Why you don’t need silos to scale a startup


My esteemed colleague over at SuccessfulWorkplace wrote a piece about using frameworks to help build business processes for startups when they begin to scale up operations.

In the post Tom stated that;

To make the successful transition to the next stage of growth, companies need to formalize management, communications and processes.

To a certain extent this is true, a structure does need to be put in place so it’s not just a giant free for all but the trouble I have is that these frameworks are all based and benchmarked on traditionally older companies and right now we are in a wave of innovation where some or all of these guidelines no longer fit.

Take Instagram for example, it has 13 employees, Twitter has 900, and Facebook 3,000. Somewhere in there hierarchy is bound to exist but they didn’t go out and reach for an off-the-shelf model, they grew organically and with it the retention of that flexible communication structure and culture they all started with.

Tribal knowledge, tribal tools

Tom also added that “the tribal knowledge that worked so well last year, no longer works when as more and more new people are added.” but take a look at the tools we have available; tibbr, Jive, Yammer, Chatter, Box, Huddle, Sparqlight, Sendgine, Asana, Podio, the list is endless and it has become a bit of a quest to harness that tribal knowledge and spirit with this collection of lightweight and agile software than constrain it all within building traditional silos all over again.

For some people we are now in uncharted territory and it’s scary. Frameworks offer guidelines and a means to cherry-pick which processes are the right ones to use and build around but what it doesn’t mean is that a startup is required to structure itself and how it operates and communicates around it. How often have you heard in larger organizations when asking for help that “it’s not in my budget”, or “it’s not in my objectives”.

Horizontal vs. Vertical

Startups are flatter by nature but they can still scale as a horizontal. Lateral structures have been written about before, for example, by IRG:

The term lateral communication can be used interchangeably as horizontal communication. In his text entitled “Organizational Communication,” Michael J. Papa defines horizontal communication as “the flow of messages across functional areas at a given level of an organization”.

With this system people at the same level are permitted “to communicate directly without going through several levels of organization”. Given this elasticity, members within an organization have an easier time with “problem solving, information sharing across different work groups, and task coordination between departments or project teams.

Indeed, as far back as 1999 Gabe Newell and the original Valve team worked very much in this way when creating their Half-Life hit.

The people involved were tired of working in isolation and were energized by the [Cabal] collaborative process, and the resulting designs had a consistent level of polish and depth that hadn’t been seen before.

Internally, once the success of the Cabal process was obvious, mini-Cabals were formed to come up with answers to a variety of design problems. These mini-Cabals would typically include people most effected by the decision, as well as try to include people completely outside the problem being addressed in order to keep a fresh perspective on things. We also kept membership in the initial Cabal somewhat flexible and we quickly started to rotate people through the process every month or so, always including a few people from the last time, and always making sure we had a cross section of the company. This helped to prevent burn out, and ensured that everyone involved in the process had experience using the results of Cabal decisions.

21st century company, 18th century mentality

This isn’t to say that the Process Classification Framework discussed in Tom’s post isn’t relevant. Of course it is. Processes are an integral part of business and there’s no escaping that. But it’s how you decide to structure around that framework that will make or break now.

We are living in the 21st century with 21st century tools. Don’t wrap your startup in 18th century structure.

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