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The Daily ParadoxStartup Business

The Daily Paradox: A nimble-sized company

Small’, ‘SME’, ‘tiny’, ‘little’ – all words that somehow smack of disadvantageous size. Now my friend Ian Hong has come up with ‘a nimble-sized company’. If ever a nail was hit squarely on the head that must be it. There are millions of nimble-sized companies all over the world. From the ageing fisherman in the Caribbean to the teenage programmer in Tana Merah, each nimble-sized company is alive and struggling, proudly proclaiming the message John Steinbeck offered back in the Great Depression of the 1930s. “Muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need. This is humankind.”

Of course the nimble sized company needs nimble brains to make it work. But then so does the mammoth, forging its way to greater mind blowing achievements. The world has opted to believe nimble means fast. It doesn’t, it means first, observing and second, quick thinking. Not just speed but creativity in perceiving relationships. Quick thinking is smart, not time restricted.  It can be used for good or bad. Nimble no more equals right than it does wrong. But it does mean shrewd with all the mental leverage that suggests. And it embodies all the connectivity of mind and the ability to relate events to each other.

The future is what we live for, forecasting is the fertiliser of a plan. Are nimble companies better at this than behemoths? If so, why?

The answer to that is not easy or glib. I can cite companies I had dealings with that were nimble in their day – which is a long time ago. They are not necessarily still nimble today.

Black & Decker at the height of the do-it-yourself market growth was able to respond to shifts in labour prices even to the point where they could marshall their advertising to suit the next weekend’s opportunities. Bob Appleby was a nimble manager. Tesco, too, was perpetually nimble, and with a few hiccups on the way it remains nimble still. In a totally different category Beechams predicted and reacted to the spread of winter flu in Britain. Reckitt (then ‘& Coleman’ now ‘Benckiser’) was forever quick off the mark and Gillette fought a flighty battle with the advent of electric razors. Size was not a prerequisite to nimbleness.

So what was? My observations always led me to the same two conclusions.

The CEO allowed the people to do their jobs. That didn’t mean s/he neglected them. On the contrary, they paid a great deal more attention to their colleagues than those getting worse results. But the attention was to the people, not to their work. No nit-picking micro-management but plenty of care for the individuals. Don’t tell them what to do, tell them how well they do it.

And also the profit or cost units were as small as they reasonably could be. Every member of a small team knows the importance of being nimble. In a big group it is not only more difficult but the responsibility for nimbleness is diffused, sometimes to the point where it disappears. So it’s not the size of the whole company that provides nimbleness but the size of the operating unit within it.

When Ian said ‘nimble-sized companies’ I didn’t think of their market cap but of the people making and selling the products. It is their minds that create or destroy ’nimble’.

It is their nimble hands that glow in the product or service they give.

Bless the nimble. The world needs them now more than ever.

Good morning
John Bittleston

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9 April 2024