June 11th, 2019

4 Lessons from Building a Lean Organization

by Scott Gillum

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

First published in The Marketing Insider on June 7, 2019

Last year, our first full year in business, our marketing services firm delivered seven-figure revenue and was able to return 40% of the initial investment back to our investors. This was done despite having no full-time staff, no overhead, no products and no footprint.

How’s that for lean?

We’re built on a talent management platform. Or, said differently, we use a collection of non-traditional workers: people like stay-at-home parents, semi-retired executives, freelancers and side-giggers who work to get something done and not to “punch a clock.”

It’s now been close to two years operating in this environment, and we’ve learned a thing or two about being agile and lean.

Make no mistake, it’s very difficult, but also very rewarding.

If you’re trying to create a lean organization, or transitioning to it, here are some things to consider:

1. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Operating lean and agile by definition means removing much of the structure that has traditionally slowed the organization. You will find yourself getting caught in the trap of wanting to add back those things you are comfortable with. You need to become comfortable with the discomfort. find a way to inspect the decisions you’ve made to stay true to the mission.

2. Rent, don’t buy. Better yet, get it for free. The only asset we own is the computer I’m using to write this post. We are the poster children for SaaS. Our online version of QuickBooks back-ends into our accounting firm (we have no finance department, obviously). We operate the business on G-Suite (we have no IT), use Asana for project management (internal and external), Slack for communication, MailChimp (free version) for our monthly newsletter, and our site sits on WordPress (also free, and we bartered services for hosting).

I have two virtual assistants, one live and the other automated (free). Additionally, we are constantly on the lookout for new or better (cheaper) tools. Never sit still.  

3. Opt for aggressive, active management. The flexibility of an agile organization is only valuable if you actively manage it. We manage project probability almost religiously. As we watch costs come in, we may merge workstreams, focus on producing outputs faster, shift hours and resources to other projects, etc

If we are engaged in a project using agile design, we use a very disciplined project management approach and proactively run a resource ahead of the delivery schedule. Anything we view coming down the workstream that is anticipated to be out of scope, we bring up during our weekly meeting. Just like the cheer, you have to “be aggressive…b-e-a-g-g-r-e-s-s-i-v-e.”

4. Find someone to make you do what you hate. For me, one of the best things we’ve done is to contract with someone tasked to make me focus on the things I don’t like to do or think about.

For example, my natural state is to “go do,” so taking the time to document how we do things is not usually going to happen, even though I know it’s valuable.

By having someone force me (literally) to get it out of my head and down on paper, we are able to create standard operating procedures that allow for automation, outsourcing, and/or creating self-directed how-tos, guides and videos.

Find a way to address your weaknesses. Don’t ignore them — they will come back to bite you.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a whole host of things that we haven’t learned or addressed yet. We still need to build a pipeline, create a steady flow of opportunity, find a way to scale the business, etc. The business is on a path for more steady growth, but almost everyday I have to keep myself from slipping back into old habits and routines.

It’s not easy being lean…


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