Sometimes, working “in” your business is more important than working “on” it

On April 20, 2010, an industrial and environmental disaster occurred on a BP-operated oilfield in the Gulf of Mexico. Known as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, it is the largest marine oil spill in history.

The company’s response to the accident may have had some influence in BP agreeing to pay US$18.7 billion in fines in 2014. BP’s then CEO Tony Hayward was on a yachting trip at the time and was roundly criticised by media and governments for making ill-advised comments after the spill and not immediately going to the scene.

The principles involved in dealing with a crisis or emergency are the same for small business owners and CEOs of major international corporations. Getting clear on priorities should be the focus of all business owners and leaders.

The lesson from Stephen Covey’s Time Management Matrix is that we should always focus on the activities in Quadrant Two (the important but not urgent):

Furthermore, the lesson from Michael Gerber in The E-Myth Revisited is to “spend more time working on your business than in your business”.

Both messages are true, but not always.

Business owners need to be clear that urgent things can be important, and must be dealt with immediately. The urgent and important range from making sure you have the right inventory (who will go back to a corner store that is regularly out of milk?) to backing up staff when dealing with cantankerous customers.

There are also occasions when the business owner must do the work somebody else has forgotten or done badly, or when a staff member is absent.

In times of natural or other disasters, being visible to support and help clean up is always more important than paperwork or planning. For a business in the start-up phase, getting the product to market and testing with customers is more important than working on strategic plans, policies and procedures.

Planning on an annual, quarterly, monthly, weekly and daily basis is essential for business success, but being obsessed with it at the wrong times can be expensive. Sometimes, we need to get the work done ourselves or be present to support the people who are doing it.

In the words of former US president Harry S. Truman, “The buck stops here.”

If you’re struggling to find a balance between working on and in your business, email me at