marketing and sales executives from Silicon Valley

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Startups and 'It's not my job'

After my article on 'hiring Moron X', I was lucky enough to get feedback from colleagues with experience at both small startups and larger companies. One comment led me to this article: "startup types may be ineffective in big companies due to turf wars."

Let me explain, with some background first. In well run startups, there's one phrase you rarely hear "That's not my job". On the rare occasion it pops up, it's usually followed by "well whose job is it and why aren't they in this conversation." In most startups, the team is well focused and aligned, everyone is/should be working toward the same goal. If an important job isn't getting it done, the team rallies, offloading, reassigning, or sharing responsibilities to ensure that the important things get done. When something needs to happen and resources aren't available, someone should, and usually does, step up to execute, even if it means night and weekend hours. It is important, after all. There's usually plenty of work to do, so people routinely step up, taking on tasks above and beyond their normal skill-set or training, even crossing functional boundaries.

In larger companies, operations are often broken down into more discrete tasks, where employees are hired as specialists in one functional area. This can lead to departmental and functional optimization where employees do a few tasks and are expected to do them well. If a task comes up that a specialist is not trained to do - they often have little interest and/or knowledge about how to execute on that task. Literally, it's not his/her job, and the task can be accomplished by someone more experienced with the proper skill-set.

Herein lies the potential conflict for startup types in larger organizations. When a startup type joins a large company and finds an important task not being addressed, they find a way to make it happen. They might do it themselves or try to acquire resource to quickly move forward. Unfortunately, trying to get it done and making it happen have different processes in a larger company. "Trying to get it done" may mean identifying the related projects, the required resource, the managers, and the chain of command that would normally get the task done. The startup person's task is one tiny priority among dozens of others, and when pushing his/her agenda, they often get the "I won't have resource until Y days/weeks in the future" response. In frustration, the startup person may do it himself, imperfectly, w/o the resources and w/o the blessing of the other managers, but doing it in a day or two instead of waiting two weeks before resource became available. This is how egos get crossed, walls get built, and turf wars begin against the startup person.

It doesn't have to be this way, and no one is really at fault, but this same cycle happens over and over again when the mindset and culture of the startup person is implicitly applied in the larger company environment. Often the manager who hired the startup person feels like he/she hired a rogue who doesn't fit, but in reality, a gap in communication and alignment has been exposed. It's really a learning moment and opportunity for the startup person and the larger company to operate more efficiently and effectively.

The solution is communication and goal alignment. When urgency, priority, resource, corporate advancement and opportunity can be weighed, managers and resources can be highlighted to allow a project to be executed in a more scrappy and nimble fashion, or the project urgency can corrected to more realistically reflect the priorities and goals of the company, focusing the startup person on higher priorities. I have seen communication and clarification work well, pushing a larger organization to new levels, but I've also seen the reverse, where the larger company manager is intimidated and insecure or the startup person can't adapt to the new structure.

Have you been involved either way? Successfully or not? Feel free to comment or contact me with your feedback.