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We’re Here Now

When everything around you is on fire, it’s easiest to point fingers elsewhere and find someone to blame. It’s tempting to just put your head in the sand and pretend nothing is happening, waiting for the storm to pass. But most issues that founders and entrepreneurs experience on a daily basis don’t go away on their own;they’re likely only getting worse. The solution is simple: We accept where we are and that we need to take responsibility and do something. We’re here now. What are we going to do?

Building a business is filled with ups and downs. On Monday morning you close a new customer account, only to learn over lunch that your lead developer announces that they’re leaving to start their own business. Tuesday morning, you’ve pitched a new sales strategy to your board and got them to sign off, only to learn in your afternoon one-on-one with your head of sales that the strategy turned out not to be the right approach. It’s Wednesday, and you just convinced two new investors to join an upcoming funding round, only to have your lead investor call you while you’re celebrating with a coffee and a donut to let you know that they need to revisit the terms. In your Thursday sales meeting, one person provides excuses, as they do every week, why they can’t sell your product to this or that customer–but they don’t provide any meaningful input on how to improve the product. Friday afternoon, just as your team is winding down during their weekly show-and-tell, a security breach is brought to your attention;it’s potentially breached thousands of customer details, and you need to investigate right away. Sunday morning is when you finally get to wind down and let the world know that things have been resolved.

And that’s only one week, with a few (or more) ups and downs left out.

The truth is that building a business is full of moments that leave you wanting to tear your hair out. It’s tempting to point fingers elsewhere and blame someone else for the circumstances that led to your current decline. It could’ve been your competitor, a rogue investor, an employee that hasn’t been working out, or a customer that seems to be demanding the impossible. Maybe you wish you would’ve made a certain change six months ago. Maybe you wish you’d hired a different person. Maybe you’d like your past self to go in a different product direction, one that seems like a sure win right this moment. Or you long for a world where investors are always true to their word. Maybe you wish that investors would only put in a bit more effort Or that your board would consist of a different group of people.

What happened in the past doesn’t matter now

Here’s a simple truth that we offer you as we progress deeper into what it means to build an intentional organisation: what happened in the past doesn’t matter now. Whether it’s six years, or six months, or six hours ago. It doesn’t matter. You can’t change anything about it. It is what it is. You’re here now, and you need to deal with what’s in front of you. Doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad.

For example

You’re a CEO who wanted the best for your growth-stage company–so after the company’s Series A, you replaced all your team leads with VPs from high performing companies. The hires were a huge win for the company, and it looked great for the investors. That is, until it became clear there was a huge culture clash. The VPs have no idea how to work in a startup, and their teams find it impossible to work with them. Now nobody is happy, teams are falling apart, and you are under pressure to undo this mess–and you have no idea where to start.

We might look at this predicament and sympathize. You are in quite a pickle! But the fact is, none of this matters. You’re here now. You can ignore it in as many ways as you like, but it’s going to be right there waiting for you tomorrow–with a brand new pile of other problems to deal with.

Let’s face it, this is your mess to clean up. In the example above, who hired the folks who clashed with the rest of the organization? You did! Just as much as you get to reap the benefits of building a successful business, you also need to face the music that’s playing in the background. You don’t get to choose one or the other; it’s always both. The mess will keep growing if it’s not cleaned up. So, in the words of our friend Jerry Colonna: this being so, so what?

Here’s another truth: Not all of this work is fun. Some of the work needed to clean up something is painful. Some of that work might leave relationships broken. Other work might leave your business starved for cash. Some of the work is annoying or frustrating.

You hired people to do the work for you, so why do you need to clean it up? Why do those people you hired not see what you’re seeing so clearly? The vortex of questions and of questioning is hard to escape. It’s so easy to keep asking why something is the way it is. And maybe you’ll even find a satisfying answer. But the knowledge of how you got here is only one part of deciding where to go next. What you do can be informed by what you’ve learned–but something still needs to be done.

As much as we can get stuck in constant movement, thrashing even, to give the impression of moving forward, of doing something, we can also get stuck in over analyzing the situation.

Your situation is not going away: Welcome to the stage of acceptance. So what are you gonna do about it?

Where do we go from here?

Now, you could say that putting out fires is part of the founder’s, entrepreneur’s, or senior executive’s job–and you’re right. It is part of the job. That mess we mentioned earlier is always going to be there, and somehow you have to make sure it gets cleaned up.

The easiest solution is to just dump it somewhere, or set it on fire, or ask someone else to take care of it for you. It’s tempting to just put out each little fire and move on; even though the work isn’t fulfilling, you get to cross something off your list and move on to the next fire.

This feeds into the hustle culture that’s so prevalent in startups, where constant presence and constant activity is lauded and rewarded. There’s a hero culture around folks who stay at work for ten or twelve hours, or longer. Nobody gets rewarded for working for eight hours, getting all their work done, and going home at a reasonable hour.

Most founders are all too familiar with this mode. For some it may just be the mode they’ve been in since they started the company years ago–because the truth is that, for most of us, this mode seems impossible to get out of; even when it's exhausting, the instant gratification of a quick fix is a hard habit to break.

The problem is that solving a problem quickly and moving on rarely provides a longer term solution for similar issues. Even if you’ve had a quick conversation to clear the air or made decisions to resolve that particular situation, the problems are likely to reappear. So what can you do instead?

Every problem is an opportunity to look at what’s really going on, form a hypothesis, investigate, and come up with a sustainable solution; in other words, you want to be intentional about how you solve issues to avoid dealing with the same problem over and over again. A simple framework could look like this:

  1. When there’s an issue, take a pause. Resist the temptation for a quick answer. Ask yourself (and the people around you) what’s going on. Ask how they know something, how they assume something, what they think is true.
  2. Create a hypothesis of what the problem is. Find out whether it’s true, or at least close to home. Ask more questions, avoid simple answers that point to others or imply a simple solution. If it isn’t, go back to step one.
  3. Draft a solution that solves the issue for the longer term. Involve the people around you in the process, wherever possible. Be clear about the problem you’re trying to solve and about what assumptions you bring into the solution.

In my early months after joining Reaction Commerce as their CTO, I observed meetings closely. I spent a lot of my time spelunking around company documents to see how the business keeps track of information, a key tenet in distributed teams. When I couldn’t find information I was looking for, which happened frequently, I would spend my one-on-one meetings with folks trying to figure out what decision was made and when, or at minimum what they remember about a decision. I was able to create a hypothesis rather quickly: the team wasn’t keeping track of decisions, of when they were made, how they were made, and who made them. I observed this for larger decisions, those that impact more than one team or the entire organization, and for decisions and action items discussed in meetings.

As a possible solution I drafted up a simple process to maintain a record of each decision being made that impacted more than one team in their work. For instance, the engineering team had a mental backlog of things they wanted to do, but they didn’t have the tools to implement them. This problem also came up in my early conversations as I got to know the company. There wasn’t a process in place to propose something new, and it wasn’t clear who was supposed to make the decision. Of course I could’ve made all those decisions as the CTO, but that’s not in line with my ideal of involving people early.

The process outlined a document format with three sections: problem definition, context, solution. It also included a status field to mark a proposal as draft or final, an author, and a date. That’s it. I shared this draft with a few folks to see what they think. Then I went on vacation. When I came back, the engineering team had taken to the format, without me even saying that this is how we’ll do things. They had drafted up a few proposals already and had left feedback on the original proposal with questions and comments that needed clarification.

Admittedly, this is a simplified approach. But even taking a moment to pause and to investigate can make a difference in how you approach solving a problem, or even answering a question. You move from a reactive approach to one that’s proactive and intentional. You accept that it only matters what happens from here on out. You’re here now.