Of egos and organizations

A few months ago, I attended Intercom’s “World Tour”. To be honest I didn’t expect this kind of content, on lessons Intercom’s team learnt while growing to the business they are today. It was filled with valuable experiences. Not necessarily on the business of creating a tool to communicate with users of SaaS businesses. Rather on the struggles of a web business trying to be good at what they do.

One of the founders, Des, started with listing a handful of key points that are crucial to a healthy start-up business. Nr. 1 was on: start your business with the right people. You need your core team to have the same agenda. You need them to be able to work together. And you need them to abide to the decisions eventually made by a single “Chief”.

The truth is, I’ve seen too many times business not taking of, or dying, because of failure to achieve this.

Egos are your doom and your good fortune

In a previous post, I mentioned that passion is a key driver you need to have in each of your early team members. That will make them go that extra mile you so badly need.

I’m no philosopher. In the chicken-and-egg situation of ego and passion, I won’t try to figure out who comes first. The one thing I know, is that there’s a huge correlation between the two, when you start-up a business.

In product management, Pragmatic Marketing‘s team says: “Your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant”. Good product management is based on fact and figures. Now of course that’s a tough theory to put in practice, when you’re at the dawn of your business. Where to collect data? What more do you have than a vision, as long as you don’t get customers? How do you qualify the viability of that vision as long as you do not know if you’re doing good at delivering it?

Opinion fights then come easily. The more passion and egos are involved, the harder they are. And there’s no good way out. Except by having a “Chief” of a specific topic, and the overall Chief in the person of the CEO. Chiefs must be entrusted with their specific topics.  The team must abide to it, and support them in delivering it. The Chiefs must plan execution, deliver communication and briefings, think of risks and consequences, organize post-mortem. And of course they will act as problem solvers for their team, on the way there.

Now, the most important here is that being one of these “Chiefs” doesn’t even require a C-level job title. It just requires the whole team to recognize a person for what they’re bringing to the table.

Place egos where they’ll only help you grow

Building a core start-up team should be just like getting engaged. The only good way to start `that` relationship is when you have something to offer, not something to take. Couples where on of the two is just trying to get love/attention/money/[insert other wish here] are doomed to failure. See it like you are about to get married to your team. And every member of your team should do the same.

By enabling people to offer their expertise, rather than appointing them to a responsibility, you contribute to avoid 1) having one of them take someone else’s prerogatives 2) having arbitrary prerogatives.

As people always have a wide variety of skills, strengths and weaknesses, you might not end-up with a traditional job/role definition. And that’s also where being very clear, once the roles have been attributed, where they start and where they end, will be critical to a great collaboration. There must be no overlap. And as much as possible, facing your financial and recruitment constraints, there must be not gap.

“Prerogative” sounds like a quite harsh vocabulary, especially within the philosophy of building a team like you’d build a couple. In my opinion, it is just strong enough to illustrate the fact that it’s both “your topic” and “your responsibility”. Yes, you’ll take it. And you can brag about it when you succeed. But you’ll have to handle it when you fail.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more I believe that a start-up organization should be defined more by the interactions each member has with the others, rather than its prerogatives. From a systemic approach, it’s more about what input/output do you interface with others, rather than describing how your component is actually working. You know, as long as it works… the responsibility is back to the “Chief”, to determine if he’s covering the correct spectrum, and whether his interactions are steady and properly defined with the rest of the organisation.

Sounds like a lot of good communication is required…!

Featured image by Fábio de Albuquerque Vilalba

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