How do we stop and learn when we have no time to stop and learn?

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Sharon Jay

Through a series of three blogs, I’m exploring how SMEs such as Five Mile can create a better organisational structure that allows individuals to realise their full potential, and grow the business.

In my first blog I touched on ‘self-managed’ teams and their benefits to SMEs. In this blog, I’ll be digging into the challenges associated with implementing these ideas to create self-managed teams while also running a very busy agency: in other words, how do organisations like ours (and maybe yours) stop and learn, when it often feels we have no time to stop and learn?

Why do we need to stop and learn?

As we aim to become more self-managing as individuals I’m keen for us at Five Mile to develop our own self awareness: seeking out strengths and stretching ourselves beyond our comfort zones.

I believe that this will allow us to integrate better together as a team, enabling us all to understand the ‘big picture’ - which is crucial to our bottom line. We must be competitive and embrace a new mindset. To do this we need to stop and learn from the mistakes we make because they reveal important insights about us.

As with most small organisations, we've worked hard at Five Mile over the past few years to move in the right direction, implementing changes and working towards a better model. But the truth was, we couldn't - and wouldn't - achieve the optimal traction needed because we didn’t stop.

After all, learning by itself does not lead to progress. Stopping and providing opportunities to put what we’ve learned into practise does. We needed to stop being 'in motion' all the time

The parent/child dynamic in the workplace

From a business owner perspective, we need to manage ourselves and our working relationships with our team without holding them, or us back.

There are many variables to this. For example, as an organisation you might not be creating a nurturing approach within it. Instead, the culture could be driven by negativity where the structure in place means your team is wholly dependent on a director or senior manager. They in turn might fear things going wrong, because the buck ultimately stops with them. And no one likes it when things go 'wrong'.

This means that any mistake made by a less senior member of the team isn’t because they are not as talented as the director, it’s because as a small business, mistakes cost money. So in order to stop the issues in the first place, the director steps in - but often fails to empower the other members of the organisation to learn as part of the process. Put simply, this approach means the staff aren’t treated like adults.

Instead, you need to have faith and take some risks. Why? Because only by allowing a team - and individuals - to make mistakes (within reason) can they learn and progress as a team. We now know this is the case at Five Mile. And it’s probably true at many thousands of SMEs just like yours.

A five letter word

It all starts with TRUST: Admittedly one of the easiest things to say, but one of the hardest things to demonstrate. But this has to happen.

In Five Mile’s case, it’s about the directors - including myself - letting go of control, especially when times are very challenging. We need to empower others to show initiative to address challenges. We then enable greater flexibility which builds trust up even further. With that comes greater confidence, and greater confidence often equates to smarter decisions. In short, the days of us saying 'it's easier if I do it myself' are over.

It’s a cultural thing

The culture of your organisation is vital. No matter your size, culture will define you as a business. For Five Mile, a critical starting point was moving office to an environment that was open, inviting and creative. 


Norden house Basingstoke


Five Mile office in Overton

Taking up residency in our new space is also a strong signal to our staff: We are showing in tangible ways that we are serious about embracing change. It’s a sign to everyone that we are a company that’s moving away from old thinking, doing and habits.

Behaviour changes are also required: from utilising tools such as Slack and attending industry events, to empowering all of us to blog, Tweet, discuss, and meet new folk.

We have very good, talented people at Five Mile and we’re developing a culture where we share the same common goal and values. We have to live it. This is the case for all SMEs: It is incumbent on everyone in organisations to take responsibility for the culture. And with that comes some honesty. For Five Mile, we have to acknowledge constructively where we've fallen short, act on it, and then move towards getting better while supporting team members along the way.

Diversification: from our business offer to team structure

When we first started Five Mile back in 2007, we were pretty narrow - but good - at what we offered. Today, we recognise that the competitive landscape has significantly changed. This means we can ill afford to be either nostalgic or complacent. From the platforms we build on to the way we sell our services, it’s all about diversifying our thinking and creativity as a team. I like the fact that diversification leads to a quiet revolution for Five Mile.

It’s never over...

While nurturing an organisational culture takes time, the work never really finishes. But I for one won’t be impatient. What is crucial for any SME is that you take that first step and accept that organisational change is needed.

The inevitable challenges and problems that will come with this change will be frustrating, but for us at Five Mile, we will:

  • Keep focused on the long term business objectives

  • Review the changes, measure and reward ourselves

  • Provide support, energy and encouragement

  • Share our story and achievements

  • Stay true to our vision

  • Grow

We know in six months time things will be different - from workload to the kinds of clients we work with. But we have to grab this new approach and run with it. And I for one look forward to sharing our journey.

About Sharon:

I help identify and develop ideas and approaches to ensure that Five Mile continues to grow as a strong and ambitious digital agency passionate about user experience, open-source technology, community and culture. At Five Mile I take pride in ensuring that our talented and expert team deliver great digital experiences, create happy users and ultimately help businesses thrive.