Chapter 9: Agility
(Draft of John's new book: Your comments are welcome)
Agility keeps the rider on the startup bicycle out of critical danger and ahead of the competing pack.
The neat boxes and lines on an organization chart fall far short of describing how an agile startup is organized.
It would be better to think of how the organization of a startup looks as if it is what you see when you open up a bee hive to peer inside. At first you see a lot of what appears to be chaos. There are many bees crawling all around, up and down, over and under each other (apparently without complaining), while others are flying out of the hive and others arriving with legs covered with life giving pollen. As you study the hive your observant mind will soon find the queen bee, central to the action, as well as specialized worker bees hard at work finishing a lot of different tasks. Organized chaos? Well not really, but to the naïve bee observing mind that is how it appears upon first glance.
Startups are organized much like that bee hive. The culture sets the implied policies (how we work under generally expected conditions) and the workers operate within the established guidelines. Individuals have specific responsibilities (product manager) yet are also expected to do whatever is needed to be done at the time (hop on a plane to Japan and use Japanese language and culture skills to calm down a corporate customer angry that the three prototypes just caught on fire). A lot of agility is at work. Here are a few more examples:
· Startup people swap jobs weekly. The vice president of business development is speaking at a conference so the chief technologist drives to Google to present the next product and continue the process of engaging the giant as a strategic partner.
· Innovators spring surprises (e.g. a clever feature for a social networking game) that move them and their inventions into new job titles and responsibilities (from individual contributor as Member of the Technical Staff to promotion as the new Project XYZ Manager Lead).
· Likewise, new product managers come from former engineers eager for their creation to reach the market and be sold eagerly. Their enthusiasm can win the day and get the sales order. And so on go the changes in the startup organization.
· Cautious accountants are asked to join in presentations with the core team as they talk to aggressive venture capitalists during periods of raising the next rounds of capital. The confidence by the accountants in the financial forecasts adds credibility to the presentations done in concert with the rest of the core team of the startup.
Serial entrepreneurs use agile organizations to motivate ambitious employees. Titles are one way to reward performance. Some people seek them aggressively. Solo contributors may be looking for their first managing experience, while managers are seeking to be responsible for an entire product line. The Controller is seeking the position of Vice President of Finance. And so on.
By giving agility to the organization, the CEO gives more hope to employees and at the same time keeps the company responding to rapidly changing events that affect the company’s competitive advantage.
Over time the agility will slow down, will become more rigid. But it will still be much faster than the giant public corporations. And when done well, it will make your startup a standout compared with other new enterprises.