My Business Has Completely Stalled. What’s My Problem?

By Alexander Stein
Featured on BNET Insight | BNET Blog

Expectations are the fulcrum of business. Customers and clients will come or go on their expectation that you will, or won’t, satisfy certain requirements. Likewise, your expectations of your staff and yourself can propel you forward in common purpose or drive you apart in dissatisfaction.

Expectations are there to be met, dashed, or exceeded.

But what are they? Expectations are outcomes considered most likely to happen. They can be based on experience or they can be speculative – meaning the desired outcome rides on an unsubstantiated prediction or not necessarily realistic hope. As in, I like that company’s logo. I’m sure they make superior widgets. I’ll buy some. Or, this strategy tanked the last seven times we tried it, but I’m confident it’ll fly this time. Let’s go all-in.

While there’s no shortage of simple-minded articles intended to help business owners develop so-called best practices for managing customer and employee expectations, it’s really not so simple. Actually, expectations are more like theSupreme Court’s definition of pornography – hard to define but you know it when you see it. They’re personal.

I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations after I got this email from a reader who was responding to my last BNET post, “What’s Really Holding You Back From Getting Things Done?” (it has been edited for clarity):

I started my online business 4 years back … After our initial launch, the plan was to create more websites dedicated to other services in this space. Since then I’ve just been stuck with the one website and one relatively recent launch. I keep getting stuck with issues, feature requests, etc. How a couple of years went by like that, I’m not sure.

I guess part of the problem was that I just didn’t know how to hire for and delegate the work I was doing myself. I’ve tried delegating and I’m not very successful at it. I just want to do a lot of things myself because I don’t trust my team will do it well (they’ve made big mistakes in the past) and I just like to be in total control. This trait of mine unfortunately has led me into a situation where I’ve landed myself with such a huge to-do list that I don’t really end up completing. Plus, I’ve been so involved in solving issues as they come up that I haven’t really been supervising the team of people under me enough. Things just don’t seem to be progressing anymore. What should I do?

A cornerstone of my work as a business adviser is first understanding as much as possible about a situation and its causes before prescribing remedies. So without knowing a lot more, I can’t definitively answer the question of what this guy should do.

But this is what I hear at the surface: inadequate start-up planning and meager development strategy, indecisive leadership – including poor staffing choices, difficulties delegating, and ineffective management – and flat-footedness in identifying and addressing the myriad hurdles and set-backs most new businesses are bound to face in some form or another.

All important to correct. But they’re by-products. The real culprit: everything encompassed by what he calls “this trait of mine” – the underlying issues causing his self-defeating decision making, mis-calibrated expectations of what’s probable, and paralysis to effect necessary course changes.

I’d recommend a two-pronged approach to jump-starting this stalled venture.

  1. The first entails making a host of smart and solid business choices:
    • Staff: Cut the chaff and bring on some wheat.
    • Leadership: Consider engaging a sharp, seasoned co-helmsman.
    • Systems and Operations: Get competent assistance to analyze the administrative and procedural back-log and implement appropriately prioritized solutions.
  2. The second has to examine why these problems arose and then were left to fester:
    • Understand your strengths and weaknesses.
    • Enlist help for both.
    • Scale and align your expectations with your actual capabilities and circumstances, not the ones you wish you had.

Remember that expectations are about future events. And the key to advantageously managing expectations is correctly interpreting patterns from previous events.

So don’t just look ahead; look back too.