People growth – Old blood vs New blood
I wrote my first post here on Jan 23 2011 and that post was titled “Startups – importance of your team“; Its been a little over 2 years since I wrote that post.
Most of us work 5 days a week, putting in about 8 or so hours a day (we will stick to the average/norm here). We come back home in the evening to spend anywhere from 1 to 4 hours with our family/friends.
When friends and/or acquaintances form a startup, the long hours and the close working relationship build on existing relationships and everyone at the startup works as a “family”; but what happens when there are no existing relationships? or what happens when you already have a family and someone new tries to come in? Wouldn’t it be awkward if you were out with your family/friends and a stranger joined your group and just hung out? would you be your self? most wouldn’t.
So how do you take an existing family (a started up culture) and add newer members to it? How do you mix the two so that you do not end up with friend circles?
I have 4 simple attitudes/behaviors that I build my base on:
“We are not that different”.
The new member see’s a whole new planet, different people, cultures, processes, jargon, etc. The first step should be to look for similarities between what they know and what they should know. For my teams I use a buddy system and its usually the previous newest member who buddies up with the new member. They go over materials, documenting anything new that might come up, go for lunch, talk about process, go through the who’s-who, engage the new person in conversations with the other team(s); they try to get to know this person as if they were dating each other.
“We got this, lets work on it together”.
How do you start work? where do you start? who do you ask? Scary questions for someone looking under the hood of something they do not understand. Here is where the buddy comes in again; during stand ups and sprint planning the buddy might offer “we can work on this together”, or someone else on the team might say “hey this is a good problem for me to show you how xyz works, and we can solve it”… they get the knowledge, they figure out how to start, they experience the process and they know how to close it. Build trust and accountability.
“Your team mentioned that you are catching on so quick, what can we improve?”
Over communicate reinforcement of team acceptance, ask for ideas on what can be improved, engage the new member; engaged employees have ideas and feedback that they want to share, things they have questions about.
“You are doing great, let me share my vision on how you play an important role to the team”
Setup a growth plan that’s challenging and communicate that it may be challenging and track to it. I like to plan for the 1, 3, 9, 12 and beyond and use data obtained directly or through peer feedback to gauge fit; if there is going to be tissue rejection, you need to act fast and figure out what you need to do to make it work successfully.
These 4 steps get you on track but you will still need to build additional on-boarding processes (around material and core knowledge ) that will grow the employees product knowledge. Its also important to keep your existing members in mind when you optimize culture as you want to grow the existing employees as well and not just the new ones.
At the end of the day it helps if we recognize that the teams we work with are more than just “Random people”; they are people we spend several hours with, they are friends, people we trust, can openly collaborate with and people we want to continue to work with.
When one finds a team they can work with for the rest of their life and can call family, its no longer “work”…it’s just a large friends & family gathering where they just happen to be working on something together and having fun.
We should all build and be part of such teams.
The takeaway from the previous post on KPI and metrics was that we should proactively monitor process and optimize as needed; just because it worked when you were a startup does not mean it will work when you are “startedup”, you will need it to scale and by capturing metrics and KPI’s you will be able to perform analysis when/if things go wrong. This however does not mean that you need process for the sake of having process or that you should focus on process over people; agility is important and being lean goes a long way.
The chicken and egg problem: What came first, the chicken, or the egg?
You have great team(s) and you have great product(s). Your team(s) is/are at capacity enhancing and maintaining the current product(s), but you need to create more product(s). In order to grow product(s) you need to add more people but these people need to be grown as well. Hiring people and not growing them will make product growth challenging as there will be a longer ramp up time or will disengage and leave (or you end up with an us vs them culture); and redirecting your current team to grow people rather than the current products will grow the new hires at a rapid pace but your current products will stop growing, what do you do? going back to the chicken and egg problem, I think in the long scheme of things it is irrelevant what came first; what is more important is the realization and existence of the chicken and egg, or the “idea” of a chicken and/or an egg, and that you need to ensure that the cycle continues, chickens give eggs and eggs (eventually) give chickens.
Single points of failure (Single Threads)
As engineers and architects we focus on identifying single points of failure within architecture; as managers we need to identify single points of failure within team members, processes and tools. Ask yourself, if I was to randomly start pulling people out (pto, resignations, etc) what would be the impact? Would we still meet delivery? Do we lose key subject matter experts? Most of the time people end up becoming single threads because there are many hats to wear and things need to get done; documentation and knowledge transfer becomes a “will get to it” task that many never get to.
Single points of failure and knowledge silos end up becoming a real impact to growth when you bring on new hires who need to be brought up to speed and grown because the same resources that need to help grow others are already busy with their existing work. Not only does it impact growth, it also negatively impacts collaboration and team culture, when people do not grow they disengage and this causes further issues. As you grow from a startup company with a smaller team to a “startedup” company with a larger and growing team, your single points of failure can grow and teams/members can get frustrated as they get pulled from different directions.
A few simple approaches to reducing and/or eliminating single points of failure are:
- Focus on collaboration and knowledge sharing among teams (culture), the more people share what they learn the more people know.
- Work-load for single threads can be split between product development and people development.
- On-boarding programs and training documentation can be built as part of a product backlog.
- New hires can be paired with senior resources to create mentor-ship and knowledge transfer programs.
Each organization is different and each has its unique attributes that require a solution or several approaches that solve the problem for that specific organization; a silver bullet approach doesn’t really work.
- To grow new product(s) outside your current capacity you need to grow team(s).
- To grow new team(s) who will grow new (products) your current team(s) can be impacted.
- Your current team(s) can end up becoming single threads and/or single points of failure.
- Recognize that this can become a problem.
- Focus on culture, collaboration, knowledge transfer, documentation, etc. so that the impact to the current team(s) and product(s) will be minimal and your new team(s) will rapidly grow and be engaged.
The Startup and the 3 P’s: Product, Process and People
I will not pretend to know everything about startups and startup culture, but I will list the reasons why startup culture is exciting, at least for me:
You meet great people, people who have ideas and want to try things, people who have passion and want to make an impact, people who will challenge you to do better. There is passion for working together as a team, passion for building trust within the team and passion for collectively making an impact in other people’s lives; or sometimes, passion for just making something happen – to create. There is passion for possibly creating something that could go big – disrupt everything, all built from the ground up with the teams sweat, blood and tears where everyone is high on adrenaline. Suits? Offices? As long as you are connected with your team and are working well together, those things don’t matter. There is no red-tape, or big top-down structures, everyone and anyone has access to all. Anyone can start working on anything, there are many hats to choose from; wear all. You don’t get bored as things are evolving and stay fresh, there are new ideas, old ideas, odd ideas; anything can change anytime.
At the end of the day, a startup is defined by its growth; when a startup doesn’t grow, it dies; it stops.
There can be several growth stages for a startup, and startups evolve; once they start growing they are now “startedup” and will hopefully grow exponentially. In a perfect world, the cultural values that made the startup fun would remain and in some cases they do (depending on where the growth has lead the startup) but there are times where the culture itself that helped the startup grow and evolve starts conflicting with what is needed to grow to the next level.
Let’s say you follow agile and you end up with iterations, planned work, release schedules and a clear pipeline of what needs to be built. This all worked great when you had 2 products and a team of 10; since you have grown, the expectations of what you can or will deliver have also grown. Some brilliant folks in your team have discovered 2 more products that should be added to your portfolio; how do you grow your current 2 products (since they have a feature and defect backlog) and also work on these 2 new products without increasing your team size, changing delivery for current products or burning out resources? Before you grew, you may have had your own expectations of when and how you would bring on these two new products; now that you’ve grown, others may have different expectations from you and your team(s). Maybe you say “we need more people”, which brings me to the next point
With the growth of the startup, either through sales, funding or more investment and the need to create more product it is decided that you bring on more people, and you do. You end up facing the same issue, how do you grow people with the same 10 resources you had who are busy working the two existing products; some of the people you bring on may be self-starters and will figure everything out by themselves but what about the ones who don’t? So now you say “we need some process and automation to free up some of the manual work so that we can do more with the same resources”, which brings us to…
How do you focus on process and automation to free up time when the people you have are busy with supporting the existing two products, or are supporting the existing two products and are also trying to bring the new hires on-board?
A part of me says that the above three growth challenges are not really challenges and that they are part of what it means to be a startup culture and are expected. However; there are a few by-products that the 3 P’s create that can become toxic, stop growth and hurt the culture if they are not accounted for when trying to grow.
The Frat party & the first team
The first team consists of the people that built the startup; it was their teamwork and effort that made the startup grow; anyone who comes later is an outsider and “we need to be careful about who we let into our frat party” (once upon a time I lived on frat row). This one is not intentional, but when you work closely in teams and blur the line between friendship and co-workers, you end up creating an inner circle and make it challenging for an outsider to easily integrate and feel welcomed. This by-product is a blocker for People growth.
The golden simple process
At some point there was predictability and little chaos in what all needed to be done (smaller team, less products) so everyone starts expecting things to always be perfect. Even though you have grown, you have kept your process simple and did not optimize for KPI’s and other metrics that can help with predictability, complexity, risk and estimation. There will be times where things change, dates get reset and/or product scope creeps. If you had built a roadmap of what releases when, had committed the teams to that and put all these releases with their iterations back-to-back (because of all the product that had to get pushed out to show growth and maturity) and dates or requirements change on you (usually not for the better) the team and its happy culture will get disrupted as it will take effort to get things back on track; when/if this happens all the time, it gets hard to get away from the domino effect and people burn out, get disengaged and/or leave. This by-product is a blocker for Process growth.
When you were small, everyone knew what everyone else was doing, everyone shared and individuals had their skillsets. Now you have grown, 2 months ago you were 10 people, today you are 75, the 65 newer ones don’t understand the code base or the original design, there is some good documentation but they need more information and there are 3 key people who know different things about the original products; original products that you want the new 65 people to work on so that the first team can work on the two new ones; how do you distribute the knowledge known by the 3 key people, make them available to the 65 and allow the 3 key people to focus on their new projects? If they are constantly being pinged by others and cannot get their work done; their sense of accomplishment doesn’t scale much; especially if you did not plan for them to set time aside and help others. This by-product is a blocker for Product growth.
Each blocker is situation (just like leadership) and can be solved; we will examine and solve for each, before we move onto other “StartedUp” culture challenges. The next post goes into process KPI’s and metrics – addressing the golden simple process blocker.
The content for this discussion is several pages long so I will release it in posts as a series.
A couple of weeks ago I had interesting discussions with a software lab focused on mobile tech out in the Boston, MA area. Ideas were exchanged, we spoke about different issues that impact teams, growth, product, process and discussed different ways they could be solved.
After the dialogue, reflecting back on the content and looking for a root cause or pattern I realized that this wasn’t the first time I had discussed or worked on solving these type of issues; growing pains, single threads, lack of process, maturation are just some of the terms used to describe the root cause and in most cases its all of them as they mean the same thing and to me that is “growing startup culture”
A startup company or start-up from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Startup_company
A startup company or startup is a company, a partnership or temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. These companies, generally newly created, are in a phase of development and research for markets. The term became popular internationally during the dot-com bubble when a great number of dot-com companies were founded.Lately, the term startup has been associated mostly with technological ventures designed for high-growth. Paul Graham, founder of one of the top startup accelerators in the world, defines a startup as: “A startup is a company designed to grow fast. Being newly founded does not in itself make a company a startup. Nor is it necessary for a startup to work on technology, or take venture funding, or have some sort of “exit.” The only essential thing is growth. Everything else we associate with startups follows from growth.”
And from the same source, a startup culture
Startups utilize a casual attitude in some respects to promote efficiency in the workplace, which is needed to get their business off of the ground. In a 1960 study, Douglas McGregor stressed that punishments and rewards for uniformity in the workplace is not necessary, as some people are born with the motivation to work without incentives. This removal of stressors allows the workers and researchers to focus less on the work environment around them, and more at the task at hand, giving them the potential to achieve something great for their company.
This culture has evolved to include larger companies today aiming at acquiring the bright minds driving startups. Google, amongst other companies, has made strides to make purchased startups and their workers feel right at home in their offices, even letting them bring their dogs to work.The main goal behind all changes to the culture of the startup workplace, or a company hiring workers from a startup to do similar work, is to make the people feel as comfortable as possible so they can have the best performance in the office.
This is what most of us understand startups to be; but I would argue that startup cultures do not only apply to a new or young company (a startup) or that the culture is inherited through acquiring a startup; applying the culture and model that exist in a typical startup one can “build startup culture”.
If startup culture is a “must have” then how can there be any issues with that culture? To clarify, in my opinion startup culture is great, they build great teams, focus on product, have a great culture and are fun to be in – and I respect and thrive in them; you start running into issues once the startup has started-up and you need to scale three core P’s: people, product and process. For me, the key is using teamwork and relying on your peers to figure out how to scale all three at the same time while everyone is busy with their other workload.
The next post will outline some of the end-products of startup-culture that should be addressed/changed in order for the startup to mature as it goes from being a startup to started-up culture