From Above



Structure sets you free

One of the biggest lessons I ever learned was from a chap called Stephanus Loubser, my promoter for my final thesis for my MBA at the University of Stellenbosch, way back in 2003.

I was floundering. And Prof Loubser set me straight.

“Just put it into the structure. Then go from there,” he said. So I did what I should’ve done in the first place. I mapped out the standard thesis structure as an outline on Word. You know: Index. Introduction. Hypotheses. Research Findings. Further Model. Conclusions. Summary. Addendums.


Once I had the structure to work with, populating it was ridiculously easy. I had done all of the heavy lifting already, I just wasn’t sure what to do with all of it. The structure allowed me to logically progress to findings and conclusions. Six months later I graduated and even got some attention in industry for my fee model for corporate travel management.

I make no excuses for completely ignoring the lesson when I started PG TOPS in 2008. Maybe because my journey had taken me into corporate, where they oversystemized and overstructured everything, killing innovation and independent thinking.

My own business would be a freewheeling mess, where we would put the customer first (even if we didn’t quite know who that was), where there would be no working hours, operating procedures or code of conduct. Basically, show up, sell me your soul, and we’ll figure the rest out as we go along.

It worked for a while, actually. You can get a lot done with high trust, leading by example and A-players that think like you. But as your business grows, you figure out your focus and you hire people that are not exactly like you, the need for systems and procedures becomes a thing.

I was lucky, I suppose. I had been there before, so when the time came, I reluctantly went down that road. We called it the Code of Conduct document, and it served as our ever-evolving SOP document for over a decade. It gave birth to parallel systems as we started new businesses, but the core: Values, comms, the way we are with each other and what we want to be in the world... that was always the same.

These days, I don’t do it with reluctance. I now know my bad experience with big company culture is in no way correlated with systems implementation. The trick is simple. You need systems that simplify. Systems that take out the guesswork. Systems that allow you and your team to get on with the beautiful work of making magic for your stakeholders, and let the actual how be laid out in the most effective way.

Big companies create systems that make things more complex, because of the nature of the beast. That’s why small companies can always find a way to win because there you create systems that simplify.

This morning, I implemented the SAVE THE CAT system on my new book. And suddenly, a horrid mess actually looks like something I can go forward with. Excited to see where this goes.

I suddenly know why Max throws his brother under the bus. It’s now clear how winning at all costs can’t solve his problems. And how a walk to the lost city of the Incas finally helps him work things out for himself.

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