Your Next Quarterly GamePlan

Once you are familiar with using GamePlans, you can design your own system.  For now, we suggest the following:

  • Design the GamePlan as something to be done over one financial quarter.  This gives a reasonable period to achieve what you want.  It also allows you to compare this and the previous quarter’s results to see if you have to make any course corrections to reach your 3year GamePlan  
  • Decide on what you want to achieve in the quarter, and how you will know if you have been successful.  For example, a GamePlan to “reduce overhead costs by 10%” is much better than simply “reduce costs” as it gives you a focus and a test of success.
  • Early on, just aim for one GamePlan per quarter.  Having several risks tipping you into the misery of multitasking.  In a larger business, you might progress to divisional / departmental GamePlans within the department’s specialisation.
  • Write the GamePlan down and, where relevant, share it with your whole team. This is so that they are aware of the main innovation thrust for the quarter.  Even workers in routine work slots like to feel things are progressing.

Picking The Most Important Area for Next GamePlan

Not every feasible GamePlan will produce the same improvement in the business.  Therefore, we have a prioritising tool (see link below) to help you chose the GamePlan with the “best” outcome. 

  1. In this introductory stage, we encourage you to just pick one that addresses what ever your greatest “pain” is presently.  Once you spend a few minutes thinking about it, your gut will tell you what is your biggest problem.
  2. Don’t be overly ambitious and complex in your choice as you don’t want to fail on the first pass.  This is particularly true if you have staff involved as this might put them off future quarterly GamePlans.
  3. On the other hand don’t set the hurdle too low.  Succeeding at a low hurdle won’t give you the buzz you will get from a harder one.  Also, you might finish the GamePlan before the time allowed, which wastes time and can lead to a loss of direction.

When uncertain, better to set a GamePlan goal you can reach with, say, 70% confidence and the rest is a “stretch” goal.

Choosing the most important area to work on first is “work smarter, not harder” at its best.

We discuss more on How to Prioritise Work on this link

Pause and Reflect

Before moving on, take a few minutes to ponder on what your first quaterly GamePlan should be. 

This will help crystallise the concept of the quarterly GamePlan, and its design, in your mind.

The next step outlines how to execute your GamePlan in a series of sprints ratcheting you towards your GamePlan destination.

Be Successful with a Ratchet Cycle

We like the analogy represented in this graphic.  A Ratchet is a cycle of events that are always moving forward and are prevented from moving backwards.

Our Mission for your Sustainable Business Success aims to help you achieve just that.  Moving ever forward to your next “Success” destination by working smarter not harder. At the same time, taking care not to overdo progress and run the risk of falling backwards.

Reliable progress is best achieved by developing a progress methodology that works for you. Then following it through each cycle to minimise the chances of a mis-step.

Sprinting Through the Ratchet

For now, you will have a 90 day GamePlan and associated Ratchet Cycle.  Although much shorter than the 3 year GamePlan, 12 weeks is still a long time to work out what to do in advance.   It’s also hard to know the outcomes of your efforts as they progress so setting down tasks 90 days into the future almost certainly means they will not be entirely necessary by the time you get to them.

Set 1-2 week sprints:
Rather than such a rigorously designed 90 day program of work, it is far easier to just choose “what’s next” that you can do in a short period – say 1-2 weeks.  This 1-2 weeks is often referred to as a “sprint”.  This technique has spun out of the IT sector where speed and flexibility are critical; just like they are for your business’s development.

Use sprints and look forward in detail for 1-2 weeks:
At the end of each sprint, you can decide what is the most important task for the next sprint.  That might be to continue down the same path, if everything is going OK, or to “pivot” in a new direction if some other priority has come up.

The length of the sprint is up to you:
It will be affected by how much time you can work on the sprint – given your routine workload – and so progress the sprint.  Sprints in smaller business may tend to be shorter than in larger, more stable, slower changing, businesses.

You can read more about sprints in these articles:

Pause and Reflect

Before moving on, take a few minutes to ponder on how long, and what,  your first sprint might be. 

This will help crystallise the concept of a sprint and its duration and design in your mind.

The next step outlines a standard format for each sprint to ensure consistency and quality that keeps you ratcheting forwards.

Reliable Routines

This approach of having a cycle of reliable routines, is not new or unique to 12Faces.  It is a well established process in very successful companies.  Early implementers include Toyota and it contributed to their outstanding success against western car manufacturers.

One very useful and standardised approach to what to do during each splint is to implement a Plan Do Check Adapt (PDCA) Cycle. This will ensure each sprint is well thought out in advance and that the results of the sprint can be measured and used to decide on the next sprint.

Basically, the PDCA Cycle comprises:

  1. Plan: what to do and who to do what.  Means any implementation problems are considered in advance.
  2. Do: is the actual execution of the project in the sprint.
  3. Check: means measuring the actual outcome against the expected outcome set in the Plan stage.
  4. Adapt: refers to considering the sprint outcomes and deciding what to do next.  Normal work practices need to be “Adapted” for any successful sprint outcomes. Particularly if they need to be retained so that the improvements are cemented into normal operating procedures.

The PDCA cycle does not need to be too complex as your sprints are fairly short.  Not much time will be lost even if the sprint does not work out as hoped.

The PDCA Cycle is all about “work smarter, not harder”.

You can read more about How the PDCA Cycle Builds Important Routines on this link

Pause and Reflect

Before moving on, take a few minutes to outline the PDCA Cycle for the Sprint you selected above. 

You don’t need to do this in great detail.  Early on, it is enough for you to put down some dot points on:

  • What you Plan to do.
  • How you will Do it.
  • What measurable outcomes to Check that will tell you how the sprint went.
  • Once finished the sprint, Adapt your standard work practices for what you learnt during the sprint’s PDCA Cycle. 

By the way, we like to use a Mindmap for this as it allows you to quickly ‘sketch’ out the plan then move bits around as it evolves.  We use (initially free) Mindomo for this as it works on every device and can be shared with others to work collaboratively; in real time if desired.

The next step outlines working out “what” to do.

Our "What to Do" Resources

In the sections above, we outlined how to identify the next quarterly GamePlan and we talked about breaking that into Sprints. 

However, the GamePlan is a comparatively vague desirable outcome.  We still need to know what to do specifically in each sprint.  Sometimes you will know what needs to be done to achieve this focus.  Other times,  you may not be sure.

We provide several means of working out “What to Do” in your Sprints.

Issue Diagnosis

The main contributor is our Diagnostics System

Just like a doctor takes the challenge to improve your health and does a Diagnosis and provides Treatment options, so does our Diagnostics System.

Sometimes, you have “Symptoms” in your business’s health but don’t know what is causing them.
For example
, Profit is dropping but it is not clear to you why.  

Other times, you believe you know what must be remedied but running the problem through the diagnostics may suggest other treatments that could be used instead; or as well as. 
For example, Income can be increased by:

  • More sales – obvious but the following will also achieve increased Income but are less obvious.
  • Higher prices – in fact, the likely biggest and fastest way to increase Income.
  • adding different products to your mix
  • aquiring other businesses
  • adding marketing channels like e-commerce – and so on

Using our Diagnostics System provides a reality check on possible solutions in case you have overlooked some alternatives.

Monitoring and Planning Tools

We have several tools like TrendBoard, and its relations, that accept your historical financial and sales information. They warn of unfavourable trends that might not yet be obvious in the workplace.

By monitoring these trends on a regular (monthly, quarterly and annual) basis you can see at a glance when unfavourable trends are appearing.  You can then have a sprint or ratchet to rectify the issue before your business deteriorates.

This historical information can then be used for predictive, “what if”, type questions. Use ChangeBoard and its relatives.  You can ask, for example:

  • How much does Revenue need to increase to afford a new staff member.
  • What impact does a Price change have on Profit etc. 

Predictions like this make it easier to decide what to focus on in a sprint. And to get better estimates of the outcomes of the sprints focused on such changes.

Pause and Reflect

Before moving on, take a few minutes to to test drive the drill down Diagnostics System. Use some of the real-world problems you arrived at in the homework on Ratchets and sprints above.

This will help you flesh out the general nature of your ratchet and indicate specific sprints to address your issues.

Review and Consolidate Progress

With PDCA, each sprint concludes with an “adapt” task.  

This means at least two things;

  1. see what was learnt in the sprint and what that indicates should be done in the next sprint.  This way you are regularly “adapting” to the events unfolding. 
  2. consolidate progress.  You may well have discovered new methods of executing your business.  The best of these might be used to “Adapt” your Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that your staff should follow.  This ratchets you forward based on your learnings.  It also reduces the risk of backsliding by adding to SOPs that staff should follow.  Not updating SOPs, or thinking you will “do later” (which is code for never) means you will not benefit from the outcome of the sprint.

The same reflection process should happen in the last couple of weeks of the quarterly GamePlan.  It may also inform your thinking about what the next quarter GamePlan should be.

Make GamePlans a Team Sport

If you develop your GamePlans alone, you are likely missing out on getting valuable inputs from others. 

You may be pleasantly surprised at how much your staff enjoy contributing ideas to your quarterly GamePlans and each of the Sprints within them.  They are at the ‘coalface’ of your business and may see opportunities that you are just not aware of.  It also gives you the opportunity to have a bit of a celebration at the end of cycles to jointly share the results.

If you network all your staff for brainstorming sessions you start to benefit from the “network effect” Two people have 1 connection. Five people have 10 connections and 12 have 68 interconnections.  So involving others quickly increases the number of opportunities to  get good ideas.

Understandably, you might be less keen to share your 3 year GamePlans with staff because it could impact on their careers.  But you can look for outside mentors and/or your professionals like accountants to brainstorm with them.

Our Mission Control tool helps to co-ordinate your entire team’s efforts on your GamePlans.


Our GamePlan System, outlined above, is based on best practice evolved by many leading management experts.

We have bundled it into a set of routines applicable, and useful, to small business. This is so that you can progress with your Sustainable Business Success plans as expeditiously as possible.

Ideally you have done the “Pause and Reflect” exercises as you read this article.

Now, take a moment to consider how much clearer your preferred 3 year destination, and the plans for the next quarter’s improvements are, using this framework.

Adapting this workflow to suit you and your business is learning to “work smarter, not harder”.

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