Balancing The Three Jobs of Growing a Business: Lawn Mower, Plumber, and Contractor


Weeds are growing in the yard…so I’ve scheduled the lawn mower to trim the yard.
My wife told me the toilet is leaking at its base. I called a plumber to keep things running.
And we’re in the middle of working with a pool contractor to extend our patio to change the usefulness of our backyard.

It takes a lawn mower, a plumber and a contractor to run and increase your house investment. It struck me these are also the ‘jobs’ – in essence –to run and grow a business.

There are always opportunities to optimize, fix issues, and innovate in your business. This is the natural mix of requirements during growth. Sustained growth is achieved through the art and science of balancing between a portfolio of optimizing, fixing and launching breakthrough strategies. Or rather, being the lawn mower, plumber and/or contractor.

In my experience, many people in startups spend their time as a contractor…architecting, engineering, and building new ideas. Inevitably, there are too few people interested in being plumbers to fix problems from new products. Execution to build new ideas is good, but execution to resolve issues is not as good (or not as interesting). And there are few systems and little patience to optimize (lawn mower)..

At companies like Dell, employees are operational, executional, financial, superstar lawn mowers. Business Process improvements drove optimization to new levels. The goal is to squeeze every dime of cost out of or every dollar of margin out of existing products, functionality and programs.  Occasional problems arise and people are good plumbers, but there are few good contractors (change leaders)

As you can guess, neither of these extremes are healthy for sustained growth.

I believe ingredients for growth are:

  1. Innovate based on customer needs / desires
  2. Fix problems as they arise quickly by being close to the product/service and customer.
  3. Optimize the new product, strategy, process to compete effectively and be profitable

Easy to say and hard to do. The culture needs to support measurement, discipline and focus. You should have a mix of employees and measures to ensure capability and balance in all three areas. And Management needs the customer voice and financial optics to decide where and how much to invest between lawn mowing, plumbing and contracting new ideas.

I don’t have all the answers here, but here are some questions to determine where your company stands…

You know you’re in trouble when the leadership spends no time with any of these hats on, or too much time with one hat. Does the CEO pay attention to operational activities and execution, or do they spend all their time dreaming up ideas? Is there accountability to fix problems or improve programs over time? Are there business cases to pit new programs and products vs. optimizing existing ones, or is everyone driven to launch the cool new idea regardless of rational thinking?

Another suggestion…before spending a large amount of resources in any one area (such as contracting a new idea), ask how else those resources could be used for lawn mowing or plumbing, and compare the predictability return between these three areas.

One Response

  1. Andrew Bode says:

    Hi Sam,
    Great post!! I was thinking about the same topic a few weeks ago and came up with the following…know what it is you’re innovating and limit it. At first, this sounds antithetical to the spirit of a startup, but it just means you’re focused on a specific set of innovation while employing more tried and true practices to things where innovation isn’t as critical. Your thought completes the circle…that innovation can come at the cost of keeping everything in good repair (plumbing) and good order (lawn mowing).

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