Most systems work best if they are kept simple, which is also very true when it comes to supporting small businesses, according to Carien Taute, who works daily with rural entrepreneurs at the Hoedspruit Hub in Limpopo.
“If we keep the way we support entrepreneurs and businesses simple, we have a better chance to offer them the support that will make a difference,” she said during the recent episode of the SEDA, IBASA and EPI Webinar Series for business support practitioners. The theme of the professional development webinar focused on using project management and coaching principles in supporting rural, townships & agricultural small businesses.
Taute explained during the webinar how they use the KISS principle – Keep It Simple Stupid – by offering clients access to six easy-to-use tools. These are:
- Problem Solving;
- Building Relationships;
- Skills Assessment, Training and Development;
- Project Management; and
- Experiential Learning.
These tools are used by Hoedspruit Hub in supporting a range of small business clients – from community-based vegetable gardening groups to fairly well-structured tourism destinations. Taute emphasised that the support process is based on progress over time, which may take several months or even years. Offering impactful small business development support is rarely based on finding quick-fix solutions, she said.
By starting out with Problem Solving, the practitioner is able to work alongside the client in developing a common understanding of the problems experienced by the business. This allows for the exploration of solutions and finding the best options to focus on.
Problem Solving is where you start, but also a tool to get back to later in the support process. As Taute said: “When you evaluate the success of the solutions your client implemented it may be that you find it helped, but did not solve the problem. This is why the Problem Solving tool is something you may start off with supporting your client, but also something you come back to later. When the outcome that was expected is not realised, you have to revisit the process.”
Building relationships is at the heart of working in rural communities, Taute explained. “The strength of community lies in the strength of the connections that we have with each other. If you can help build strong connections, you give people the power to make real change,” she said.
As building connections takes time, practitioners have to be patient and keep working on the relationship with their clients so that it pays off over time. This, Taute emphasised, is even more important in rural communities.
Tuate explained that building relationships start with self-awareness and an understanding of your own way of making sense of the world. This applies to both the practitioner and the client. At Hoedspruit Hub, tests to help understand personal strengths are used, such as the Gallup Strengthsfinder and i3 Profiling.
Another relationship-building distinction used by Hoedspruit Hub is to ensure a clear understanding that clients who are “hunters” need different guidance to those who are “farmers”. With “farmers” the focus is on seeking opportunities within existing accounts. These small business owners often need more operational and less project management support, so that they can cultivate existing relationships. On the other hand, “hunters” are small business start-ups who need more project management and less operational skills as they are constantly prospecting and seeking opportunities with new, unfamiliar leads or they start and sell new businesses.
Coaching is emerging very strong as a powerful tool in supporting small business clients to define a development path that is appropriate to their situation and which they have ownership of, Taute said.
“We follow a coaching approach as it helps to clarify the business vision and alignment of this vision with personal goals,” Taute said. “It helps our clients to understand the impact of what they plan for their business on their lives and therefore makes it much easier for them to take ownership of the activities needed to make their businesses work.”
At Hoedspruit Hub the practitioners who support small businesses through coaching make use of the GROW model to guide clients with problem-solving. This model is easy for clients to understand and practical for practitioners to use as it reminds them to focus on the four elements of the model:
- Goals are set to understand the problem and what you want to achieve;
- Reality is checked to identify the options, including the positives and negatives of each;
- Options are identified for the best solution, asking what to stop with, what to start with, what to do less of, and what to do more of; and
- The Way is plotted so that it is clear what must be implemented by when and by who, as well as how success will be evaluated.
Skills Assessment, Training and Development
When the best options for action are identified, it is important to ask who will be implementing these solutions. In the small business context, it is mostly the owner-manager who must lead such activities and the success of the solution often depends on the owner-managers abilities or in community-based agricultural contexts it may be the collective of the community members who are running the business. This is why Hoedspruit Hub includes assessment of business skills as a tool, for which the Sircula Application online assessment is used.
“Soft skill and project management gaps we can address through coaching, but where there are specific hard skill gaps, we aim to provide access to online learning, peer-reviewed articles, or free courses such as Oxford Home Study,” Taute explained.
Training courses are also offered when clients prefer the classroom environment and the required skills related to the Hoedspruit Hub’s focus on smallholder agriculture or community small businesses.
Using a project management approach allows Hoedspruit Hub to help their clients to have a temporary focus on a piece of work that does not form part of the usual business activities. The plan is clearly defined as something that is not part of the day-to-day operations and that it needs to be completed within a specific time period.
“We’ve found that basic project management skills significantly help owners of startups and small businesses to define clear goals, put a strategy in place, devise a realistic plan that includes the actions to be taken, and then track the actions to completion,” Taute said.
As a qualified project management professional, Taute is well-equipped to apply this approach with her small business clients. She uses a simple project management process, which she explained during the webinar at the hand of a chicken farming case study. Four steps are included:
- Create a work breakdown schedule to show how specific tasks are needed to lead to the completion of well-defined deliverables;
- Do a cost schedule or budget to quantify the financial implications of the tasks;
- Compile a time schedule or Gantt chart to plot by when what must be attended to; and
- Identify risks to create a risk register where mitigation options are described.
“Learning by doing is the best way of creating change,” Taute said. “This is why we build strong relationships with our clients and help them to learn while working on their businesses. The tools we use in doing so help us in making this a worthwhile and empowering experience for our clients.”
During the webinar, Taute guided the attendees in using an experiential learning activity through small group work in breakaway rooms. Attendees were tasked with completing the last step of the project management process, namely to identify risks and plan for risk mitigation of a chicken-farming case study. In this way attendees experienced the experiential learning approach to acquiring new knowledge.