The User and the Seven Standard Bearers
An organisational model for structuring your startup around your User
Hierarchies and me
I have never been a great fan of hierarchies. I see the point, of course. I get why hierarchies exist, and yes, why some people truly need them, particularly in the business world.
Hierarchies are a fundamental command structure wired into us from early childhood, a way of looking at the world where the smaller the number, the further toward the top of the pyramid those numbers lie. Hierarchies reinforce and are reinforced by the way we go about our daily lives. A solitary one at the top and the many at the bottom. Some say this is the natural order.
Again, remember, I’m not a fan.
When kicking off the fourth startup of my career, this one my own (and not with me as an employee or minor partner in the affair), I was given to pause and consider what type of company structure best defined me. My business partner, Wayne Koorts and I were both eager to create something genuinely unique with Coactive (and are still doing so now). We wanted not only a cool product (well, we think it’s cool, anyway), but a new way of doing things. This was going to be our company. We never wanted some ‘angel investor’ (the irony of that term should be lost on no one) coming in and, through currency, swinging this or that about and making things in his/her own image.
We had both seen our voice and the voice of the real user drowned out in hierarchical chatter, turned to irrelevance in the face of sales, or financial statements, or even just because someone else was the boss. It smacked ill to us to follow that path yet again. We were creating a new company, so why couldn’t we make it in any image we saw fit?
We had both seen the path of traditional company structures, and what it did to so many companies. We’d seen how a fundamentally flawed dynamic was baked right into the hierarchy, right into the way those ‘above’ us looked at running a business, and how those at the base of the pyramid were fundamentally voiceless in their own (and their user’s) success and happiness.
We wanted something more than that. We feel that the people who make up a company, not just the managers, but the people themselves, are best equipped to make decisions, as long as everyone is clear on what is most important to us as a company. We realised we needed to come up with a more lateral structure for our startup, one not focused on top-down management, but upon the needs and wants of the only real person who matters to us: our users.
One sees a lot of companies full to the brim with teams who are calling their users their friends, creating empathy maps, stealthing through UX reconnaissance, doing everything in their power to know their users’ needs and wants. And that’s fabulous. The question I always came back to beg was: Is this throughout their organisation, or does all the user-centric touchy-feely stop at some point, and swing back into a hierarchy focused on someone’s stock price or some other such bottom line?
I think we can make some basic assumptions on this front. I know I’ve seen it. You probably have as well.
We wanted something else.
Running a company and game theory
I’ve always been fascinated by how closely a business structure resembles the rules of a game. One lays down a series of players, each with their own value, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Based upon each of the players and their relations to the other players, a series of activities happen, and it is up to these players to act out their part in an effort to win.
A business is ultimately a cooperative game, in which all the players are attempting to reach a common set of goals (get rich, add some value, wreck someone else’s game, what have you). The things which happen to your business can be thought of as those “Random” cards one sees in games, where you collect this or that, or lose so many of those for so many rounds. The players then race around in an effort to use their powers to advance along the board to whatever goal is in front of them.
With this in mind, we wondered if the rules could be rewritten, if a new style of game could be devised, one which re-considered the hierarchical model in favour of something more akin to cooperative game play. Here’s what we came up with.
At Coactive, the User is royalty. Without our Users, there is no business. We care about our Users the same way we would care about a mythical King or Queen, a grand prize winner. They are our alpha and omega. Whatever they need, whatever they ask for, we do whatever we can to give it to them. That’s just how important they are.
Their needs, their wants, even their foibles are what we want to know. We want nothing more than each night for them to go to bed with a grin on their face, and things made just a little bit better than they were the day before, because we cared enough to do something for them.
The Seven Standard Bearers
No king or queen can go it alone.
Our User is supported by seven Standard Bearers within our organisation, each representing and advocating for some aspect of the User’s needs. These seven are on equal footing with one another, and no voice counts more than any other (with a few caveats, as you will see). The Standard Bearers (and their teammates) decide collectively when a decision needs to be made, with one key question guiding them: What is best for our User?
Our Standard Bearers break down thusly
So let’s have a look at those Standard Bearers, shall we?
Without quality, you have nothing. A, buggy, brittle product does our User no good, and actually makes their lives worse. Everyone hates buggy stuff. Half the internet is complaining about shoddy craftsmanship. We can do better.
The Quality Standard Bearer is responsible for ensuring that no one ever allow garbage (even litter) to go out to our User. They are a final arbiter when it comes to whether something is ready to go out to our User or not. No exceptions. No one can just ‘slip in a quick this or that’. No one can bully or berate to sidestep quality. Quality is our watchword, and it is law.
Securing the User and their data, their experience, their identity, means giving that User confidence, a sense that what is theirs matters to us. Without security, everyone is filled with trepidation, our User most of all.
Hackers, scammers, password and data breaches, these are real things that affect us. No one wants to feel vulnerable, and if they’re our User, they won’t if we have anything to say about it.
The Security Standard Bearer stands with Quality in that they are one of the primary arbiters of whether or not something is ready to go out to our User. Any security breaches or failures on our part, our User and their data are at risk. This does not happen if we can help it.
We don’t just want to give our User what they want, but to know what they want even before they do.
The Experience Standard Bearer is our champion of the User’s needs, wants, what drives them to do what they do, and what it is they love. They ensure we are always learning more about our User, and acting upon it. When our User turns, we turn with them. The Experience Standard Bearer is all about making our User feel like they did something which was easier and better than ever before.
Things go wrong. Things won’t always make sense. Our User needs our help, wants to learn, has a problem with their bill. We need to make sure we are on this like white on rice.
The Support Standard Bearer is all about supporting our User in all things: help, documentation, listening to suggestions. Even just to be a friendly ear. They are the eyes and ears to what our User has to say when things aren’t always at their best. We guarantee there will ultimately always be someone there to help them.
Without the dollars and cents, without someone making sure the lights stay on and the bills get paid, we can’t rightly be there 100% for our User, now can we?
The Business Standard Bearer speaks for the investors, for the sales and marketing, the growth of our business. The Business Standard Bearer is reminding us that we are in this to make some money, and in doing so, make it possible for us to go on helping our User. They represent the bottom line, but not at the expense of any other Standard Bearer, and certainly not at the expense of the User.
We are a technology company. Our platform is the fundamental building blocks upon which we help and take care of our User. Without our platform, we’d have nothing to offer.
The Platform Standard Bearer speaks for the platform, our technology, our R & D, anything which is about the implementation of technology to better our User’s day. The Platform Standard Bearer determines the best way to give our User the most we can.
What we’re bringing to our User, collectively, is known as the Product.
The Product is the amalgam of the Business, the Quality, the Security, the Support, the Experience and the Platform.
The Product Standard Bearer is responsible for working with all the other Standard Bearers, to ensure that each is successful, fairly-represented, and empowered to do their best for the User. The Product Standard Bearer speaks for the Product, evangelises for it, and always thinks of how the User can be made happier and more fulfilled.
In cases of ties needing to be broken, or of priorities needing to be prioritised, if the other Standard Bearers can’t come to some equitable agreement, then the Product is the final arbiter to decide what is best for the User. Only Security and Quality trump all other hands.
The best laid plans…
Of course, at this point, you want to know: So how has it worked out? I can say that it is still early days. We are a small company (we don’t even have all of our Standard Bearers, so we have to double-up a lot playing other roles), so it’s too soon to say if it will be successful with complete confidence.
What I will say is so far, we like it a lot better than the alternative. We enjoy structuring our work along these lines, talking always in terms of the User, and how we can make them happy, and discussing things according to our Standards, so that the balance is kept at the centre.
Yes, there will be times when that balance see-saws. That is natural. However, we go out of our way to always try to bring the balance back. Having the User as our centre makes this a lot easier. We know that none of us counts for more than anyone else, and that means our discussions are always meant to be as peers. We work together as an organisation to construct a game which succeeds because our User is succeeding.
I’ll let you know sometime soon how it proceeds.
Thanks for reading :)