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If you're clashing with peers over strategic decisions, it might be a sign of misunderstanding about the stage of growth you're in. Here's how to avoid this crucial disconnect.

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A number of years ago, I was a mentor in a program for early-stage startup founders. One pair of co-founders was having a particularly hard time working together. Their company didn’t have steady revenue yet, and while one founder (I’ll call her Erica) kept trying new things, the other founder (I’ll call her Jeanette) wanted to pick a path and stick to it.

This disagreement wasn’t merely a matter of opinion – it was a crucial (and common) disconnect in companies, but one that leaders can actually do something about.

Erica could see that although their core market was underserved, the product ideas they’d tried weren’t picking up much steam – leading her to believe they should experiment more broadly to find ideas worth investing in. To her, experimentation was progress.

Jeanette, on the other hand, wanted to meet the market need by focusing on one idea – any idea – and execute a full strategy for it. To her, experimentation felt like flailing.

At first, I was perplexed by Jeanette’s discontent. The company was in an early enough stage that although they’d identified a gap in their market, they didn’t yet have product-market fit. That term refers to the point at which you’ve found a product that clearly meets the needs of your target market, and your customer base is thus growing quickly. Until you hit that point – which is far from guaranteed – you typically have to build a number of prototypes or MVPs to figure out what, if anything, you can offer customers that many will actually pay for.

So to my mind, Jeanette’s desire to focus on one idea didn’t make much sense, because that would nearly ensure they’d spend all their runway on something with no traction and little sign they’d gain it.

In a conversation with Jeanette, I learned that previously, she’d only worked in big companies. She’d never encountered a workplace that didn’t have reliable, repeatable revenue (as it happened, neither she nor Erica had heard the term product-market fit before – though being familiar with that bit of jargon isn’t itself important).

The idea that you have to go broad before you go deep isn’t intuitive. Once I helped Jeanette recognize that this was the approach called for at their stage, she also realized she wasn’t interested in startup life. She left, and Erica was able to continue on more successfully as a solo founder.

Leaders can, and should, provide context to help others understand the stage of your company.

As a manager, I’ve had many conversations with people at different stage companies who, like Jeanette, are motivated, but have suggested ideas and wanted to work in ways that weren’t productive.

Of course, there are a lot of reasons people get off track. But over time, I’ve found that a significant percentage of those misguided suggestions are rooted in a misunderstanding about the stage of growth they’re in – whatever that might be – and the modes of work that stage calls for. The misconceptions can lead to a lot of counter-productive conflict.

In a way, this is good news. It suggests that part of what people are lacking is contextual information – which is something you can, and should, supply as a leader. Helping them understand what stage your company is in and the kinds of activities that calls for tends to pay off.

Some people, like Jeanette, may realize they simply don’t like working at a particular stage and choose to leave. But more often, people adjust their thinking and start picking up on clues that are appropriate to the stage.

Examples of company stages and common disconnects

Here I’m going to walk you through two typical stages and some common misfit ideas. There are, of course, more than two stages and disconnects at each of them. Also, depending on your product, some of these ideas might actually be appropriate. But the principle still applies, and you’ll almost certainly encounter some suggestions that are misaligned with your stage.

1. Your company doesn’t yet have product-market fit

Team members, particularly those from more-established companies, will commonly want to spend a good deal of time remediating tech debt, ensuring robust security, building elaborate processes, developing an R&D function (your whole company is R&D!), hiring for marginal needs, and investing in employee perks.

If you have 18 months of runway, and not enough customer activity to last beyond that or draw investment, you urgently need to conserve cash, and focus on product development and sales that will generate enough revenue to keep you alive. You can consider longer term issues, and you should be thoughtful about building a sustainable culture, because – among other reasons – that’s almost impossible to reroute once it’s off course. But you’ll want to spend the absolute majority of your product development on aiming for near-term results. If the company isn’t still alive in two years, the tech debt didn’t matter.

2. Your product has significant traction, and the company has grown a lot in recent months or years

When organizations become larger and more structured – for example moving to cross-functional teams with specific product responsibilities – team members who are used to being in a small, flat organization will often feel removed from key coworkers (for example, founders or simply people in their function they used to talk with daily who are now on another team. While it’s important to help people work across teams, these folks may suggest changes that would broaden their access but would be chaotic at your current size.

At this stage, it’s also common that teams spend nearly all their time sustaining the core product and meeting existing customer needs, and people simply don’t know how to test new ideas that might lead to new markets. Moreover, many will resist trying to develop new products for customers they don’t consider to be your core.

Reflections

Ultimately, your role as a leader is to figure out the right types of investment for the stage you’re in and how to communicate about that to your peers and teams. Although you occasionally risk losing an employee who realizes they don’t want to work in the ways called for, you’ll more often have conversations that lead to gratifying light-bulb moments – and employees who work a lot more productively when they understand the kinds of work that pay off at your stage.