Avoid hellish bureaucracy

No matter what framework you uphold to justify your decisions, stakeholders will typically acknowledge the logic of it, but in practice ignore it.

The Great Silence, Brad Dunn on Product Coalition

It is so easy to be lean and mean when you’re small and go heavy and lazy when you get bigger. In one of lifes great mysteries otherwise capable people transform from being efficient and getting things done to being caught up in infights and bureaucracy with limited progress to show for it.

I have often wondered why this is so? Why is it that even agile entrepreneurial organizations have a tendency to become stuck, as they grow bigger? Is there some kind of inflection point for startups in which, when they reach a certain size, the fundamentals of the culture just change, and you go from focusing on customers and solving their pains to being stuck in a world of your own organizational pain? I am tempted to say yes.

Maybe this has something to do with the stakes getting bigger or the stakeholder map expanding. When people invest their time and money in helping you out, complexity grows. Relationships need to be forged, managed and balanced. Especially the balancing part takes time and skill, and getting those things right take away time, ressources and focus from what you were doing before that essentially brought you into the position, where you could take more people and money on.

It’s probably impossible to think of a threshold for when this transformation happens, and it’s equally impossible to come up with a ‘one size fits all’ fix to it. But I do think there is one general piece of advice for to startups worrying about becoming too complacent and bogged down in bureaucracy:

Keep hold of the people in your team, who are die-hard executers. Provide them with the freedom to operate and do what they do best. Grant them the flexibility to devise their own ways of scaling their efficiency, and resist the temptation to step into their way.

You need to have someone on board to provide direction and guidance for where your startup should go on it’s growth journey. In essence that’s a job for you in the founder team. Don’t fall into the trap of starting to overthink processes and stay clear of the idea that frameworks are the silverbullet to solve anything. They’re often not.

Bad ass execution have a tendency to move things forward. So keep traveling down that road.

(Photo by the blowup on Unsplash)

BMaaS

Have you ever thought about how many different SaaS tools for business there are, who help you get things, you have decided on doing, done, but how few (great) tools there are at helping you reach the right operational decision about what to do?

As a former business manager with a deep passion for getting involved and being operational on this and that I have often wondered. Especially since I have first hand experienced how the decision making process in corporations is inherently flawed.

Many of the decisions being made are not necessarily based on the facts or the access to the best data. They are based on habit, hearsay, politics and whatever else somewhat murky pretext. And the results show;

Poor decisions leading to sub-par initiatives and less than optimal outcomes.

It’s a huge problem for many large organizations but also one it’s hard to talk about and address efficiently, as any kind of fact finding and urge to try and improve the status quo will undoubtedly uncover all the hidden flaws of how decisions are actually being made.

In software development the problem has to a large extend already been fixed by agile development methodologies and processes. Here widely adopted and accepted frameworks already exist, and there is a plethora of software platforms and tools that help facilitate smooth and efficient development processes – examples such as Jira and Asana comes to mind.

Of course it would be possible to take some of these platforms and adopt them for ‘operational business development’ rather than software development, and many already do that. But why the need to settle?

In my mind a very valid question to ask is this: Why shouldn’t operations – the day-to-day job of execution to make a business work with customers, suppliers, employees and other stakeholders – have the benefit of the same kind of lean mean software orchestration, as software development already has?

Of course it should.

We could call it ‘business management software’ and define it almost as a kind of OS for operations or an exoskeleton for operators enabling the organization to get even more out of employees, who are already doing a great job.

Solving the operations efficiency challenge centered around transparent, data backed decision processes based on context could prove to be an unlock of immense value for corporations large and small. And thus also an opportunity worth pursuing for entrepreneurs looking to deliver real tangible value for business users – and operator-savvy investors understanding the inherent opportunity in this space.

(Photo by Adeolu Eletu on Unsplash)

Triangulating opportunity

Some people get great ideas out of nowhere. They just pop up at the most unusual times and places. Other people can spend weeks looking over the ocean hoping to catch onto something and eventually leave the beach empty handed.

And some people just have a basic fear of the blank sheet of paper – of getting started at all. They need help in order to get the mind juices working.

On that note here is a small idea that might get you started:

One of the things I have often found helpful is to look into different kinds of trends and then try to combine those to see what pops into my mind looking at it.

I call that the ‘triangulating opportunity’. And here is how it works:

You draw three overlapping circles on a blank sheet of paper – Lean Startup style but with a sizable overlapping area for notes.

Then in each circle you write down a trend, you have observed and/or read about – something you know to be true and not just the figment of your imagination. Do so with a headline and small comment on what makes you think the trend is interesting and worth diving into.

Once you have done that for all three circles, you start looking at the overlaps and intersection of all, and then you start thinking about what opportunities could arise from combining the different ones.

Now, it needs to be said that there are no firm rules for which trends go with which trends. It’s all up to you and you need to try and do the combination. In fact, you could argue that the more unusual pairings, you make, the bigger the opportunity to come up with some truly novel idea nobody has thought of before.

What could an example of three trends be?

Fx what would happen if you tried to find opportunities in the intersection between ‘Second hand’, ‘Local’, ‘Instant Delivery’? Could something come out of that? Something that draws on the best elements of all three? I don’t know, but the example is simple and should give you an idea of how this works?

No matter what you get out of it, you get one instant win: You get yourself away from thinking and brooding about something with nothing to show for it. You get an assisted start towards something – potentially – and that’s always better than – well – nothing at all.

(Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash)

Reframing “How Might We…”

In my previous agency job I spent quite a lot of time working with the Google Design Sprint methodology, and I even got to a couple of moments of fame, when I both ended up teaching the methodology at the Danish Technological Institut as well as running a sprint for Google themselves.

There were – and are – a lot of great things in the Design Sprint methodology, which when applied in the right way can really bring ideas, conversations and work in general forward.

One of them is the “How Might We…”-question. It is a very elegant way of reframing a problem into an open-ended solution mindset, you can actually use as the foundation for working on fixing that problem.

There is one issue with the question though IMHO: It is not really good at framing the context of the question being asked.

But maybe there is a simple fix for that which makes the question even more powerful to ask? And not only for Design Sprints but for general conversations about vision, strategy and “What’s next?” for our company?

What if you started your “How Might We…”-question with a statement of fact to set the context?

Like: “Since we now have a sales model that works for other peoples products, how might we best introduce our own private label offerings?”

Or: “With maturity reached in our beachhead market, how might we go after the next vertical to grow our business?”

By doing it this way, you not only provide context to the open-ended solution oriented question. You also create a strong sense of why it’s important – almost “do or die” – for you and your team to spend precious time on looking to solve the problem.

And it will eliminate time wasting from those that will always be asking “Why?” whenever you try to introduce a new important project and leaving them with no or at least very little opt-out from stepping forward to help in coming up with the future solutions.

Essentially it underscores the “We” part of this collaborative proces. Which I think is key to the exercise and – done this way – a significant booster to get you set for a concerted, co-operative effort.

(Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash)

The “red tape” danger

The problem with too much process and red tape is that it creates excuses for not getting problems solved:

“Our processes dictates that I must do this”, “I am not measured on doing that”, “I cannot do anything about it, it’s the rules”, “We have a policy that…”.

Etcetera etcetera.

Of course there needs to be rules and processes, and sometimes they’re even defined by law.

But having said that it is also important to reiterate that just because you can push a set of rules, a boss or even the law in front of you, it doesn’t mean that you can’t show empathy for the person(s) in the other end obviously experiencing a problem.

One of the reasons why startups even stand a fighting chance against much larger and more resourceful organizations is that they don’t have all these rules, processes and KPIs in place.

They’re just trying to do what they think is necessary to enable them to solve issues and move forward. By showing empathy and some sort of efficient pragmatism whenever they encounter a challenge or – most importantly – a customer experiencing a problem and in need of a fix to it.

When companies grow and more people get onboard, the need for processes, policies and rules will grow – sometimes almost exponentially.

That may be fine in itself. But it should never be an excuse for throwing empathy and the ability to act and fix issues out the window.

If you start doing that you will enable precisely all the behaviour internally in your organization that you DON’T really want. And absolutely don’t need to succeed.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Capturing learnings

One of the things I am trying to do while we work to get our new MedTech startup off the ground is to document my learnings so far.

I do that in a mindmap using SimpleMind. Because when taking notes and reflecting on things the easy of speed of getting it down into some sort of structure beats trying to get the format right from the go.

Anyways, the learnings I am documenting serve a couple of purposes;

First of all, I am trying to get the learning myself. Reflect on the things we have done as a team and I have done as an individual and try to use the instances, where we could have done better or been more efficient, to become better and more efficient in the future.

Second, I am trying to document whether there are some patterns in what we have done that we can put on formula for later use and thus make the next startup startup process a bit more smooth.

Looking at the latter point, two things have already become abundantly clear:

There are a lot of learnings around process; when to do what in order to create a flow where everything around establishing the team, the corporate structure, strategy etc can happen at a pace, where people are in it and don’t risk feeling either overwhelmed, not heard or just straight out of the picture. I think those learnings are universal and can be directly applied to other future cases.

On top of that there are a lot of learnings about people; what’s important, what’s not important, how to interact in ways that builds a great degree of trust, which I think is absolutely key for a future long term corporation to work. Some of those learnings are directly applicable to future cases, but as it relates to people, and people are inherently different, some of them will have to have major adjustments on a case by case basis.

Basically, two things are fascinating for me in jotting down those learnings:

The sheer volume of notes, thoughts and reflections is just daunting and is both a reminder of the process so far and the sheer amount of work, we have put into making our new startup work for everybody. But it also has immense value in itself as a future (part) blueprint for how to do these things.

The other thing is that I will be curious to see what will end up being the differentiator for future cases and the applicability of our learnings to them? Will it be predominantly the process parts of the people parts.

The jury is still very much out on that one and as such the journaling continues.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Success-in-progress

I have a fondness for paradoxes. I find them interesting, intriguing and sometimes even amusing.

One of the paradoxes is the one about working agile and lean while at the same time lamenting the lack of progress.

Why is it that we often judge something that is work-in-progress as a failure because it’s not the finished article yet? It is a great disconnect.

What we could be discussing instead is success-in-progress; assume that we’re on our way to something great and that every step that moves us one step closer towards that goal is a success worth celebrating.

It would be so much more productive.

The trouble with work-in-progress is the same as the difference between people who see things black or white and those of us who enjoy the nuances; it is super hard to agree whether something is good or bad – for one everything will (most likely) look like a disaster where to the other one it’s a step towards something better but nevertheless a step.

The good thing about discussing success-in-progress rather than work-in-progress is that the extra positive connotation to it brings more energy into the endeavour; it enable those who are working to finally get there – to the Promised Land – to feed on the excitement of their surroundings rather than murmours and complaints.

Because after all: What brings us closer to where we all want to be? Positive spurring on or complaints or just plain indifference?

Is it even a question?

Hattip: Paul Graham

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Mistakes are OK

When you venture into something new, you haven’t tried before and/or don’t have the faintest idea of where will end up, you are going to make mistakes. And probably a lot of them.

The easy thing to do is not to venture anywhere, in the first place, because by doing nothing, you won’t make any mistakes.

Right?

Wrong.

The first and biggest mistake is to be afraid of making mistakes so that you don’t do anything at all.

Because not only will nothing happen, and everything will be dead in its tracks. You will also miss the mistakes that are really just opportunities to learn, improve and get better.

So that you can really nail it the next time. And become better. And better. And better at what you do.

Until, one day you’re a true expert who derives success from tons of previous mistakes and the lessons from them.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)