Advanced Startup Management Techniques

Posted on May 2, 2015
Filed Under Business |

Yesterday I spoke at an event and some of the stories I told about how I managed the team at Backupify got a good response - so much that I thought I should write about them. What follows is 3 management ideas that I wouldn’t suggest you use if you are just starting out, but might be useful to add to your toolkit if you are already competent at basic management tactics. The ideas are useful in specific situations that may occur as you build a startup, but probably don’t have the broad applicability of other management ideas.

Before I outline them though, I should let you know how I think about management at startups. I think most managers spend time coordinating work, checking up on work, and trying to motivate each individual. But the individual is part of a team and you have to constantly think about the team dynamic. Most people don’t.

I once read a comment by Gina Bianchini, and subsequently met her at a First Round Capital event where I got to discuss it with her for 5 minutes. Her comment changed the way I looked at management forever. What she said was “world class team chemistry trumps world class individual talent every time.” It’s brilliant. And it’s true. If you have a rockstar who isn’t a good fit with your team, pass on her.

As a manager, I always thought about team chemistry, how to get people to work better together, and communicate better. I felt it was a waste of time to try to teach them detailed things about their areas of work, because tech companies change so fast that even if you are an expert in marketing (or sales, or programming, or whatever) today, in 5 years the world will be different. So instead I tried to teach them new frameworks for thinking about things.

I wrote that so that you understand that if your view of management is dramatically different, these ideas may not work for you.

1. Create alignment by being the bad guy, or causing a commotion.
There is a great book called Us And Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind. The book looks at many of the psychological studies that underpin group dynamics. At startups, there are lots of tribes, even though we don’t always realize it. There is the “speed wins, get it out the door, fix it later” tribe. They fight the “don’t release it until it is ready, even if that means missing the date” tribe. There is the “all press is good press (even if its bad press)” tribe. They fight the “what people say about you on social is your destiny” tribe, who believe that a few bad reviews sink a ship.

There are also workflow tribes. The “meetings suck and are a waste of time” tribe is always battling the “meetings are efficient if done right” tribe. There is the “plan the work and work the plan” tribe, who always battle with the “companies are made by last minute heroics” tribe.

Even though this book is mostly about ethnic, religious, and political tribes, I found the principles to be very adaptable to all the different philosophical tribes I encountered in the startup world. What’s great about “Us and Them” is it teaches you how to get tribes to work together. And one of the best ways to get tribes to work together is to have them align around a common enemy. That enemy could be an event, or a person, but either way, when they have to do it, they forget about their differences.

On multiple occasions at Backupify, I decided the team wasn’t working well together for some reason, and made myself the bad guy so that they could align against me on something. For example, there was a time when people were battling about budgets and couldn’t agree where we should cut. I announced that since they couldn’t agree, I was going to cut an area of the budget that none of them wanted cut. Soon enough they have fixed the budget on their own.

2. Force people to take another perspective.
The number one thing I look for in executive hires is the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes, and engage on that level. It’s that corporate empathy that makes teams work well together. But in startups people tend to get territorial, and committed to their ways of doing things, and it is important that you break down those behaviors.

I once had two people who had very different ideas about how work should flow. They weren’t getting along and didn’t like each other despite both doing great work. I made them have lunch together, once a week, and gave them a series of topics to discuss each week. The rule was that they each had to take 10 minutes just listening to the other person’s point of view on that topic, and couldn’t speak. The first item to discuss on the list (which ties back to point #1 above) was for them to discuss how angry they were at me for making them do this. Their working relationship improved.

3. Gain support for ideas by making teams pitch both cases.
Startups face a lot of tough decisions. Sometimes people grumble, or even worse, leave the company, when a major decision doesn’t go their way. This is usually preventable if they have an understanding of how the decision was made, and feel like they had some input into it. Some CEOs try to do this by just meeting with everyone and listening to their ideas. I used a different process.

I like to take my top execs and individual contributors, split them into two teams, and give them each 2 hours to discuss a topic and come up with a presentation to justify their point of view. It’s important that you don’t let people pick which team they join - just assign them to a point of view to defend. This process has 3 major benefits.

First of all, each team will have some people who inevitably disagree with the point of view they are asked to defend. Those people actually make the team better by providing good counter points for the analysis, but more importantly, their resistance to the point of view tends to soften when they hear the analysis of others who support it.

Secondly, each team has to do a really good job of their analysis, because no one wants to be criticized by the CEO in public for having done a shoddy job. Teams have to be thorough even with they disagree with the point of view they are defending, or else they look stupid.

The third benefit is that by having each team present, everyone is forced to listen to detailed reasons, counterpoints, and counter-counterpoints, before a decision is made. Plus, when you get to the end and make a decision, you have all your top execs and key players aligned on all the issues, and why the decision was made. It is soooo much more effective than making a decision yourself and trying to communicate it down the chain of command where it will become misinterpreted and misunderstood.

The other nice thing about this process is, you can usually control it to get the outcome that you want, by asking the right questions and laying out the right ground rules. In the end, if you define the situation correctly, the team will usually all agree on the outcome you were hoping for.

There you have it. I used all three of these techniques multiple times at Backupify, and found them to be very useful. If you have questions, or want to buy me a beer and talk more, reach out to me on twitter.


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