Just One Thing Management Dynamics

I have a unique background among small company (I’m loath to write “startup”, Get Satisfaction is more substantial than that) executives in that I have venture capital, and very large company to very small company experience. I don’t think this makes me more or less prepared for the daily challenges, it just gives me a different perspective than most people and it’s something I have been reflecting on over the New Year break (I’m still on it with my family).

There are few overnight successes in this industry, which sees the rare success among a sea of failures as a result of a thousand incremental developments and course corrections. The worst thing, I am convinced, that any executive can say to the market or his/her team is “if we just do this” because a single product feature or customer win or positive review or key hire will not make a company.

The long hard slog to a product that can deliver compelling customer value and withstand competitive attack is what successful companies are made from, and while it sounds a whimsical and naive when you consider all of the shitty products that are commercially successful for reasons that have nothing to do with customers, I’ll still take it.

Coming from a big, very big, company I always resented the fight against inertia that resulted in all but certain late arrival with the next new thing. Big companies are slow because of the number of people that have to be brought into alignment to do anything… an abundance of resources that are already committed to other things which would likely be affected by something new and different.

Another asset and liability for large companies is the large customer bases that they already have, customers which generally dislike disruptive changes to things that are perceived to already work. Sure you have all those captive customers to sell to but what you end up selling them is a compromise controlled by what you would like to abandon in the quest for new and better.

Ironically, small companies have a similar inertia problem but it is the reverse image with the same effect… instead of having an abundance of resources that are unavailable and a customer base that resists change, you have to fight an abundance of resources that are unavailable because of company focus and capital constraints, and a customer base that, generally, demands more progress than you can deliver.

This is where the “just one thing” argument comes into play. The Run Like Hell startup management culture creates a really complex dynamic where you are constantly balancing multiple outcomes and all too often the desire for singular focus as an antidote to complexity results in people saying “if we just do this” when in fact the one thing they are proposing just leads to a new “just one thing”.

Complexity is the other demon that small companies fight but it’s misguided to thing that stripping away complexity will result in something that is inherently more appealing. Things are not complex because someone set out to make it that way, complexity is quite often the result of things just being, well, complex; stripping away of things that are not considered “core” or “on model” may sound great in a powerpoint presentation but for the people who are facing customers and prospective customers every day this often results is something that is a lot less compelling and appeals to a much smaller audience.

As I go into 2012 I am striving to take on new challenges with a holistic attitude. If I start with putting what is best for customers first, team stability and accomplishment second, and avoid saying “if we just do this one thing…” then I think I will be able to close out 2012 with a sense of success that I can feel proud of.

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