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…