We think of scaffolds as a construction tool, but scaffolding is equally important in business. This post defines business scaffolding and promotes its use as a critical business tool.

When I was in Hong Kong several years ago I marvelled at the common use of bamboo for scaffolding – even for ten-story buildings. This went against my preconceived ideas of how scaffolding should be made – good thing I’m not in construction. But I do help to build businesses, so I started to think about how the concept of scaffolding could serve a similar purpose in this context.

So many of the professionals and businesses I work with initially don’t have business plans. They’ve run their business day to day hoping for opportunities, trying to make the best of them, and holding their breath during tougher times.  At some point, they decide there might be a better way to run their business, but they aren’t sure how to start.  This can also be true of firms that have identified a change that needs to be made, but are unclear on how to proceed.

When a building needs repairs or reworking, the builder erects scaffolding around the building’s exterior. So what, I wondered, was the business equivalent of a scaffold? I realized it could be a number of things:

  1. Perspective: Scaffolding enables the crew to work on the building without standing in it.  Einstein said that you can’t solve a problem on the level at which it occurs.  My experience with firms has been that it’s far more difficult to solve an issue when you are in the thick of it.  The best solutions arise from objectivity.  Scaffolding is a metaphor for standing back and considering a business issue from a broader perspective.  How?  Occasionally a firm has a partner who is good at this, but that’s rare. You could establish a team of internal perspectives (including lawyers, senior staff, and representatives from appropriate administrative departments) to consider the issue. More often, firms will bring in an outside expert to do research, make an assessment and come up with a recommendation.
  2. Preparation: It takes some time to erect scaffolding.  Its very structure is dependent on its needs.  How many people will it hold? What parts of the building must be made accessible to workers?  How long will it be up?  What conditions must it weather through?  How will the building look during this process?  Firms starting to plan or preparing to undergo change should go through the same process.  What are we hoping to achieve, specifically?  What are the steps required to accomplish our objectives? Who will be responsible for each step? How will we monitor progress?  Who will keep everyone informed?  When will the process be completed?  How will we define success?  Scaffolds are visible, and so should be your plan.  That means it’s a document, and not simply a shared belief system.
  3. Support: Scaffolds enable workers to move around a building safely in any direction needed in order to complete their task.  As you embark on a decision-making or change management process, what support structures do you need in place?  Have you prepared for buy-in by engaging all the right people in the process?  Do you have the resources, funding and technology needed to support the outcome?  Do you have a communication strategy in place to keep people informed and ensure momentum and enthusiasm remain throughout the project?  Do you have reporting periods in place to help people stick to the plan?
  4. Boundaries: Builders don’t suddenly decide to add another floor or wing to a building: they work within the areas that have been planned for and supported, defined by the scaffold. Scope creep is a dangerous and expensive concern for firms engaging in any kind of decision-making or change.  We are all aware of how important it is to keep outside suppliers on-task; however having worked both inside and as a supplier to law firms, I can assure you that the biggest culprit of scope creep tends to be the firms themselves.  Projects need boundary definition for the firm as well as for suppliers.  A documented plan means that boundaries have been defined, and can be defended.  If the firm decides to expand a project half-way through, appropriate scaffolding needs to be erected (i.e. perspective, preparation and support need to be considered and planned for first) before the additional work can take place.

Most firms like the idea of innovation, but forget that successful implementation is seldom the result of spontaneous action. Business scaffolding ensures that business decisions are done with due consideration, proper support, and a degree of risk management.  Admittedly this isn’t as fun as that time in your youth when you and your friends decided to build a tree house; but the outcome will undoubtedly be safer, more effective, and last much longer : )