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The Unknown Unknowns

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Boxer-turned-biter-turned-actor-turned-singer/songwriter Mike Tyson may have the best advice for founders as they look to grow their fledgling organizations – Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.

It’s true that the life of a founder (and that of a startup) is a tumultuous one. And yes, there are indeed ways to create culture, structure, and processes that allows a company to survive through many of the growing pains that nearly every startup faces.  However, what’s even more difficult is building a growing organization that develops a more defined structure and that can handle the unknown unknowns – the curve balls couldn’t possibly be thought of.

There is certainly a difference between the problems that can be remedied with better systems, structures, and processes (what Kennedy School Professor Ron Heifetz dubs technical problems)  and these much tougher and unpredictable problems (the unknown unknowns – Heifetz calls these adaptive problems). Building an organization that will succeed in wrestling through both types of obstacles can be very difficult. Doing so really comes down to one thing: people.

Most startups are first set up to be nimble and so its early team can often manage through these adaptive problems. As a company grows, the people brought on and the increased structure that comes with growth has the potential to reduce the organization’s adaptability.  However, a team that can handle adaptive challenges (being punched in the mouth) despite an increased hierarchy, is one that has the potential to thrive.  Building and maintaining such a team, however, is easier said than done. Here are a few pointers for doing so:

  • Hire Strategically: Before you think about hiring someone, think hard about what the business needs. Think about outcomes or benchmarks that the team needs to hit over the next 12 months and then ask yourself what capabilities and skills would be needed to achieve those outcomes. Geoff Smart and Randy Street discuss this protocol in their book “Who: A Method for Hiring.” Their work provides a strong foundation for thinking in a structured way about building your organization.
  • Consider the Intangibles: However, with a startup, you can’t just hire for outcomes. Ask, how will this hire impact culture? How will it impact the responsiveness of an organization in rapidly changing environment? Is diversity of opinion a good thing for this role or do you want someone with a consistent background or outlook to the person he/she will be reporting to? Pressure test both the tangible and intangibles in a person and his/her contribution to the organization.
  • Know the Realities of Biology: “Works well under uncertainty” is a line that nearly every startup job description has embedded somewhere. There is of course a spectrum with respect to peoples’ abilities to handle uncertainty, but a founder should be well aware that maintaining a sympathetic nervous system is unsustainable for anyone.
  • Understand your people: Every person who joins your organization has his/her own pre-occupations, personality, as well as reactions to authority and to structure.  Gaining insights into these pre-occupations will be essential for navigating them thoughtfully when you have to make difficult decisions that may hit a particular employee’s nerve. 
  • Keep a set of confidants: Maintaining perspective throughout the tumult of building and developing a team is essential. One way of doing so is by having confidants – those who you trust, but who are not directly associated with the business. Use them to help you get and maintain perspective around the work ahead.

Oh yeah, and keep your head on a swivel…


3 thoughts on “The Unknown Unknowns

  1. When I saw this post I immediately thought of Donald Rumsfeld’s famously opaque speech involving unknown unknowns, so I had to read it. For the most part I agree with you, although I’d have liked to see some more concrete advice/rules of thumb rather than general things to keep in mind. For example, how can I “pressure test” a potential new hire? In all fairness, my post could be perceived as somewhat light on details; but it’d have been nice to see here regardless. I liked your last point about confidants. I think you’ve hit on something there that many entrepreneurs eschew for secrecy, pride, or whatever. It’s definitely easy to lose perspective and overlook glaring problems without someone to check your work. It’s also great therapy to talk it out with someone you don’t need to rely on professionally, especially if it can take a bit of the burden off your spouse or partner.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. Pressure testing can take place through a number of the tactics that Geoff Smart and Randy Street highlight in their work (asking for real examples of instances when a candidate had to deal with uncertainty and going deep into that example). Generally, the theme here is that young companies are adaptive organizations and as they grow they become more mechanical and structured in nature. It is no surprise that his shift may cause tension with the first wave of employees. However, a shift from nimble to structured also has the potential to have adverse consequences on the ability of an organization to manage through the tumult of being a startup (albeit a later stage one). People create culture and since “culture eats strategy for breakfast” making sure you have a dynamic team that can do more than just hit pre-determined benchmarks is integral.

  2. I like your anecdote that people are the only ones who can tackle the unknown unknowns. I think besides what you’ve mentioned, what is also important is that you build an environment to enable the people you hire to act on the unknowns. It will be hard for even the best talent to act if the environment they are in doesn’t inspire, support and enable them to do so. I think an additional topic that would be interesting to explore is how do we improve our abilities to enable and empower our employees to act on these unknowns, is it through structure, through culture or something else?

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