Rhythm in Start-Ups
Creative genius needs structure to “get things done”
Orchestras and jazz bands
If IBM was an imposing symphony orchestra, your start-up would be a jamming jazz band. A handful of talented, yet probably inexperienced musicians meet in a dimly lit, underfurnished backyard rehearsal room to create beautiful melodies on the fly. Most of the music is improvised. Maybe the instruments aren’t even tuned to each other. Dave the drummer doesn’t show up — which he’s prone to do — but you start your session anyway.
While the IBM behemoth of an orchestra is perfectly structured and organized to the bones, your jazz band is refreshingly chaotic and the music excitingly unpredictable. With the orchestra, you’ll get what you expect. In your jam session, you never know if you’ll produce the next hit or the whole group falls apart before the second verse.
The one thing they share
The orchestra and the jazz band don’t share many rules, but there is one thing they both respect: The rhythm, which the musicians follow. In a jam, you can be as creative as you want, as long as your sound follows the same basic pattern as the rest of the band. If each musician starts to play in their own rhythm, the music will sound chaotic and fall apart.
Other art forms follow similar rules. Architects create a rhythm through light and shade. Painters through colors and shapes. Gardeners use a grid. Dancers time their movements. Actors make pauses. Art is often esthetic when it follows a pattern. Rhythm is everywhere.
Rhythm in start-ups
Building a company from scratch is as much a science as it is a form of art. Few things are more creative than assembling a group of individuals around a shared purpose and building an organization that hasn’t existed before. Like in the jazz band, there is a lot of improvisation. It will feel chaotic at times. You gain new insights and priorities change from one day to the next. Members of the group join and leave. Like in a jam, the only constant in a startup is constant change.
So how do you as a bandleader (also known as CEO) create a structure within the chaos and dictate a rhythm to your band?
Structure and speed
In the first year of my last start-up, my team and I just worked all day without a rhythm. We just hit the instruments like it was a competition. Whenever someone had a new idea, we would change directions. Communication was handled “on-demand”. Our style worked well with a handful of people but got in our way once we were more than around ten. Employees were unsure of the direction we were going. Goals and priorities were unclear, conflicts remained unsolved, and decisions took too long. The structure was missing and it was slowing us down.
Through painstaking trial and error, I learned over time that the creative process in a start-up needs structure — just like a beautiful song needs a rhythm. It will make the music sound appealing and enables you to get things done more quickly. Good structure speeds your company up.
The tool to create rhythm: the calendar
In a startup, you establish this rhythm through your calendar. Recurring events give your team orientation and security. Take goal setting for example: When we were “just working all day”, we didn’t reflect much on goals. Every new project seemed like progress and we were too busy to reflect on the direction we were going. Only when we started to regularly take time out of our schedules to reflect on goals and set new ones once every three months, things changed for the better. Once we had established a routine, the rhythm accelerated our progress.
In a rowing boat, you’re faster when everyone rows in the same intervals. In a jazz session, the music will sound nicer when everyone follows the rhythm. In your start-up, you’ll get a lot more done when you establish a routine of recurring events through your calendar.
Draw the rhythm like the composer you are
Creating a rhythm is especially important in goal setting and goal reviews as well as internal communication. There is no right or wrong in defining your startup’s rhythm. It’s just important that you do it deliberately. Otherwise choppy sounds will arise on their own.
Let’s go and..
..take a piece of paper. Think about it as your blank sheet of music on which you can start to schedule your rhythm. Now draw 12 boxes. Those are the months in which you can add your yearly and quarterly recurring events. Below, you’ll find some ideas to get you started.
- Strategy workshop: 1–5-day retreats to discuss, challenge, and possibly adjust your strategy toward the end of the year. Strategy work is an ongoing process.
- Budget-planning for next year in Q3/Q4.
- Yearly kickoff event in January (especially with sales teams).
- Christmas and summer party. Always a good idea to celebrate and give a strategy update.
- Internal hackathon/internal “startup weekend”. Our people always loved it.
- Celebrate your company’s birthday! I forgot about this all the time in the first years.
- Adjust salaries. Much better if this is done yearly (or twice a year) on fixed dates instead of “on-demand”.
- Recruiting events such as parties in the office. We used to host such events roughly every six months.
- Founder retreats. We started this only in year three. Nowadays, I would do it from the start. A good point in time is somewhere in the last two weeks of each quarter.
- 1–3-day workshop to define new OKRs, possibly right after the founder retreat. We did this with the management team and later had the managers do the same with their teams. This might be the most important rhythmic event to steer your organization.
- Investor/board meetings. Possibly in the first two weeks of the last month of the quarter. This way you have a full month more of data and can use the input of the meetings for founder retreats & OKR off-sites.
- Customer events. Invite them to the office to gather first-hand product feedback.
Ok, next. Take another sheet and draw 5 boxes for each week of the month. Here, you can add monthly (and weekly) events.
- Review OKR progress with the management team. Remember to “inspect what you expect” with your goals and it’s best to check on progress more often.
- Give a CEO-/management update in an all-hands meeting. We started to host all-hands meetings every two weeks and reduced the frequency over time.
- Send out investor reporting and take time to actively reflect on the last months’ progress.
- Discuss monthly KPIs in the management meeting.
- Book club: Read books with your team once a month, a healthy rhythm to discuss content. We usually spread 1 book over 3–4 monthly meetings.
- Fun/social event with the entire team. From volleyball to bowling to attending the local Beerfest (remember, I’m German!) and celebrating Halloween, we tried to offer one employee event per month.
Lastly, take your third sheet and add 5 boxes for each day of the week to add your weekly and daily events.
- Managers hold a one-on-one meeting with each of their employees
- Every manager has a staff meeting with their team
- Founders/management meeting
- Possibly weekly update email from the CEO
- Closing the week with drinks (or Oreo cookies)
- Daily stand up/huddle in each team
- Daily tracking of relevant KPIs (especially in marketing/sales functions)
Adjust to your needs and make it happen!
Every jazz band is different and so is every startup. Adjust your rhythm to your own needs over time. Take time to reflect regularly on what worked and what didn’t. Adapt your calendar accordingly over time.
Now you have three magical music sheets for your startup’s rhythm and one task remaining: Make sure the events actually happen!
Pianists are not judged by the structure of the notes on their sheet but by the beauty of the music they actually play. It is your job as CEO to ensure that the meetings actually take place. Make sure your team understands the necessity of those recurring events. Put them in your digital calendars and make sure they are honored. Notice when your rhythm is “off” and correct course.
As CEO, part of your job is to “inspect what you expect”. So expect that you and your team play the notes of your calendar and inspect that they actually do.
I hope you enjoy the process and create a beautiful opera!