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The canary in the coal mine

Published on: October 25, 2017

More than a century ago, miners used to take a small bird in a cage into the mine with them. The theory was that the bird was more sensitive to harmful gas in the air and would succumb to the harmful gases before the miners. The death of the bird was therefore a warning signal that conditions in the mine were not good and they needed to do something – quick. Crude but effective, so long as someone was watching the bird.

A creative business is very much like a coal mine in that you have a team of people working together to achieve an objective. They all work hard, and attempt to unlock the riches of the business. They generally keep their heads down and go hard until it’s quitting time.


Who’s watching the canary…?

Often the answer is no one, or they only glance at it from time to time. They don’t really give it the attention it needs.

This happens in small, medium and even large businesses. The main reason is everyone hates watching the canary. They hate to carry it, feed it, clean its cage, tidy up after it, talk to it, give it some tender loving care and make sure it gets some exercise… Yet it’s the canary that is going to keep their business alive, tell them that things are going well, that they can keep working hard and going in the direction they have been heading and that their efforts aren’t producing poisonous gas…

One of the conversations I have with clients is when their business is not performing as they expect it should. They call to talk about:

the results that they are getting (which are generally really bad); how they discovered the problem (billings are way down and the forward projections aren’t looking really good but everyone is working flat out and they have to regularly get freelancers);

and to ask my advice on how to get things working better again.

At some point, the conversation gets around to why did this happen and what do they have to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

The problem with this type of conversation is that it happens at a time when – continuing the canary analogy – the build-up of harmful gas is so great the explosion is imminent and the immediate solution is to run – i.e. sack people and go into recovery mode… It’s a stressful high-risk time that has a significant negative impact on the business.

It happens because someone wasn’t watching the canary.


So, who’s supposed to be watching the canary?

The owner/partners/senior managers of the business. Every person who manages people needs to take ownership of the canary.


What is the canary in every creative business?


The trick though is it’s not the amount of time that’s the issue. It’s the way that time is being “spent” that’s the problem. The key to watching the canary is making sure that time is being spent wisely and according to your expectations.

Use the Contact link if you’d like the rest of this article, where I discuss:

what produces the harmful “gas” in a creative business;

recent evidence of what happens in a creative business when you “don’t look after the canary”;

common issues when people record timesheets;

and the key reports that will help you monitor how much “gas” your business is generating…

In the notes, request the Canary article. Happy digging!

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