"Landing Gear, Lettuce, Bouquets, and Home Health Aides: Entrepreneurial Ventures and the Necessity and Fragility of Small Group Cultures"

Organizational scholars have traditionally argued that formalized operations to regulate the flow of business activities and employee policies to coordinate work distribution are essential for small enterprising business sustainability and growth. However, empirical findings show that small business owners and managers are concerned with immediate necessities and simply do not have time to develop, implement, or provide oversight of formal organizational practices. While small businesses seem to lack the formal structures and practices that are assumed to be essential for business sustainability, many small firms flourish. 

Instead of asking why small businesses fail to construct and implement formal processes, I ask: How do small firms generate order and stability? In order to better understand how small enterprising businesses are able to create and maintain stable organizations and adapt to environmental changes and grow, we need to better understand their inner workings and the forces that enable small groups to operate productively with limited resources and oversight.  

To investigate this question, I conducted a cross-industry ethnographic study of four small businesses—an aerospace factory, an organic farm, a florist, and a health aide placement service—examining the work of business owners and managers, the interactions of employees, and the way daily business activities are legitimized, challenged, and occasionally transformed. As an employee at these firms for eighteen months, I had direct access to organizational actors and practices. I collected and analyzed field notes, formal and informal interviews, internal organizational documents, and industry trends. With these data, I find that entrepreneurial firms enact three different small group performances that enable first stability under fluctuating internal and external pressures. I label these variations in culture: routine resting performance, routine crisis performance, and routine growth performance. Rather than standard operating procedures, proper emergency planning, or strategic growth initiatives, the ongoing creation and reinforcement of group histories, meanings, and affiliations provide the needed material to generate small group cohesion that enable productive operations of entrepreneurial firms.

Findings from this study will contribute broadly to research on entrepreneurial firms and organizational culture, as well as specifically to employee motivation, the development and preservation of routines, the efficiency of teams, and leadership. Insights will also provide practical suggestions for various organizations that support small businesses, including incubators and the SBA.