Get smaller now so your business can grow again.

Having to manage a business through difficult decisions is the last thing anyone really wants to do.  It is the opposite of all the exciting things like getting started, developing new ideas and growing and developing.  But the sad reality is that often, for whatever reason, businesses do need to become smaller to survive.  COVID-19 has been an unexpected and unwelcome challenge, it requires us to think again, just when we thought business was already difficult enough.

The fallout of the COVID-19 crisis will create a different world for so many of us for years to come.  And these extraordinary conditions will require us to an even sharper focus on the characteristics of our businesses, including their size.  This could result in growth in some or all areas, but a consequence could be businesses becoming smaller so they are sustainable, and ready and prepared for scalable growth when the time is right.

What gets in the way is too many people, books and training courses are narrow-mindedly focused on start-up or business development and growth.  When did you last see a business book on the shelves that was all about being smaller?  There should be many more, at least the same amount as the rest.  It might explain why the self-styled start-up and growth ‘gurus’ appear to have gone quiet recently.  The need to reduce, restructure and recover is not viewed in the same positive and value-laden terms.

COVID-19 has changed everything: our ability to deliver; our workforce’s availability; and our customers’ needs, demands and preferences.  For some there have been opportunities, demand for their businesses has grown, whilst for many it has dwindled or disappeared altogether.  At the supermarket click and collect the friendly staff member told me business “was like Christmas everyday”.  And then there’s the boom for makers and suppliers of PPE and perspex screens.  Deliveroo riders have never looked busier.  On the other hand, many businesses, like hairdressers have been unable to open due to government restrictions.

This has got me thinking again if size matters in business.  See my blog: Bigger isn’t always  better  In that blog I highlighted the tendency for individual members of a group to become increasingly less productive as the size of their group increases; the Ringelmann Effect (1913).  It is a useful counter-argument to those who believe big is always better.  It isn’t.  Instead, Ringelmann points out how effectiveness and business performance can improve by getting smaller.

Recent times have caused us all to have concerns about our businesses and to rethink them – across all sectors.  In early years and childcare, we are in the frontline of anticipating and meeting children and families’ massively changing needs, whilst grappling with the realities of finance and business.  Parental preferences are changing enormously.  They are grappling with multiple considerations: health and safety and wellbeing; employment and economics changes; different affordability; new thinking about the type of setting (group or home-based); and new household routines.  The result is that need and demand could be much smaller in the short to medium terms than what we were used to before.  Which means many of us will need to learn to let go, release the vanity and pride attached to scale, and make some difficult and realistic decisions.

A well-known phrase is: turnover is vanity, profit is sanity, cash is reality.  After 20 years in business, I believe this is useful, with some justification.  Being in the private sector (I have worked in the charity, voluntary and public sector before) I am well-used to the unfair accusation of being exclusively motivated by profit.  I am not.  This of course is not only a simplistic view; it does not acknowledge we all have business missions and morals.  What we do is much more important than how much we do.  However, I am sure everyone in business appreciates the peace of mind and opportunities that money in the bank, generated by profit, offers the business.  And none of us should forget the ability to build profits or reserves has been significantly under pressure for the past 10 years after the financial crisis and throughout the period of austerity.  We have already been operating under extraordinary pressure.

There are five questions any business should ask and answer to support a new smaller direction:

  1. What were things like before?
  2. What is happening now?
  3. What do we think could or should happen next?
  4. How do we scale down to remain sustainable?
  5. What needs to be in place to enable effective scalable increases again?

Becoming smaller is not easy.  It can necessitate difficult choices.  Let’s shed the ego-driven fascination with expansion and be more interested in being better, more effective and positively impactful.  In COVID-19 recovery we need to ensure we are focused on the now, by being prepared to be smaller now or for the foreseeable future, before the next opportunity and our ability for sustainable scalability recovers again.

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Local lockdown in Leicester?

Speculation abounds that government will test and initiate a local lockdown. And guess what, we might be right in the middle of it in Leicester.

After a surprise reference to an increased infection rate by Matt Hancock in a daily briefing, Leicester has been the focus of much attention. Recent stories of COVID-19 spikes in parts of the city, local supermarkets and across communities have been shared over the two weeks since.

It’s been a two weeks that has seen winding two-hour queues snaking around the city centre streets and corners entirely for the pleasures contained within JD Sports and Primark. Roads have been gridlocked around the MacDonalds drive through and there were fights in supermarket car parks. A fortnight that marvelled in disbelief at the news our own elected mayor had broken lockdown rules on multiple occasions to stay at his partner’s house, for such delights including DIY. And 14 days that has witnessed a gradual, sensible and cautious return of safe behaviours, and the promise of the reawakening of bars, barbers and bistros ready for Independence Day on 4 July.

Three months in and am I really facing the prospect of a localised lockdown in Leicester? I was relatively prepared for the last one, and it’s stark and long lasting effects were tempered somewhat by the not knowing what would happen and for how long.

Another one is quite depressing. But it leaves me with lots of questions again about the what and the how and crucially for what duration?

I asked people and Twitter a few days ago what you would do differently if we were to lockdown again. Answers were varied. Invest in Amazon and inflatable hot tubs was the choice of the most entrepreneurial. Not book holidays in advance was the lesson learned of those weary of the trials and tribulations of securing refunds or rescheduled plans. Not plan weddings, birthdays, anniversaries or funerals was cited by those for whom life has been put on pause. Stock up on essentials was another, not loo rolls or pasta, but wine and hair clippers instead. One suggested relocating to NZ.

What would I do differently? This question now seems more of a reality than an opportunity for quiet and slow reflection. Will I do more exercise, will I do more writing on that book I started, will work carry on in the virtual community I’ve been an active part of this spring?

I’ll let you know once I’ve ventured out from under this duvet.

A route map for recovery in early years

Sitting in isolation in an empty office for weeks wasn’t exactly how I expected to celebrate my twentieth year in business.  Instead of celebrating, I am instead reviewing and reflecting and using this experience to inform what happens next.  I’ve also been on the end of the line for local authorities and providers searching for workable solutions to meet the challenge challenges of the pandemic.  It is a moral duty.  We are all working hard to make sense of current conditions and what it means to the early years and childcare sector, children, their families and the whole country. 

Before COVID-19 I thought it unlikely we had sated the political appetite for further increments in the hours added to early years and childcare entitlements – whether they be universal or targeted (two-year-olds and 30 hours).  But the direction of travel for the sector has been diverted in ways we could never have imagined.  So what next?

During lock down, early years and childcare was quickly recognised as part of the keyworker workforce and an essential service to enable other keyworkers to play their part in essential and ongoing services.  That was good news.  However, in reality, only around a third of providers have been open.  They have been working with around a tenth of the children they would usually work with.  That’s not come from research, but that is my sense, from all the conversations I have had, of what has happened in the sector.  Demand for keyworker childcare was lower than initially thought as many families worked out their own childcare solutions at home.  Lockdown meant just that, not only were we asked to stay at home, people preferred to do so, or had no other option. 

Providers have had an extremely difficult time managing the balance of service delivery, or not, and their financial sustainability for now, next, and later.  The task of navigating the various support available from local and national government (much of it unimagined and exceeding all our expectations) and making sense of reams of guidance would give Columbus nightmares.  All this within the context of coping with the uncertainty and unknowns of what is to come.  Through recovery, families will look at childcare through different lens.  Will they want smaller groups of children in settings?  Will they consider childminding like they have not done so before?  Will they want to use childcare for fewer hours and weeks, or vice versa?  Will they want their children to stay at home, or start later?

The key questions are all about what is next?  If we were to invent early years and childcare now from scratch, would it look like this?  I guess not.  The past 20 years has been a journey with high levels of incremental change sometimes at large scale, sometimes small.  Now, with the huge and unknown impact of COVID-19 on childcare need and demand, parental employment, and vulnerable children we probably need to tear up the rulebook. 

First, and most importantly, the sector needs as much stability and financial security as possible.  We are going to as much flexibility as possible, as recovery ebbs-and-flows in-and-out of lockdown or social distancing.  The most vulnerable families will feel just that and their wanting and attendance of early years and childcare may be unpredictable.  The economic fallout is likely to bring families in and out of eligibility of two-year-olds and 30 hours.  This will profoundly affect provider models as demand shifts and changes impacting on place sufficiency, capacity and use.  And as settings work out how to balance health and safety, with service provision and finances, they will need funding that covers the costs of vacant places, whether that be temporary or in the longer term.  It is rare a provider does not rely on parent fee income. This cannot be understated to those who seem to think they are wholly publicly funded. They are not. The impact on this private income could be devastating as the paid-for childcare market may plummet, take months or years to recover, or at least change massively.

Next, I would commission a really good literature review of all recent reviews and take the best from them, and complete a root-and-branch examination of all things early years for the parts they don’t reach.  I would look beyond UK borders as well. We must learn from what we know.

We must talk.  There should be a year-long dialogue, debate and discussion to coproduce a new plan and vision.  The plan must address all the inequalities and anachronisms and respond to the changed world. The whole sector needs to do more to collaborate and agree.

We must invest.  I don’t think this should come on-the-cheap, nor at the expense of some parts of the sector less able to manage the many demands and external pressures. Investment is needed, and more of it, for longer.  I’ve always said, the more you fund early years, the more we will deliver in return.  Funding should invest in quality at all points and be linked to operational costs fairly across the diverse structure of the sector from individual childminders through to large chains across the whole country.  Systems need to be robust to ensure quality and accountability but must not act as a deterrent for parents and children in accessing their entitlements, nor a barrier for the workforce to enter, succeed and remain in the sector.

Things need to be easier.  The systems need to be simpler for all, for ease of access to reduce unnecessary burdens and barriers for providers and parents.  The minimisation of risks related to government funding should not be disproportionate to the systems put in place to mitigate them.  That has never been truer than now.  

Everyone needs to have long term vision and to be patient.  These ambitions can only be achieved with a generations-long, high value investment to finally establish the sector and shake off its Cinderella past and create true equality. 

We need workforce parity too.  I want to see ways in which we achieve level playing fields within the sector, so all parts of it have equality, respect and the ability to deliver differentiated services tailored to families’ needs.  The workforce would need to be on par with other parts of the education system, properly resourced, and qualified early years practitioners should be no different to qualified teachers. 

We must reach children who need our help.  The best early identification and intervention services need to reach children earlier, their needs identified, and proper and effective multi-agency action taken to protect them, support them, and enable them to succeed physically, emotionally, intellectually, and economically.  Laming told us that very clearly in 2003.  I have seen growing numbers of children presenting special educational needs and disabilities, and speech and language delay. COVID-19 will most likely widen the gap for cohorts of children.

There is a moral duty to do what we can to ensure services are responsive, adequate and effective, so they provide equality of opportunity and tackle disadvantage. The effects of COVID-19 could very likely be multi-generational and are at risk of impacting on children’s and families’ opportunities extensively. By taking these actions, we will be much closer to the rewards we all want and need by supporting our youngest and most vulnerable children, and their families. We will all need to work hard to recover and to help families, the economy and the country to rebuild. We know how this can be done, we need half a chance and a following wind to prove it. Because childcare changes lives.

Government is telling us what to do like never before. Let’s think about it before we agree to comply.

Something fishy is going on. We are swimming in guidance and being micro managed. We need to get a grip of guidance and guide ourselves through life’s big decisions.

Now, the pandemic and lockdown are serious matters, let’s not forget that. And we have all done played our part in whatever way we can. Whether that be staying in, keeping going, keyworking, protecting others, or closing our businesses for three months. And we have done that by listening to guidance and deciding what we should and could do.

My worry is some of us are becoming guidance dependent.

I work in an area that is used to guidance, the early years. Have done for years. Often it is useful, sometimes annoying, once in a while it ties us in knots. Frustrating stuff. It does have its place. It should be read, understood, used to review and inform practice, popped on the shelf, and periodically referred to in times of doubt, innovation, creativity and preparation for inspection.

As a wider society and collective of professions, it feels like we are submerged under a wave of new well-meaning and detailed guidance. It is permeating all jobs and our home lives too. I’ve had to read early years guidance, schools guidance, retail guidance, personal trainer guidance, and barbershop guidance. Either as the provider or a recipient of the service. Never did I imagine I would be discussing government guidance on how to behave, stand and interact in a friend’s garden on her birthday. But that is today’s reality.

But I worry about the effects of this well-intentioned detail. I’ve noticed the ability for us as professionals and people to make decisions for ourselves is being diminished. I know I would never run a business like this. People would leave, or become demotivated, or dependent upon my every utterance rather than decide their own role and destinies. It makes me think these guidance creators, sitting in the government guidance factory, need to calm down little. And we need to have a strong future proofing on guidance and our actions as a result. Only this weekend, we have been sticking ‘keep your 2m distance’ signs on the shop floor. Everyone that looks at them says, “I’ve heard, it’s going to be 1m next week”. That’s even before the glue has dried.

I conclude it is the role of government to lead from the centre. I thank them for it. They should not manage from the centre. We all need to be allowed to live, decide, and make choices locally. I think we can be trusted to do that ourselves, and hold ourselves and each other to account. That way we can manage and deliver, and take control of our recovery and reopening. And when we do, central leadership should be prepared to be informed and learn from it. This should be a dialogue not a top down diktat. The result will be energy invested in doing, not over working, over thinking, or reading guidance. It will allow for flexibility to evolve, not a falsely manufactured view of all our work and lives designed by people who don’t experience it. I’ve always said, no one ever became an example of best practice by unswervingly following guidance. There is a greater balance to find at this time. It’s an important and serious time. Government guidance should keep its distance.  Then we can all be sensible, so we don’t store up more problems for the future.

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Working from home: the lockdown survival guide?

I’ve worked at home before.  But that was when I was able to go out and work in the field, delivering training or consultancy.  I could travel in the car or on the train and meet up with friends, colleagues, and new people, in familiar and different places.  It was quite the adventure so early in my career.  There was more of a balance then, and the arrangements suited my working style.  And don’t forget I could have a real social life too.  But I didn’t get everything right.  I struggled with boundaries sometimes, it was hard to switch off on occasion, and often work became too much.  No one was there to notice, and management didn’t seem to care much about my work and working arrangements as long as things got done.  As long as I said yes to what they wanted.  Then one day I learned how to say no, with a little help from a mentor.

Then I started the business at home.  That was different again.  Things were fast, exciting and affirming.  The business took off rapidly and was based around my dining room table.  The inevitable compromises seemed much more worth it then.  And we didn’t know for how long these temporary arrangements would last.  It turned out the dining room, of a small two-bed terrace, was the business hub for nine months – for three of us.  Then we expanded to convert the second bedroom into an office.  With three proper desks and two computers.  By then there were about five of us, so if you stood up, you lost your place.  Fortunately, many of us were out and about delivering externally. It was about another six months before we moved to a proper office and work left the house for almost 20 years.

Skip two decades and then, coronavirus happened.  Lockdown meant working from home, not going anywhere else to deliver, and existing on screen for meetings, seminars and training.  It has been a different scenario from start to finish.  Now, I’m fortunate I have my home office.  I realise that.  I value that.  So many have had to struggle in shared spaces, kitchen worktops and spare bedrooms (I know how that feels).  My study is not somewhere I do lots of work in.  Its more of a bolthole, filled with my things, and somewhere to retreat to watch boxsets, read, think, or sulk.  On the occasions work needs doing, then that’s where I go.  I’ve learned that boundaries offered by dedicated space afford such opportunities.  So, with lockdown, I did have somewhere to go to, a space that I cherished and could compartmentalise work into.

In the early days, work was slower.  I, like everyone else was trying to get my head around what might be happening, and there was a unique and unparalleled chance to slow down and rest, and ponder on what could follow.  Shorter days were possible, I was fortunate I know, and this allowed for some greater investment in self and the household.  As a keen multi-tasker I always enjoy being at my desk and listening to the washing machine or the dishwasher whirring away, or receiving deliveries.  It makes me feel more productive.  And breaks from work could be spent pottering in the garden, cooking, or completing other life-focused tasks.  Breaks, it is commonly said are crucial to work-life balance and our health.  But they are much less often taken than they are spoken about.  And so, such distractions and other things to do are invaluable.

Then work gradually started to turn in the direction of something resembling typical patterns.  We are still a long way off normality, but at least things are starting to feel busy and familiar.  Like many others I became a star of the small screen.  Zoom, Teams, Skype, Facetime all bringing the outside world into my private space and requiring me to put my business face on.  Such an intrusion.  How rude.  And one that needs managing and fixed boundaries.  Read my other blogs on video conferencing.  I had to check my home office space and ensure it was ready to let people into.

One advantage is I can wear the same shirt for several conference calls.  At least I thought it was an advantage.  I fear it is more of a slippery slope.  It hangs on the study door, only to be worn when on screen.  It is taken off after, ready for the next time.  The disadvantage is it means there is less laundry to do.  Which in turn reduces my multi-tasking opportunities.  Which then means I spend more time on work.  Can you see where things are going?  Time for a rethink, now this way of working has become much more frequent.  It is at risk of compromising my working at home survival guide.

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