Working On Your Business

Working On Your Business When You Can’t Work In It

By Matt McDonald
7 Min Read

There are times when every business faces obstacles to “business as usual”, and it can’t keep on doing what it has always done before, for reasons beyond its control – eg the 2020 Coronavirus Crisis.  For many business owners and leaders, you might find those periods will prevent you from “working in your business” as you might normally prefer to do – which makes those times perfect for “working on your business” instead.

What’s the Difference ?

Working in your business is all about execution – getting things done.  Designing and making products.  Making sales calls.  Getting quotes from suppliers.  Interviewing staff.  Writing marketing content.  Collecting and paying debts.  Filing taxes.  All good stuff that you need to do to make your business function, week in and week out.  And in a small business, owners and leaders have to roll their sleeves up and do a lot of that work themselves, which can actually be pretty satisfying or even addictive, especially when we get immediate rewards, like winning a new customer.


On the other hand, working on your business is inherently more strategic.  It calls on different skill sets and behaviours.  You might need to challenge your own assumptions and existing beliefs. You might need to do some research.  You might need to talk about unfamiliar concepts to people you haven’t worked with before.  You might need to admit that what has worked before for your business may not work as well in the future.  Can you see a trend here ?  It can be scary.  But its really important and, when its done well, its also incredibly powerful – because it makes all of your subsequent “working in your business” so much more focused and successful.

How You Can Balance Working In and On Your Business

Clearly, you need to be doing both – execution without a good strategy is usually inefficient and often ineffective, and the best strategies in the world are useless if they aren’t put to good work.


My advice to all small business owners and leaders on this point is simple: allocate time and resources to working on your business from time to time, eg through a periodical business review, and then make sure that you translate that thinking into practical actions that you can get cracking on straight away.


For example, at the Advisory Collective we schedule quarterly Strategic Reviews with an agenda (based on our own Six Pillars Strategic Framework) and:


  • Use our Strategic Plan to recheck our Goals and Strategies.
  • Ask ourselves tough questions about what isn’t working well, and what might need to change – including our own behaviours.
  • Review our own “SWOT” analysis, as a practical Risk Management exercise.
  • Capture and allocate strategic actions that we need to take before our next quarterly review – and make sure they are added to our weekly “WIP” meeting agenda.


Of course many small business owners and leaders will always struggle to find time to set aside for reviews like ours – which is where “fate” can help, after a fashion.

“Down Time”

No matter how hard we work, things don’t always go to plan.  Supplier deliveries are delayed.  Customers defer projects.  Machines need to be serviced.  And then there are the “black swan events”, like the Coronavirus pandemic.  When these interruptions and shocks occur, you may not be able to achieve much – apart from being busy for its own sake – by working in your business, so isn’t that a great time to instead be working on your business ?

Of course there are real mental health risks to business owners and leaders in really tough times, and I certainly don’t believe that “working on your business” is the right thing to do if you are becoming clinically anxious or depressed – there are other things that you should definitely be doing first.

A Tale of Two Clients

Here’s a true story from the Coronovirus crisis, about two of our clients in very similar industries and with almost identical business profiles and resources.


Client X lost most of his forward sales orders when social gathering restrictions took effect.  He immediately called in his team and they worked furiously to launch a new business selling their usual products to consumers rather than their usual corporate customers.  They launched within  a matter of days without testing or marketing, spamming anyone they knew.  Their ordering system malfunctioned and their production costs were higher than expected.  Sales were lower than they hoped.  The owner and his team started to become even more worried, until we gave them some tips on what they could do to improve their business model and create and execute a marketing plan.  In the long run they will be fine, but working harder “in” their business has actually cost them both time and rework costs now.


Client Y, on the other hand, took a bit more time to come up with a “direct to consumer” business model and launch strategy.  They asked for our advice early, and were sober about their short term expectations.  Their new business consciously leverages the product and brand strengths of their suspended core business, and will give them increased operating scale and better overhead utilisation in the medium to long run.  Sales started low but are slowly rising, and will improve as their cost-effective marketing campaign yields results.  They know that their new business is a “start up”, and they are learning as they go – like all start ups should.  And they are also investing in refining their core business now to make it even better when restrictions are eased.  In short, working “on” their business during a crisis has helped them to mitigate recent losses and is setting them up for much greater success over time.

Remember, Working On Your Business is Affordable

The most important investments when working on your business don’t cost much at all, in terms of financial outlays, especially when you have more time than usual.  For example:


  • Clarifying your Purpose, Vision, Mission, Values and Goals – that work requires personal imagination, perspective and judgement above all else.
  • Researching competitors and customer behaviour – hello Google !
  • Doing that Risk Management Plan you’ve always put on the back burner – you can start with a simple “SWOT” exercise.


We do believe, however, that there are some matters where working on your business is a lot more effective when you invest in some inexpensive paid tools and services – for example, at the Advisory Collective we help our clients with highly affordable:


  • Business Health Checks – great for identifying risks and opportunities across all of your business.
  • Strategic Planning – we have a highly practical, plain language tool and facilitated process that can help you to produce a strategic plan for your business in less than a week, with less than a day’s personal investment from you.

What Are You Waiting For ?

If you wait long enough during a crisis, it will (thankfully) pass and you will almost certainly find plenty to do working in your business again.  In the meantime, don’t give in to worry, boredom and idle speculation.  Put on your smart business pants, turn off the cat videos and start working on your business today.

Matt McDonald

Matt McDonald

Matt has worked as a CFO, Acting CEO, Company Secretary and Head of Sales and HR for 30+ years.

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