Don't Process Entrepreneurship Out of Your Startup
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In a startup every employee is a cowboy or cowgirl. And that’s a good thing. What truly matters isn’t who does what, but rather how they do it. What matters is that stuff gets done.
Then you grow. You add people. Complexity ensues. Your business with a few people focused solely on making things happen naturally develops a number of different ways to do the same thing. Some are effective, some not. When things get a little out of control you create processes to drive consistency and build leverage.
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Then the cowboys reminisce about the freedom of those early days out on the open range. Some leave. Others feel fenced in. Your new processes make it easier for people who aren’t particularly skilled, so hiring standards can be relaxed. Employees only have to follow the process. Right?
In time, your culture shifts from “Come on, let’s just get it done!” to “Wait. Let’s make sure we cover ourselves here.” You wind up running an organization where everyone is focused on protecting themselves. If something goes wrong, there’s also a handy excuse: “I followed the process.” That wasn't your vision.
There are four, broad types of employees: producers, influencers, entrepreneurs and administrators. Pretend you’re in a meeting and say, “We’re running out of room. We need to convert the conference room into office space.”
A producer will move out the table, scrounge up some desks, slap up a few partitions and head off to the next fire. An influencer will cruise around gathering input. “What do you think about getting rid of the conference room?” he’ll ask. “Do you think it’s a good idea? And if it is, what kind of office area should we create?” He instinctively wants to include people in both the decision and the process.
An administrator will say, “Wait. We don’t have any guidelines for setting up offices. First we’ll need to determine how much floor space to allot, how big the desks can be, what kind of chairs we can use… Then when that’s all spec’d out we’ll need to get three estimates and put together an implementation timeline. Once everyone has signed off on that…”
An entrepreneur will say, “We have a conference room? When did that happen?”
Each role is important but needs to be in balance. The overall mix of these roles determines the operating mode of your company.
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The more your organization skews to producer mode, the more things get done but they get done the cowboy way. The more your organization skews to the entrepreneur mode, the more innovative you are but also the more scattered. The more you skew to the influencer mode, the more inclusive it is but, since influencers also seek harmony, your decisions tend to be less bold. The more your organization skews to the administrator mode, the more bogged down because process becomes more important than results.
You need much fewer processes than you think, even if you’re no longer a startup. For example, when some companies feel they’ve lost the creative spirit that fueled the company, they build a process for innovation. Innovation is an admirable goal but how do you create a process for imagination, resourcefulness and original thinking? In most cases, a process for innovation will process innovation out of the organization.
A better approach is to manage your culture instead of your processes. If you randomly gather four people, each will naturally shift their operating modes so all four roles are at least partly represented. A true producer gets uncomfortable when there is absolutely no structure. A true influencer gets uncomfortable when too much participation results in so little consensus tasks do not move forward. They’ll instinctively shift but you want to leverage each person’s natural skills instead of forcing them to compromise and become something they are not.
As a leader, your job is to build teams where all four types leverage individual skills to make the team greater than the sum of its parts. Process is never the point. Build a culture where doing the right thing is the most important thing. You’ll need very few processes when you allow your employees to think and work the way they do best.
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