Resilient organizations

No matter how great your product, your startup will not survive if your organization is not resilient to the unrelenting force of change. Your product will evolve, the marketplace will change and if you play your cards right, your business will grow. If your organization is not resilient these stressors will put stop your business in its tracks.

Lets take a look at how to go about building a resilient organization in a startup. First lets define what we mean. By “resilient” I mean

the ability for a system (human or otherwise) to respond appropriately to varied inputs.

One of the defining traits of a startup is speed and change. This isn’t just what you build, but how you go about organizing around what your organization does. So lets take a closer look at how to build an organization that can thrive in this sort of an environment.

Distribute responsibility:

It is tempting for a lot of founders to centralize control and responsibility for tasks as the organization grows. This works well at first because it reduces the coordination overhead of making decisions and can help shorten the amount of time to get things done. Fairly early on this will change and there will be far too many areas of responsibility. It is critical to allow the right people to focus on the right things. Decide what are the things that your attention should be focused on and focus on those items. Hire and find other people to distribute some of your other responsibilities to. This opens up wonderful growth opportunities for other members of the team and helps people focus on what they do best. Over time this will happen again and again. Roles will keep splitting, merging and your organization will be able to respond well to them because it has been built into how your organization functions.

Common understanding of purpose:

Understanding the purpose of an organization isn’t just understanding what your product offering is. It is critical to know why the organization exists. Google is known for search and gmail, but their purpose could be stated as:

to create technology that improves people’s lives.

This provides a frame for thinking about what the company as a whole does. If the products or mission changes, the purpose still remains and helps to anchor all of the endeavors of the organization. If people are unclear as to what the purpose of the organization is, there ends up being a lot of lost focus and a tendency to solve problems that aren’t really inline with what the objective of the organization is. Take the time to think deeply about what the purpose is. It should be concise and precise. Once you have figured it out, make sure the whole company understands what it is.

Hire great people with differing viewpoints:

Great ideas come through open discussion, various viewpoints and agreeing to disagree. I’ve found it incredibly valuable to hire people with a wide variety of viewpoints. People will learn to think more critically about their ideas, have a variety of different perspectives to learn from and learn how to get constructive feedback. Hiring more uniform viewpoints can help optimize efficiency in the short term, but will create a lot of organizational debt in the long term and will certainly reduce the ability for the organization to absorb change. Look for people who solve problems in a very different way, are willing to engage in detailed discussions and have growth mindsets.

Build in slack time:

People do their best thinking and work when they have less than full plates. This also helps for them to exercise their creativity and deal with rapid change. Its difficult to think about the future if 100% of your time is already allocated to work that needs to get done immediately. Find ways to say no to things which don’t need to get done and hire people who are intentional with their time and be supportive of them. Lately in the valley speed has been king. I prefer to think about moving quickly without rushing and having time to think about how things can be different. Without slack time, the organization will become overly attached to how it does work and won’t invest in innovating and growing in response to how it’s environment changes.

By investing in these areas you’ll be well on your way to having an organization that will be able to evolve, grow and stay effective as you scale. Sure there are plenty of other things to sort out on the way, but these tips will help you build a solid foundation.