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Working at / in / on / out: four modes of work for your organisation or project

In The E-Myth Revisited Michael Gerber makes the distinction between working in your business (doing the jobs that need doing day to day to keep the show on the road) – and working on your business (taking time to make improvements to processes and strategy so that your business gets better at what it does and grows).

This is a critical distinction, and can be refined further.

Working at: product or service delivery

I’m going to use working “at” to describe the work that your business or organisation set out to do in the first place. If you’re a plumber, it’s doing actual plumbing. As a freelance translator, it’s translating. For a non-profit, it might be working in a community, delivering training or other services. This is the work you set out to do when you started – probably because you’re good at it, you think it’s a contribution worth making, and you like doing it.

Which is great… except that this “actual” work – we could call it the kernel, or the technical solution to whatever problem you’re setting out to solve – almost always turns out to be the easy bit if you’re serious about making an impact that is bigger than what you can achieve on your own. You’re going to find ways to scale the thing – more resources, more people, better tools – if you want to do more.

Working in: support functions

You’ll also find that the kernel requires a variety of support activities in order to work consistently. You’ll need to do things like communicate about what you do, find new clients and set up appointments, buy equipment, prepare, pay bills and salaries. Even employees with specific technical roles – say, teachers – perform support functions like planning and marking, attending meetings and writing reports… all of which is to say that there’s always a much larger wrapper around any technical solution that needs to operate to make the technical solution possible. Note, though, that if one of these things is your job – if you’re an accountant or a marketer or a manager, it’s not (for you) a support function, but a technical solution.

I’m calling these support activities working “in” your organisation, and if you’re working for yourself, you’re going to find that doing all this non-technical stuff that makes the kernel of “actual” work possible – is going to take up far more time – and be far more important – than you expect. Patrick McKenzie puts it like this:

Are you considering starting up a business because you wish to work on wonderfully interesting technical problems all of the time?  Stop now — Google is hiring, go get a job with them.  90% of the results of your business, and somewhere around 90% of the effort, are caused by non-coding activities: dealing with pre-sales inquiries, marketing, SEO, marketing, customer support, marketing, website copywriting, marketing, etc.

Patrick McKenzie – Running A Software Business On 5 Hours A Week

These activities are necessary and make a key contribution to your “actual” work, or you shouldn’t be doing them. And while it may be necessary to cut corners at times, the wheels will come of your organisation sooner or later if you don’t make sure they’re done well – especially as the organisation grows. The challenge is that taking the time to do them well will get in the way of the technical work and probably cause you stress (if you didn’t choose to train as an accountant you probably don’t want to be spending much time on your accounts).

You need to find ways to get these tasks done as well as they need to be done for as little cost in time, money and energy as possible. This leads us to the third type of work:

Working on: building the system

This third type of work will determine whether your organisation grows and thrives or grows and dies – perhaps taking you with it. You can think about it as building “the machine that makes the machine” – working out what needs to be done to help your organisation do its “actual” work and support functions more efficiently, and in particular, with less effort from you.

This means defining processes and roles; finding (or building) tools to speed them up or make them easier and cheaper; finding new people to work at the kernel or in the organisation by hiring or outsourcing; helping your team get better at what they do through training; working out jobs that need to be prioritised; and identifying which activities are actually low-impact, low-priority or non-essential and doing less of them. It also means working on less tangible things like your organisation’s culture, spotting weaknesses and working to address them before they cause too much damage.

Do these things well and over time you should start to see that your organisation is having more of an impact with less effort, and relatively more resources are spent on the kernel of “sharp-end” activities that are the reason you’re there in the first place.

Working out: going beyond and finding the new

The fourth and final type of work is, more or less, leadership within and beyond your organisation. Where working on seeks to improve and streamline the thing that you’re already doing, working out of your organisation (I’m open to suggestions for a better name) means looking beyond what you do to find new resources and opportunities.

Working out can be finding ways to go beyond what you already do to multiply the impact of your kernel of “actual” work. It might be a pivot to a new product or changes to your (charitable) business model, or a new way of combining (or unbundling) the things you offer to serve more people. It might be research, wider reading or anything else that helps you get better at what you do.

Working out also includes the creative and often highly social work of making connections with new people and organisations, setting up mutually beneficial partnerships and seeking ways to enrich the wider “ecosystem” of which your organisation is a part. It might be the work of finding new board members, bringing in entirely new resources or sharing your resources with other organisations in new ways, or bringing people together to enrich your network of partners and just see what happens when people come together and share about their work and vision.

Working out is probably what got you into starting your project or building your organisation in the first place – and if you’re not careful it will probably be what gets you into your next one…

Last words

There are no last words! More tomorrow on time-management and the four modes of working.

1 thought on “Working at / in / on / out: four modes of work for your organisation or project”

  1. I love this. ‘Working beyond’ works really well – beyond the limits of what we perhaps originally intended to do. Perhaps good structure to hang content around these 4 categories?

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