The Nitty-Gritty:

  • Tara shares why it’s important to clean things up–but not get caught up in making things perfect
  • Why the mess exists–and how that’s a feature, not a bug
  • How to use hypotheses instead of discrete goals to learn more about what works for you
  • How to create adaptable plans based on your particular mess and your goals

Businesses get messy—old products, defunct systems, cluttered inboxes.

And we’re talking about how to clean up your business all this month. You’ve already heard from Jereshia Hawk who took mess of offers and streamlined her business to just one product. You just heard from Mindy Totten who figured out how to clean up her schedule and work just 3 days per week.

You even heard from me about 3 ways I’ve been cleaning up my business over the last 2 years.

But, I think it’s also important to say that…

Your business will always be a mess.

The mess is a feature, not a bug.

Sure, we want to make sure there isn’t excess clutter or wasted money—but we also shouldn’t focus so much on making things perfect that we forget the beauty in the imperfection.

Today, instead of cleaning things up, I want to highlight the mess.

You see, your business is a series of interwoven systems, mechanisms, and information that impact and influence each other so that no one component can be singled out as a problem or a solution.

Every time you clean something up or organize a mess…

…you end up uncovering something else that needs to be addressed.

Russell Ackoff, a pioneer in both management science and systems thinking, said:

Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are extracted from messes by analysis. Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.

If you feel like you solve one problem only to discover another, this is why. If you feel like every time you make an incredible discovery about your business it changes everything, this is why. If you feel like everything you learn about growing your business seems to influence everything you’ve experienced running your business, this is why.

It’s a mess.

And that’s okay.

Your job is to manage this mess.

That means being willing to adapt, try new things, experiment, and — most importantly — accept that the work is never done.

Every change you make to your website has the potential to ripple through the rest of your business. Every adjustment you make to your pricing can set off a chain reaction. Every revision you make to your plan could create a counteraction later on down the line.

The more aware you are of the messy nature of your business, the more you can use the mess to your advantage.

The real problem is that…

You’re not planning for the mess.

When you plan for your business — whether it’s setting goals for the year or simply planning your actions for the week — you are most likely setting discrete goals or tasks.

It’s a form of projection or forecasting that can feel downright silly when there’s a tiny voice in the back of your head that says either “Yeah, right,” or “Nice try but there’s no way you’re getting that all done.”

Ackoff has an answer for this too:

The future is better dealt with using assumptions than forecasts.

Assumptions — or as I’ve referred to them before, hypotheses — help you deal with the mess.

In fact, they can help you use the mess to your advantage. You can expect the unexpected and anticipate a vast array of scenarios. You can learn to plan for the cascade of tupperware that falls out of the cabinet every time you open it!

When you decide on an assumption or a hypothesis instead of a goal or task list, you’ll see it as flexible.

The flexibility of your hypothesis means you’re more likely to adjust it instead of abandon it when you’re presented with challenges.

The more your adjust your hypothesis, the more you learn about your business, the mess, and how it works. The more you learn about your business, the better you’re able to manage the mess and anticipate how ripple effects or chain reactions will occur in the future.

Here’s how to get started:

Look at your goal or projects for this quarter.

Most likely, you’ve set those goals as definitive statements:

  • Enroll 30 new customers
  • Generate $25,000 in revenue
  • Complete a new online course to sell

Nothing wrong with those… but those goals don’t reflect the mess that is your business, right?

To reflect your mess, you want to identify the individual, overlapping, and inter-influencing systems that make up the way you achieve each goal.

For instance, you could say:

If I write 12 new blog posts with a Call to Action over the next 12 weeks, then I’ll generate 1000 new leads. If I market my program to those 1000 new leads, then I’ll enroll 30 new customers into my program.

Now, you can see the mess!

Writing blog posts with a Call to Action that generates appropriate leads is (at least) one system. Nurturing new leads and marketing your program to them is another system. Enrolling new customers is yet another system.

Each is interdependent on the others. If your blog writing & lead generating system doesn’t quite gel, you won’t generate the leads you need.

If you don’t generate the leads you need, you won’t have enough people to market to to close 30 sales.

If you don’t know what you’re selling and how you’re selling it, you won’t be able to write effective blog posts and generate relevant leads.

When things work out, you don’t worry about how these systems work together. You also don’t learn much about what works for your business.

When things don’t work out, you can be so focused on the disappointing outcome that you miss the obvious opportunities to improve on your plan and get a different result.

When you have a hypothesis instead of a forecast, you won’t simply bemoan the fact that you didn’t reach your goal. Instead, you have an immediate plan of action for how to improve your work and do better next time. You could adapt the type of posts you write, the frequency with which you write them, the Call to Action, etc…

Once you recognize your mess, you can start to see planning, goal-setting, and taking action as a process and not something that’s set in stone once created.

You can adjust your plans instead of abandoning them.

So as we continue to examine all the ways we can clean up our businesses, be sure to remember that it’s a process—not a destination.

The mess will always be there but we can get rid of the excess and examine what’s really serving us. We can embrace the strange way that the different systems of businesses are connected to each other—and we can use it to our advantage. We can stop striving for perfection and we can start embracing the reality of what works.


Of course, most online courses and small business training don’t take the mess into account.

They assume you’re following their blueprint or formula in a vacuum. And when the “simple instructions fail to produce the intended results… you blame yourself instead of accepting that what works for you and your mess is going to be different than what works for someone else and their mess!

That’s why The What Works Network is doesn’t buy into simple instructions, blueprints, or hype.

Our goal is to support you as you figure out what works to make your business better.

So sure, we’ll help you clean things up and we’ll support you as you work with your mess.

Here’s how we do it…

When you’re a member of The What Works Network, you get:

  • Access to our dedicated online conversation space so you can talk about what’s working–and what’s not–with other experienced small business owners
  • Live virtual events–like community roundtables and virtual conferences–so you can discover new ideas and enhance your skills while connecting with other small business owners
  • Monthly Flash Masterminds so you can put yourself in the hot seat with experienced business owners and work on your challenges or goals together
  • Monthly What Works Insider Hours with me so you can ask about what’s on your mind whether that’s your business, trends you’ve noticed, or what’s working for us
  • Concierge support from the What Works team because you’re never just a number in this network
  • Priority access to facilitated mastermind groups and retreats

Ready to join us? Membership is open through Wednesday, March 20 so we can be sure to give you the warmest welcome! Then, you can join us for our members-only Spring Cleaning Virtual Conference on March 21.