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Productivity problems in your startup?

What to do next when no one else seems to be working as hard as you

Whether you're a founder who has put every penny and waking moment into your business, or a dedicated employee who has both spirit and skin in the game, it is demotivating and frankly scary when no one else seems to be working as hard as you do.

Maybe the culture has got just a bit too relaxed, perhaps everyone is very, very busy working on the wrong things, or maybe the lazy or incompetent have got away with too much for too long. When productivity problems hit, your startup can suddenly feel on very shaky foundations indeed.

So, are you facing a real problem or are your fears a stress reaction to your own emotional or capacity limits being exceeded? My view is that most productivity issues are real, not imagined. When you try to convince yourself you are being unjustly harsh, or over-sensitive, you're probably trying to avoid the risk and unpleasantness of tackling the real issues head-on. But as you already know, if you don't tackle this problem fast it will kill your business. An early stage company has no capacity to carry passengers and poor behaviours that are tolerated will ultimately poison everything.

If you want to be sure if you have a real or imagined problem, there is only one way to tell and that is with hard, output driven data. Can you evidence to your satisfaction that the specific stuff that is supposed to be getting done is actually being consistently completed in a pre-agreed timeframe, to a pre-agreed standard, by the specific people who were supposed to do it? If the answer is a consistent yes, then congratulations - you may still have problems, but it is more likely with your strategic direction and focus than productivity. But if the answer is no - as in you are not seeing consistent evidence of meaningful outcomes from those responsible and accountable for them - time for a productivity drive.

The symptoms: what productivity issues look like

Hopefully, you don't have all of these problems, but if you recognise more than two then your startup is in need of antibiotics and some therapy, rather than vitamins and a sticky plaster:

  • Poor morale, from cynicism or contempt of colleagues/clients, through to fear for job security

  • Complete lack of commercial/customer focus (often accompanies by a surprising ability to focus on shiny and/or pointless things)

  • An excessively relaxed vibe, ever decreasing working hours and, oh, you're the only one in the office at 4.40pm (again)

  • Casual disregard of own and others deadlines. And the particularly refined and extra infuriating variant: "although I have known about this particular snag for weeks and have repeatedly said throughout that time that things are fine and on track, I have saved telling you about it until now, just 1 day before the hard deadline, for maximum impact and terror."

  • Nothing gets finished and the last few bits and pieces drag out into infinity

  • Errors creep in, sales opportunities are lost, calls are not returned and work wanders weirdly off-spec

  • Ego/vanity/side-interest projects suck increasing proportions of work time and people work on what they want to, not what the business needs them to

  • Endless reinvention of the wheel, sometimes iterating backwards (who knew that was a thing?)

  • No one knows or values what other people do

  • Them and us factions breakout

  • Collaboration stops, especially across teams or functions

  • There are lots and lots of meetings yet no outcomes. Or work has to be done out of hours because during hours everyone was in meetings.

The causes: why productivity problems occur

If you have several of the symptoms above, then chances then at least a few of these basic underlying causes are at play. Don't assume you know best - invest time in talking to your people in one to ones and ideally together off-site, to learn what the root causes really are. (And of course, some of the factors below are both symptoms and causes):

  • Fatigue. Everyone's really busy working on the wrong things. Or the goal posts and expected outcomes have moved so many times, that it is easier to do nothing and just wait for them to change again.

  • Lack of contact/visibility from the founder or vision setter. I've seen this manifest itself during long investment slogs when the founder has been out of the business raising money for more time than they have been in it. It's actually one of the bigger risks of frequent/slow fundraising.

  • Unclear, undefined or ever-shifting responsibility and accountability. People can't deliver on expectations if they don't know what they are, or if others accidentally or deliberately derail their efforts.

  • Poor examples from leadership or the board, especially applying one rule for one group, one rule for another. One of the more disastrous and productivity-destroying implementations of a productivity tool I have seen, went as badly wrong as it did because the managers driving the process excluded themselves from it, either regarding themselves as above it, or failing to understand the importance of two-way accountability with their teams.

  • Insufficient timeboxing or breaking down of tasks into manageable, deadlined chunks. Excessive micro-planning is a work avoidance scheme in my view (why do the work, when you can simply demand the poor project manager writes you an ever more detailed Gantt chart or the product manager revises their feature spec for the gazillionth time). BUT, if a task is too big, too open-ended, too non-specific in its steps and the ownership of those steps, it has very little chance of completion.

  • Insufficient clarity of specific expected outcomes and lack of a clear and attainable sequence of outcomes and mini-triumphs. This often indicates a bigger problem, which is the lack of a sufficiently experienced, pragmatic technical or specialist co-founder. If no one in the founding team is sufficiently experienced to know how to do something (the top-line steps, if not the executional detail) then it is particularly risky to also have an inexperienced technical team, because literally no one will actually know what to do and a vast amount of time gets expended on learning by trial and error.

  • Perfectionism and over-optimisation. In pretty much every very early stage scenario, done is better than perfect. As LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman wisely said: "If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you've launched too late". And yet people hang on and are desperate to keep tweaking or optimising for some future scenario that in all likelihood will never happen. Make sure you are not incentivising slow release behaviour by being overly obsessed about non-critical bugs, or by making people fear they will no longer be employed/needed once their work is finished.

  • Commercial naivete. Never assume your employees know anything about the realities of your customers' world - instead, find ways for them to meet them and to walk in their shoes. Nor can you assume people who have not founded their own company have any understanding of just how limited and finite the time and money really is. Don't scare them into total paralysis, but by all means, scare them a bit.

  • Insufficient skills. Sometimes individuals, teams or entire companies do not have the knowledge or skills required to deliver. Make sure you are mentored personally and have a few highly and relevantly skilled advisor round you, and try to hire fewer but more specifically experienced people at the very beginning if possible. Go for a good generalist over a technical specialist until you fully know what you need, because you can't teach what you don't know.

  • Single points of blockage and failure (actual or engineered). A necessary evil in the very early days, single points of blockage and risk are something to try to hire past as soon as is feasible. More problematic is the carefully engineered single point of failure - the person who deliberately doesn't share doesn't document, doesn't delegate, yet never quite finishes anything - either to avoid being exposed for their actual or imagined shortcomings or because they are trying to leverage themselves into a position of indispensability for future gain.

  • Poor hiring and/or poor people management means under-performing, or worse still, highly toxic people are consuming a disproportionate amount of time and energy. Generally from your best people. If the problem person is a senior manager, the danger is even higher. One of the biggest mistakes I have ever made was going against my gut and doing what I was told instead of what was needed around a problematic senior hire. Doing nothing was definitely way more destructive and costly than tackling it head-on and risking a severe roasting.

  • The bar is set too low. Maybe it's all got too easy and the exciting edge has gone, maybe the team composition has changed, and the perceived (or genuine) average has shifted downwards. Time for a challenge and some serious competition or gamification to shake things up.

  • The tyranny of the tangible. Harvard Business Review research has found executives instinctively know that the main barriers to long-term success are a lack of interaction and collaboration, yet they focus on structure, governance, and process because they are “tangible” — therefore easier to demonstrate and measure. Don't focus on a process or a tool because it is easy, focus on communication and collaboration - precisely because it's hard.

The cure, or at least some potential remedial tactics to try

Most of these remedial tactics can be grouped into themes of communication, outcome-based accountability and setting the parameters, conditions and rewards for success. In my experience, improving one area significantly, while remaining weak in the other two won't be as effective as moderate, incremental improvements in all three areas:

  • Short sprints, not marathons - and a demoralised team will really soar if some shared wins and personal triumphs are facilitated.

  • Outcome-based show and tells for all teams and all levels of seniority. Whether as a standup or over lunch, getting everyone sharing what they have done this week that contributes to company productivity and current outcomes will refocus energy from the abstract to the important. It will also break down unjust suspicions that a particular person isn't contributing and give avoiders/liars nowhere to hide.

  • Appropriate and consistently measured accountability (but avoid productivity tool soup).

  • Identify, tackle or remove toxic people, liars and time suckers. No exceptions. The hardest one is the nice, but unredeemable time sucker - once training and remedial attempts have failed, they have to go. Otherwise, team-wide productivity will drop as your best people get tied up in carrying them. Although audacious liars and highly toxic people are more frequently drawn to large companies (it is easier to hide), their impact in a startup can be catastrophic and you will come across them. If the gap between what someone says and what they do is wide, or their behaviour isn't making sense, at least ask the question of yourself "what if they are lying?". By pausing your natural inclination to trust, it will become easier to assess, process and act when required.

  • Reward the right behaviours, especially around product releases, deliverables and action based outcomes, rather than rewarding hot air. Ensure the theft of someone else's credit or achievement is never tolerated.

  • Foster healthy collaboration and interactions between individuals and teams - eliminate both the fear and the possibility that anyone is going to get thrown under a bus by colleagues with clear, fair and consistent expectations and accountabilities.

  • Communicate and keep communicating the vision, the why and the expected outcomes - build a sense of shared ownership, pride and consistency in the narrative and the meaning of your company.

  • Encourage updates that come little and often, rather than in endless, pointless weekly meetings. Instead of the traditional meeting format, try the stand-up meeting or a time-limited approach.

  • As founder/CEO make time for regular one to ones, keep it short (15 mins max) and set expectations of how your team should use that time to their advantage. If exceptional circumstances - eg fundraising - make it impossible for a week or two, communicate exactly why and come up with a temporary alternative. But don't let the pattern breakdown permanently and don't use the circumstances you are facing as an avoidance excuse because productivity will drop off a cliff if you do.

  • Make an active, rather than passive, commitment to staff development, whether mentoring, internal training or credit for attendance at external events. This is often neglected in startups so it is no surprise that skills and enthusiasm stagnate.

Finally, I have noticed that there is nothing like the occasional existential crisis to boost short-term productivity. I'm certainly not advocating fabricating or courting crises, but it is worth noting the factors that enable productivity to soar at these times of financial, competitive or product disaster. In my experience these behaviours include open, honest and frequent communication, intensely shared vision and purpose, collaborative problem solving, acute urgency, stated constraints and very clear outcome requirement. The challenge is to find ways to make this part of your company DNA, rather than something you can only pull off under extreme and non-sustainable pressure.

As ever, let me know what works for you - this is one challenge that never permanently goes away!

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