Chances are you have several colleagues and friends who work at medium to large-sized companies. If you were to poll them, asking what problems they encounter on a daily basis, you might be shocked by how similar the answers are.
There appears to be a natural state of existence that companies drift towards as they grow–no matter the industry. I can’t say exactly why that is, but it likely includes an underlying social-technological dynamic.
I’ve seen these problems first-hand and heard about them over and over again throughout my career. Between jobs, I decided to write out a list of the 20 most common, yet seemingly avoidable, issues every company faces as it grows.
When I joined the team at Morphic Therapeutic, we had a unique opportunity since we were starting from scratch. I wondered, “Could we build certain elements in the culture? Could we prevent a number of these problems down the road if we addressed them upfront and wove the solutions into the cultural fabric?”
I can’t say we’ve solved for each and every issue–or even tried to–but we seem to have made our own unique dent.
This is our list. See if they have any benefit for you.
1. People Don’t Talk To Each Other
It never ceases to amaze me that for all the technology and open-plan offices, it can still be so difficult to get people to talk to each other. Different departments can feel like entirely different communities, even though they only operate 40 feet away from each other.
We’re so used to sticking with our group that we often get in the habit of ignoring the people we don’t normally interact with.
At my previous company, the commercial team was only probably 50 yards away on the other side of the elevators. One week, the coffee machine in the executive section of the office broke, so I had to walk that 50 yards to the next closest coffee machine. I ended up saying “Hi” to people I literally had not seen in six months.
At Morphic, I tried to head this off by bringing everyone together once a week and giving each person 90 seconds to talk about what they’re working on and what problems they have. It’s not about solving the problems then and there, but making sure everyone has a good idea of what other people are working on so they can help, if possible.
As our team continues to grow, we’re once again being tested to come up with new processes.
2. Too Much Email
Companies that rely on email for communication quickly reach a point where inboxes fill up faster than they can be checked. Inefficiency reigns. People “cc” team members on email threads with reckless abandon and constantly check on “urgent” messages, which can begin to take up significant amounts of daylight.
That’s why I knew our team needed a different system. We decided to use Slack instead, and it’s clearly the better path. Yes, people still use email in some situations, but the majority of internal communication is done on Slack channels. Plus, the format increases transparency and is much more user-friendly and easy to follow than an email chain. It is possible to reduce email traffic to a virtual standstill.
3. Too Many Meetings
I’m not necessarily “anti-meeting,” in the way some people are–I don’t see them as a total waste of time. In multi-disciplinary situations, a productive meeting is synonymous with work. You bring diverse people together, and they figure things out.
The problem with most meetings is that they’re dominated by presentations. Bullet points on a slide simply aren’t the best way to get information across, yet a slideshow often takes up the majority of the meeting, leaving people with little time to ask questions and discuss the topic.
It’s much better to write out information in a document form, providing all the clarity and context your team needs to understand what’s going on. People can read the document beforehand and come to the meeting ready to have productive discussions. This practice can change your culture completely.
4. Not Enough Transparency
A team can usually handle unpopular decisions, as long as they understand the rationale behind them. If they’re kept in the dark, and it looks as though each decision is arbitrary, that’s when they’ll begin to lose faith in leadership.
For now, our leadership errs on the side of transparency. By making things as transparent as possible, we let people figure things out on their own. Rules and policies can’t account for all situations.
By making information available, you let everyone write their own narrative.
Transparency can be a double-edged sword, however. Younger employees who aren’t as familiar with the cycle of ups and downs in any company may end up feeling like they’re on an emotional roller coaster if they’re always looped in on what’s happening. This may cause you to lose people.
Still, if you can decide as a management team that you’re all in this roller coaster together, then the benefits of keeping people in the know outweigh any emotional cycles.
5. Supporting Smugness
One of the unfortunate side-effects of success is that it often leads to overconfidence, even arrogance. Over time, someone who is continually successful will begin to think that’s just the natural state of things. It becomes increasingly difficult for them to believe they were lucky, rather than smart. Or even that luck played some role in their success.
If your team falls into that trap, you’re leaving yourself open to being blindsided at any moment. There’s not much to be gained by being overconfident, but it’s an inevitable part of success that you’ll experience at some point.
The only thing you can do is continue to stay humble, build effective governing processes, and reflect on the process that got you this far–which brings me to our next problem.
6. Not Understanding A Process
Oftentimes, people tend to focus on outcomes, rather than process. If an outcome was bad, then the decision-making process must have been bad. And if the outcome was good, well, that must have been a great decision.
The problem is, you may have just been lucky. A bad process can still lead to a good outcome. And unfortunately, that means if you continue following that process, it’s highly unlikely you’ll get another good outcome.
It’s always better to focus on the process rather than the outcome. One way to do this is by documenting your assumptions before you make a decision. That way, you have a record of whether you were thinking clearly, or you just lucked out. You can’t look back and say, “I knew it all along,” when your words show that you had no idea what would happen.
7. Designing Processes For The 1% Bad Apples, Rather Than The Masses
As companies grow, they often begin putting rules and regulations in place in an effort to prevent mistakes from happening.
For instance, fraud in expense accounts is a common concern. Preventing that from happening will certainly save the company some money, but you have to realize you’re really designing that process for the 1% of people who may be dishonest and take advantage of the system. And it often comes at a huge cost for the 99% of people who don’t need that regulation but are now burdened with it.
This starts to get unwieldy very quickly.
The more you can build trust within your organization, the better. Bad things are going to happen, and you should have processes in place to stop catastrophic events. But you should also be cognizant of what rules and regulations you’re placing on people who never needed them in the first place.
8. Don’t Get Corrupted By “The Pitch”
Whether you’re looking for customers, investors, or even talented employees, you’re always pitching something. Usually, the pitch boils down to one simple fact: you can solve something that others can’t.
You need to be very careful that your pitch matches your team’s abilities. You still have to be honest about what you can and can’t do.
It’s easy to fall into a trap of promising things to people, assuming you’ll be able to accomplish them when in reality, you don’t know that for sure. This is essentially the story of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes. Once you convince yourself what you’re doing is for a good cause, it becomes easy to press ahead and ignore the warning signs. At some point, you’re no longer able to distinguish marketing from reality.
9. Reacting To Fear Disproportionately To Opportunity
After a while, most companies begin to focus on preserving what they have. Success is something to be maintained rather than built upon, or, as history shows, cannibalized by another product.
Although there are exceptions, like Apple’s iPhone draining the market for iPods, companies generally avoid that type of revamp to their product line. Most of the time, they’ll only begin to change as a reaction to fear, not opportunity. They won’t act until a competitor starts doing something that eats into their market share.
In other words: Don’t fear like Blockbuster; innovate like Netflix.
10. Forecasting Is Heavy On The “Internal View”
There’s always an internal and external view.
If you want to get the external view of how much product you’ll sell, then begin looking at the sales numbers of another similar product. And build from that baseline.
The internal view starts at a different place. It uses a bottom-up analysis. In many cases, it assumes rosy outcomes and ignores the history of other products or companies. “The market is X. If we own 2% of the market, then our sales will be Y.”
Those number may add up, but that doesn’t mean they reflect reality or can predict what will actually happen. You still have to take into account the external view and see how those gel.
11. Preferring The “Dumbed” Down Version Of Things
Information tends to get dumbed down as it moves up the chain of command. There’s often a perception that everything has to be simplified for management. The reality is that you don’t have to simplify information–you just need to clarify it.
That might mean actually adding more context to what you’re sending. For instance, if I sent you step-by-step instructions on how to get from your house to mine, you may be able to follow it. But if you were able to see a map of the entire neighborhood along with those instructions, you’d have a much better idea of the route.
Instead of dumbing things down, think about them carefully and then describe them in a way that provides the necessary context and clarity for good decision-making.
12. Heavy Approval Process
When a company is small, the decision-making processes are very fluid. It’s fairly simple to change direction or get approval when you need it. As companies grow, they almost always operate more slowly.
A good portion of our team came to us from large pharmaceutical companies, and we’re doing drug discovery in a similar way to what a large company might. Yet our timelines are much shorter.
It’s the same people, same equipment, same approach–but as a smaller company, we aren’t held back by convoluted processes. Decisions get made in a much more fluid process.
13. Being Afraid To Give Feedback
People are generally very afraid to speak up and give feedback at work, especially when they have to say something negative.
It’s not easy to be the person who raises an issue, and the anxiety only increases if there’s even a small chance you might be blamed for it. No one wants to be associated with a major problem. Of course, that reluctance to give feedback is a problem in itself.
Issues have to be raised quickly so they can be corrected. Otherwise, they’ll linger and cause greater damage later on.
14. Only Celebrating People Who Put Out Fires
The thing about consistent high performance is that it tends to look somewhat boring after awhile. It’s actually easier than you’d think to overlook someone who is quietly doing a good job week after week.
Instead, promotions and recognition often go to people who storm around putting out fires. Staying late into the night every day for two weeks in order to fix something may look heroic, but that shouldn’t necessarily be celebrated at the expense of the people who don’t have to put out fires because they never let one start in the first place.
15. Prioritization Of Processes Over People
As companies grow and hone in on their core product, they tend to become more and more efficient at focusing on that one offering. They build processes to streamline their approach and concentrate heavily on making it better and better.
Unfortunately, the world is complicated and changes very rapidly. If you look at the S&P 500 from 1900 to the present, GE is the only company still on it. And even that legendary company has been struggling lately.
Companies are not robust. People are. If you want to be capable of adapting to change, you have to hire the right people and let them drive the approach. The last thing you want to do is hire smart people and dumb them down to fit your process. Steve Jobs probably said it best:
“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
16. Mistaking Confidence For Competence
The people who rise within a company tend to be confident. They’re loud, they present well, they speak directly. They have “the look” of a leader.
Oddly enough, the more confident someone is in themselves, the less knowledge they usually share. People who are actually experts come off as unassuming and less assertive, mostly because they recognize the nuance involved in the decisions they make.
Businesses often end up hiring and promoting the most confident employees, even though their confidence may be misguided.
17. Having A “Work Self” And A “Home Self”
When your team is at work, you want them to be incredibly focused on the job. And when they’re at home, you don’t want them worrying about work.
Yet I’d hesitate to use the term “work-life balance.” That implies your work and the rest of your life are separate spaces that never overlap. In reality, everyone benefits when people bring their unique talents and interests to their job. There’s no reason to check emotions at the door when you walk into work.
18. “Don’t Bring Me A Problem, Bring Me A Solution.”
That sentence is the common wisdom I hear over and over in the business world–and it drives me crazy.
Why is the person who notices a problem automatically the best person to have a solution to it? Sure, maybe they can find a solution, but maybe it’s going to take the rest of the team to figure it out. Maybe someone else has the necessary expertise.
As a CEO, even if I’m not being presented with a solution, I would much rather learn about a problem than not hear about. Telling someone to bring you solutions is actually an incentive for them not to bring problems to your attention.
Why would they if they don’t have a solution for it?
19. Consensus Decision-Making
In a big company, doing anything often requires getting a lot of different people to say, “yes.” All it takes is one person saying, “no,” and your idea is done.
The problem with that is when you need consensus, you tend to revert to the mean. If you need ten different people to sign off on a hire, the person you choose has to be acceptable to everyone. Which means there may be nothing wrong with them, but there may also be nothing right with them either.
You see this “watering down” happen all the time in big companies because in order for an idea to work its way through the system, it has to be stripped of all its interesting–yet potentially objectionable–elements.
20. Establishing A Non-Rigorous Promotion Process
The system for promotion in any company makes a strong statement about what the leadership team values. If someone who has known the boss for a long time gets promoted on that bias, that tells everyone else something. Namely, knowing the boss is the key to getting promoted.
Companies ought to be promoting based on skills. You want people to believe they’re working in a meritocracy where their skills and their efforts will be rewarded. You can talk all day about culture and happy hours and company parties, but none of that will matter at all if you’re promoting the wrong people.
Promotions are essentially a keystone skill. So much of your success will flow from getting them right, that you literally can’t afford to get them wrong.
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