As your startup grows, the first sign things are falling apart is that it takes longer to keep everyone in the loop and pulling together in the same direction. Decisions take longer, there are more meetings and every small thing needs to be escalated either to the founder or reviewed and discussed by a large team before it is acted upon. The other way this manifests is that one person really doesn’t know what another is doing (or another team) resulting in wasted duplicated effort and resources.
The primary impact of such progress is that what used to be fast is now slow.
The key to growing out of this impasse is becoming what I love to quote ‘Highly aligned, loosely coupled’.
I originally discovered this principle in Netflix culture deck and it really struck a chord with me.
So how exactly does this work in practice? Here are five (not so easy) steps to break it down.
1) Communicate priorities and the mission all the time
What makes organizations tick is really alignment. If there is no clear alignment on what the long-term mission is and what the short-term goals and priorities are, there really is no hope to get anywhere fast.
Ensure you get buy-in from all the stakeholders on what the objectives are and ensure everyone is on board. Jeff Bezos’s famous ‘Disagree but commit’ tactic is important. People might have questions about the plan but they still have to commit 100% to the plan. If they don’t they either leave or need to be fired.
At the highest level, ensure that you as a leader (at every level) knows the priorities clearly and drum that into the heartbeat of the organization every chance you get. Constant repetition till it gets past boring really works.
2) Build a culture around shared values
Once you have decided on the priorities (or where you want to go), the next part is really making sure everyone agrees on how everyone will be expected to act on the journey to get there. This is where shared values matter. The culture of the organization is really the heart and soul of an org that powers it to the next level. A set of shared beliefs on how we act together is important to cast in writing and then live them every single day in thought and action at every level in the organization starting with the leadership at the highest level.
There could be a lot written about building culture, so I wouldn’t want to get into that in this note for now. (maybe later), but suffice to say put a lot of thought into this and make your culture a reality that everyone breathes day in and day out.
For example above our values at FileCloud as we scaled up.
3) Ensure everyone knows how they impact
Every single person and every single team needs to not only understand the overall mission, but also their primary individual mandate and mission. This is achieved by ensuring good onboarding processes, writing a team-level mission and manifesto statement as well as clarifying what they need to do at the individual and team levels to maximize the impact.
You can use trickle-down OKRs and other systems to get this alignment super clear.
4) Communicate and adjust
Assuming everyone now knows the destination and understands how we all work together to get there and what each and everyone must do, the next thing is to get started.
As you start moving, you will realize a thousand tiny individual adjustments are needed and that is where you will need to set up robust communication mechanisms to work together effectively. Weekly progress meetings, company-level meetings etc are all mechanisms to communicate information as well as understand where things are breaking down.
When things break down use that opportunity to adjust processes etc. A word of warning though keep things as simple as possible otherwise everyone eventually drowns in the sea of red tape. You don’t want to become IBM.
5) Let everyone lead
As you progress, give everyone a chance to become leaders. You do that by asking for opinions on what course to take and then agreeing with their option or pointing out some small tweaks. Explain in detail every reason for decision-making so that people can internalize these and make better decisions next time.
Eventually, give everyone an opportunity to solve their own problems with minimal input and oversight from management. One of the best practical books to achieve this has been David Marquet’s, Turn the ship around.
If you notice a flock of birds flying long haul, they do take turns taking point and you need to be able to do the same. Everyone runs point and takes turns taking the lead so that you can operate at a sustainable pace. Remember you are in it for the long haul as it really is a marathon and not a sprint!
And that’s the five major steps to achieve a highly aligned, loosely coupled organization. It sounds easy but it is really not, the devil is ‘really’ in the details. Good luck!