Thursday 23 May 2019

Real art of startup war is empowering your troops to fight battles for you - not doing it by the book

In the latest entry in his frank startup diary Richard Rodger reveals why following Sun Tzu's advice, blind obedience and confusing strategy and tactics can damage your firm

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Stock image

Richard Rodger

Within weeks of founding a startup, some well-meaning person will advise you to read Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War'. Startups are best seen as military operations, they tell you, and the application of ancient Chinese battlefield tactics are the quickest path to victory (against public companies a thousand times bigger than your little firm).

Well, you should read 'The Art of War' - but for the strategy, not the tactics. But you need to very carefully reject the idea that traditional military organisation is going to help you win in the economic marketplace. Strategies are not tactics, and the two are easily confused.

Allow me a short aside. Adopting a 'beachhead' strategy to launch a product is a good idea - focusing your limited resources is a more effective way to use them. It's a good strategy to choose a small initial target market with customers that are easy to each and satisfy.

Adopting 'trench warfare' as a tactic to achieve this strategy is not such a good idea. That's why you don't spend your entire initial marketing budget on Google ads, trying to outbid other offerings. As a startup, you have to adopt instead guerrilla marketing tactics, such as blogging (and laptop stickers).

But confusing strategy and tactics, bad as it is, is not the real danger. The real danger is adopting a policy of 'command and control' to organise your forces - seeing yourself as a great general issuing brilliant tactical orders.

Consider that in order to get young men and woman to charge into a hail of bullets, armies the world over practice brutal indoctrination techniques on new recruits, designed to install blind obedience. If you've ever seen the Stanley Kubrick film 'Full Metal Jacket', you'll know what I mean (if you haven't, you should). Blind obedience is the last thing you need in a startup.

It's easy to fall into this trap. It comes naturally to humans. We are apes after all, and want the security of following an 'alpha'. Life is easy when you don't have to think. In a startup, everybody has to think, all the time. You can't afford to create a management culture where people have to be told what to do. Well, you can, but it's not going to make your life easy, or your startup very fast on its feet.

Modern military leaders are not stupid. Command and control has, in theory, been superseded by something called 'mission command'.

Here's the basic idea. You don't specify how you want something done. You define what you want, and when you want it by, and provide resources, but you allow people to work out a solution for themselves.

You define the mission, not the tactics, and explain where it fits into the bigger strategy. This allows mid-level commanders in the field of battle, who have the most information, to dynamically choose tactics that will achieve the overall strategic objectives that they have been set.

This is the inverse of micromanagement. It lets you move much more quickly than a more rigid hierarchical organisation - your large competitors. But as with many simple ideas, it doesn't work unless you pay attention to the details. That's why the implementation is still mostly theoretical in many military organisations.

In an army, and in a company, you will have many standing orders and rules: the travel expenses policy; the technology platform; salary levels. As a founder, you'll know when you need to break those rules to get stuff done. You need to give your team the permission to break these rules too, when necessary.

It's a fundamental feature of the 'mission command' idea that you can break standing orders when they get in the way of a strategic objective. But how does your team know when and if they should break the rules?

The same way you do: by understanding the big picture, and putting things into context. Your team needs to understand the intent behind the mission. That way they can make the necessary decisions without getting your sign-off on every little thing.

You also need to make mistakes safe. These are going to happen. People will make the wrong calls. You have to allow room for this. And you have to accept that sometimes you ask people to do things that are impossible, or beyond their current abilities. That's OK too, so long as you give them breathing space to recover.

One benefit of doing things this way is that you are making use of the intelligence on the ground. The person and the team directly taking action will always have more information than you do, and the ability to react and think faster. Use their intelligence by making sure they have the full context and information they need to react on the spot. This effect builds over time, as you have to make fewer and fewer fine-grained decisions.

The feeling of agency that this gives your team is another huge benefit. The more in control of your life you feel, and the more confidence you get, the better you can perform in your role. It's very simply human psychology.

When this happens inside a startup, it's magical. Things start to happen, the right things, without you telling anybody to do anything. That's when you know you have a team that will go to the next level. But you seed it by giving people agency first. Results come later.

The greatest benefit comes from the big picture decisions that your team makes without you. Our education system, and most of our work life in large companies, is dominated by a reward structure that emphasises doing things correctly.

You get penalised for failing to follow procedure and process, even if it results in a worse outcome overall. This is the weakness of large organisations. In a startup, the right action, done badly, is still much better than the wrong action, done well. Hence the saying: "It's more important to be doing the right thing, than to be doing things right."

Getting your team to overcome the tunnel vision that has been trained into them is literally a life and death issue in a startup. Time is so valuable that even latent perfectionism is existentially dangerous.

How do you build a 'mission command' mentality? With great difficulty, in my experience. I find the idea much easier to grasp than the implementation. One element is clear - the need for information upon which to make good decisions.

In our startup we try to be as open as possible with information. For example, we have a weekly product strategy meeting. It's neither possible, nor desirable, for the whole company to attend and speak at this meeting. It is necessarily a meeting for a small, focused group. Nonetheless, the meeting minutes are made available to all, not just circulated to those in attendance. That means that everybody gets some idea of why we are choosing to build the features we do.

The tactic of information accessibility is also why we use individual playbooks - everybody in the company has an extensive job description that can be read by anybody else.

I've written about the playbook concept in an earlier diary entry. The playbooks explain the tactical and strategic context that each person operates in, so that you can better understand the motivations of your colleagues. They also provide an opportunity for people to explain what communication styles suit them best, and how they think. We're still in the process of rolling these out, but they have been useful so far.

We recently introduced a proper travel expenses policy. One important element is that travel claims are public. You can see what everybody put down as expenses. Instead of pushing the awkward job of policing the policy onto the accounts department, openness creates an intrinsic motivation to play by the rules.

Nothing is worse than being called out by your peers for behaving parasitically.

Lack of transparency is also the breeding ground of favouritism and unfairness, and ultimately, bad decisions.

We do draw the line at salaries however-they are not shared. Perhaps one day we'll be as enlightened as Finland, where all tax returns are public (no, really, go look it up), but for now we'll follow social norms on this one. A startup should be disruptive, but you can't disrupt everything all at once.

There's a lot more to building a 'mission command' organisation. It's something we'll try to figure out on our journey, and I'll continue to write about it in future columns. I'll try to explain our decision-making process, but I also expect it's going to be difficult to determine cause and effect.

This decision is based more on a belief in people's potential than anything rational. Sometimes you have to go with your gut.

* Newsletter numbers this week: 815 subscribers, 19pc open rate. The first thousand are nearly here!

Richard Rodger is the founder of Metsitaba. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford.

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