The Founder's Paradox: How to Help People Think Less to Think More
Venture firms are advising their portfolios to hunker down. The message is clear — cut spending, curtail hiring, reassess everything to extend the runway. Cash levels and customers will fall fast, so better to lay low. The warning is not limited to VCs. Consultants everywhere are recommending the same. Is that the right message during a pandemic? Maybe in the short term. But I think the cost of simply operating when you could be innovating is too high.
Innovation always requires being bold — even more so when the fear of uncertainty is pervasive.
Now, it is true that these are difficult times. Not unprecedented in the history of humankind, but unprecedented for most of us living today. I am not diminishing the impact of a global pandemic and the upheaval that comes with it. The message to slow down is a natural reaction to alarming world events.
And venture firms have a fiscal responsibility to help their portfolio companies achieve great outcomes. Companies that are not venture-backed also want to do well for employees, customers, and all of the other stakeholders they serve. I also know that many industries are being decimated right now. Many are fighting for survival. For these folks, hunkering down is likely the best option. But I believe that most companies will survive.
Even if you are in an industry that is being battered by world events, do not stop looking forward towards a better future. The paradox is how to move confidently towards the future and invest in people and customers when things seem so very bleak right now. To do so requires you to explore longer-term goals and how you and the teams you collaborate with will get there.
Now is the time for clarity and leadership is needed to cut through the fog.
During even the best times, too much effort is spent focused on maintaining the status quo. How many times have you heard people suggest that something is "business as usual"? Or worse, how much time has your team spent arguing about how work should happen? Think about the most contentious meetings that you have been in. I will bet that many of the arguments have been over process or miscommunications based on confusion around how people think work should get done.
Add to that the fundamental changes to how we work that were forced upon nearly every business in March of this year. Individuals are now struggling also to redefine how they should work. That is a terrible use of energy.
The wasted energy and growing frustration is only exacerbated in large, dynamic companies where different teams and groups are loosely connected but dependent on one another. We are all better off when we know how to work and how to complete tasks. So, what should you do as a leader or advocate for as a team member?
We need to think less to think more. This means that we need clear guard rails for how work gets done. Here is why. There are two aspects of work to consider — how work gets done and then the creative effort that leads to accomplishment. You and the team you work with needs to spend the majority of time on the latter to be successful.
Innovation results from creative problem solving — not from talking about how to be creative.
When you take the time to define how people should work and then transparently mandate it, people can go back to what they do best, which is solving problems and creating value. I put together the following guidance aimed at leaders or those in a position to streamline how teams work. But it is even more suited for company and product builders. That is my own background and is based on what we know about our customers that the team at Aha! serves every day. So here is how to help people think less to think more:
Align the vision
Vision is the essence of what you want to achieve. It should be a simple description that clarifies what your company or product aims to deliver. But innovating in today's reality requires adjusting your vision to recognize that the world has changed. Every organization has to align itself to that new reality and understand that customers now have different needs. How is your product and company going to improve the world over the next 12 months?
Establish new goals
A straightforward definition of success absorbs fear and provides a framework for creative thinking. You may need to modify whatever goals you set at the end of 2019 to reflect what we know about 2020 so far. What are your new measurable objectives that people should be working towards? Define exactly how everyone can contribute to the level of achievement and growth you believe is possible right now.
You need to hear what others think in order to innovate. This is particularly important now, as customer needs evolve in response to the pandemic and renewed awareness of social injustice. But feedback and requests can be overwhelming without intentional organization. A centralized method for capturing ideas can help you quickly vet and objectively prioritize the ones that will have an immediate impact. Everyone should understand what is most important to customers.
Set clear workflows
Has unrest about world events made people feel even more anxious at work? Are they now working from home with two kids who are (only somewhat) engaged in distance learning? You do not want people having to rethink work each day as well. Defined workflows create consistency and eliminate unnecessary worry. And a steady working environment empowers people to focus on the future.
Tracking progress against goals is important — especially as your goals change in response to world events. But rather than taking an ad hoc approach, formalize the reporting structure, style, and cadence. How will new weekly and quarterly reports be generated and presented now that people are distributed? Define it. That way, teams will spend less time wondering what is now expected of them.
It is your responsibility to do the tough process work to help people think less to think more.
Innovation rarely happens by chance. And it rarely happens alone. It requires a team that knows exactly how they should work so they can focus on creative excellence. Now is the time to give people a framework to achieve their best and find satisfaction in doing so.
Read more of The Founder's Paradox.