3 Mental models that have helped structure our collaborative decision making in a fast-growing team.
As a small team, you are uniquely positioned to make decisions quickly and move fast. It is what makes startups, well startups.
In the early days, your scrappy startup is forced to make decisions together as a team. In an environment where we often look to hire smart, independent thinkers, opening decisions up to the team and coming to solutions collaboratively is the norm. It’s also going to be very difficult to retain those smart, independent thinkers if you simply tell them what to do.
This form of collaborative decision making can exist mostly unstructured in the early days; after all, you are ‘moving fast and breaking things’. But as the team starts to grow and more voices enter the conversation, you must adapt the way you think about the decision making process. After all, the success of any company can ultimately be reduced down to the quality of its decisions.
Improving the way your team approaches collaborative decision making as you grow can take many different forms, and I would not pretend to have all the answers, but I believe that this problem can be looked at in many different ways. To illustrate this, I have included a few examples of the challenges that we have faced as a growing team at HomeHero and how we have overcome some of these internally.
Transparency is more than just ‘not being secretive.’
First, let’s talk about transparency. Many companies will speak at length about their transparency and openness. It has become a buzzword requirement in any company’s culture deck. But in my experience, transparency isn’t just about ‘not being secretive’. I believe that it goes deeper than this, and I think that considering your teams’ culture of transparency is key to facing the first big challenge with collaborative decision making, engagement.
In my opinion, real transparency comes when the people closest to the information do the proactive work to make the information accessible to those who need it.
Let’s look into this. In a genuinely transparent team, everyone has access to the relevant information they need to actively participate in decisions. Without this transparency in your organization, it is easy to see a lack of engagement during an open discussion as a sign that your team members don’t care. While this may be the case and if it is, you have bigger problems, I believe that lack of engagement usually indicates that something is holding these team members back from making a meaningful contribution. In small teams where your employees are forced to wear many hats, engagement in open forums will likely be high, people will tend to have a good enough understanding of the business as a whole and will feel as if they can contribute. As your team grows, however, and your new hires become more specialized, your team’s ability to share knowledge between disciplines becomes incredibly important.
Building a knowledge-sharing culture
In the startup world where fires are burning out of control every day and there are always a million things to do, it becomes easy for the sharing of knowledge to fall by the wayside. In my opinion, for your team to be truly open and transparent, knowledge sharing must become a job requirement, not an optional set of tasks. Integrating this into everyday processes allows us to raise the collective knowledge of the team together rather than in silos. What better way to build a sense of trust and community into your organization while also sharing vital expertise as you grow.
Sharing knowledge across your team will look different for everyone, but there is one point that I will look at in more detail later that applies universally when trying to solve this problem. In an environment where people believe they always need to have the correct answer, it becomes difficult for honest, useful knowledge to be shared. People will self-select what they share, and it will rarely be negative. Sharing good examples can empower and motivate, but without sharing the mistakes made along the way, there is no way for your team to adapt and learn from them. Ray Dalio explains this in his book Principles.
It’s okay to make mistakes, but it’s not okay to not learn from them.
In a knowledge-sharing culture, we celebrate mistakes. We can learn from mistakes, often better than we do from successes. We would be foolish to think that we can continue to grow based only on our strengths without addressing our weaknesses. So uncovering these are crucial to any team.
Healthy debate cannot exist without structure
To build a culture of openness and transparency in any company, there should always be room for healthy discussion. At HomeHero we have always encouraged these open forums, how can our team express their honest opinions if there is no place for this dialogue to happen?
This culture of debating issues internally is a great way to align the business in its early days, but as you grow and these forums become larger, decisions can be slowed. Without some form of structure, this often ends in healthy discussion turning quickly into not so healthy debate. As explained by Ben Silbermann, founder of Pinterest, debating in an open forum can often be a horrible way to make decisions when not appropriately structured.
There’s this idea that vigorous debate yields results, but in my experience, vigorous debate yields people who vigorously defend what they think. As a result, they’re unwilling to compromise at some point because it’s a debate and the objective is to win.
This quote perfectly describes what I have seen as the next big challenge when scaling collaborative decision making in a growing team. We have all seen this happen at some point, two or more opposing ideas at odds with each other, each held tightly by a different member of the team. This often results in some form of compromise between the conflicting views that ultimately waters down each of their core concepts into a gooey mush of mediocrity.
The other less-than-ideal outcome is another we have all witnessed, and that is where the loudest voice wins. Ben Silbermann also notes that there is actually a pretty weak correlation between people who can confidently back their arguments and people who build great products. In any team, the priority has to be letting the best ideas rise to the top — not the ones articulated by the loudest voice.
Structuring your decision making
I believe the most important way to avoid these outcomes is to establish a goal when opening decisions up to the team, one that is not merely to win. This goal can be as expansive as Google’s famous “Don’t be evil” or more focused like “Let’s figure out how we increase our signup conversion rate to above 8%”. This may seem obvious, but we have all sat in meetings that have been derailed by a debate that moves nothing forward except perhaps the ego of the ‘winning’ voice.
Scoping the problem thoroughly and having clear objectives before starting discussions can also provide a much-needed safety net for those team members with the most tightly held beliefs, allowing them to let go when faced with an objectively better alternative. More importantly, each individual is able to trust they are working to the same end. It’s not a zero-sum game with one winner and one loser; it can be two winners enjoying a better outcome.
At their core, the decisions we make every day, both at home and at work are nothing more than bets. As much as we like to think we make decisions based on all the available information, this is rarely the case. Without all of the information, we are essentially betting on the outcome of whatever we decide based on the limited information we have.
We don’t like to admit this because we all want to think that if a decision is being made, especially in the world of business, the decision-maker is sure it will be right. In a startup, this is magnified as often you will be doing something disruptive, new or different, meaning that the answers will rarely be laid out in front of you. After all, you will never be 100% certain of a future that does not exist yet.
Over the last year in my current role, I have been part of a project to design and build an entirely new product that will be taking the company in a new direction. This has been an exciting project with lots of moving parts. With a team that was growing quickly around us, it was vital that, as the product team, we were able to communicate what we called our “comfortable uncertainty” to the wider organization.
Early on, it becomes easy for conversations to end up descending into “Do we even know x is going to work?” which was absolutely the wrong way to be thinking about delivering a new product, especially when trying to do something disruptive. This question is unhelpful in several ways but ultimately at its core lies the question “Are we 100% certain?” which as we know, is just not possible.
In a world where we are thinking in bets, the question we can ask ourselves is “Have we done enough to be confident in this decision”. By asking this, we can move the conversation away from a binary position and enable ourselves to have a more constructive discussion, where we can understand the actions and decisions we have made to get to where we are. This, however, has required a pretty significant shift in the fundamental culture of the organization, moving to a world where everyone understands and embraces the fact that the decisions we make as a team are moving us in a direction where we cannot possibly know all the answers. This becomes even more difficult as the team grows and new hires start to become more specialized coming from larger, more mature organizations where this way of thinking often goes against conventional wisdom.
Moving to comfortable uncertainty
In our experience, the first step in adopting this new way of thinking about decision making in your growing team is to train everyone to be comfortable in this uncertainty. This should absolutely be a trait you look for in new hires and something that should be preached internally. This is, however, easier said than done. Merely stating that the team now has to be more comfortable without knowing the answers will be seen by skeptics as passive management or poor planning. We have found it crucial to be able to give tangible evidence, a north star metric or a stick in the ground far in the future that people can look at. “We don’t know all the answers now, but we know this is where we are heading”.
Many people will always feel a certain way when they hear the word bet in this context. It implies that we, as an organization, are going to leave our decisions to chance or take wild stabs in the dark. This simply isn’t the case. Thinking in bets is all about how you can frame decision making; it is not “I bet this will work.” Like any bet, we must ask “How confident am I of my decision, and what is my threshold based on its importance?”. Larger decisions will, of course, require us to have more confidence, whereas there will be smaller, less destructive decisions that we can make quickly with less confidence. Framing it in this way reduces the need to find a definitive solution and instead forces us to allocate it the correct amount of effort relative to its importance. This not only allows us the ability to make more decisions faster but also helps us prioritize the most critical issues and make sure we are focusing on the right things.
To recap, these are the three principles that I believe have helped us continue to make decisions collaboratively as we grow.
- Building a knowledge sharing culture where everyone can contribute equally.
- Structuring our collaborative sessions to have clear objectives.
- Reframing our decisions to be comfortable in uncertainty.
As I said, I wouldn’t pretend to have all the answers to a topic as broad as this. There are, of course, many challenges to making collaborative decisions in a growing team, many of which will be unique to your team and environment. I can, however, say that these 3 points have really helped me personally when thinking about how we can work more collaboratively at HomeHero. Ultimately it is a challenge that all fast-growing companies will have to adapt to and consider as they scale their businesses and one that we will always look to review as we continue our growth.
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