biz-agilityI frequently remind small business owners that flexibility and agility are important advantages when going against large competitors. But, what does that actually mean? Here are 5 things that your small business can do to be more agile than most huge conglomerates. And here’s a hint up front: you need employee buy-in for every one of them.

#1. Broaden the business focus.
One colleague frequently tells the story about ridiculous change requests that clients would make during demos of their nearly-completed custom software. In spite of the absurdity of the requests, the company president always responded in the same way: “Sure. We can drop that in.” Everyone in the company feared that phrase, but they always accepted the challenge and they managed to drop in the new features every time.

Unlike their big-business counterparts, small business employees tend to have an entrepreneurial spirit. They readily accept last-minute challenges (as long as the ROI of the client stays intact) that clients dream up to achieve a win for their team.

This type of flexibility also allows you to expand service offerings to meet perceived client needs. Maybe a custom software client liked the training system that accompanied your software better than the documentation that they use for older, existing systems. You may be a software vendor, but maybe your technical writer can venture out to resolve the client’s documentation problems. They may jump at the chance to have you develop a new training system that fills their employees’ existing learning gap.

#2. Build flexibility into employment policies.
Small businesses tend to throw more employee time at issues, rather than adding people. At some point, employees will burn out, unless you provide time to refresh through flexible scheduling, pay and vacation policies.

Your employees need to know that you insist on their right to start vacations as scheduled and that no one from the company will call them during that sacred time. Just as important, just about everyone knows the difficulty of handling personal business during the work day. Never frown on the occasional personal call — and make sure that your employees feel comfortable asking for a little (paid) time off so they can let the cable guy in or attend a child’s all-important kindergarten graduation.

Flexible employment policies demonstrate that you respect your employees’ time. They’ll give you more of their precious time to meet special emergency needs when you return the favor and make their lives a little easier.

#3. Develop employee cross-functional knowledge.
When big companies lose employees to vacation or illness, any number of employees have the same job description and can take on part of the load. Small businesses, of course, do not have precisely the same luxury. But, when employees are cross-trained, you’d be surprised by how well they can step in for each other when needed.

Cross-training requires careful forethought and planning. Some workers are busy every moment of the day; other jobs involve workload peaks and valleys. Similarly, certain employees need to be in a specific area at all times, while others are more mobile. So, while you probably don’t want to train busy cashiers to handle the receipt of shipments in the back, they might be able to assist customers on the showroom floor, as long as they can get back to the register quickly.

Do you know how to operate the register or help customers who are looking for specific products? You probably have a million things to do, but if you need to take an occasional active role in day-to-day operations, you can keep things moving while gaining valuable insight into processes that need it.

#4. Establish realistic priorities.
Even when you have employees who can back each other up, it doesn’t mean that you have to double their workload when one person calls in sick. Not every task needs to be done with the same urgency. When asking employees to do fill-in work for an important assignment, take a lower-priority job off their plate – at least for now.

#5. Invite honest communication.
Small businesses are naturally prone to more high-stress times than their larger counterparts. Make sure that all employees know that they can come to you without negative repercussions before they reach the boiling point.

Work together to develop reasonable solutions. Offloading less savory tasks to other workers or shifting an unreasonable burden from one person to another are generally unreasonable. But, balancing the workload by removing bottlenecks or eliminating unnecessary steps are solutions that can resolve issues now, while improving operations over the long run.

Agility creates long-term business growth.
Agility creates more than one-off solutions. If today’s emergency creates a way to produce more products or services without over-stressing the workforce, why not continue with the new process once the immediate pressure is off?

Today’s flexibility creates long-term opportunities for growth. And, if your growing business can retain an agile spirit when other growing competitors start taking on the more robotic attitudes of the big guys, your company can retain the competitive edge that keeps your employees engaged — and your customers coming back for more.