By Jacqueline Lawrence
Fast-paced, casual, and innovative environments are some of the most appealing factors that draw people towards working for a start-up. This is where you can juggle multiple roles and have flexible working. However, once they get on the inside, many people realise that there is a significant mismatch between their idealist view and the reality of working for a start-up.
There’s no way to sugarcoat this. Start-ups, by their very nature, are more chaotic than established businesses. On the one hand, a little bit of chaos isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can refocus minds, and help drive innovation in a rapidly changing market. However, left unchecked chaos can be destructive to any organisation.
In this article, I will share six approaches you can use to help navigate you through those chaotic times.
- Root cause analysis
The poet, Hermann Hesse stated, “Chaos demands to be recognised and experienced before letting itself be converted into a new order.”
When things shift and start to get out of control, the first step is to try and pinpoint the main reason for the messy situation so that you can identify what measures can be taken to isolate the situation, and either turn the situation around or reduce the chaos. For example, is it an employee or contractor issue? Communication, client, product/services issue, or a finance issue?
Once you understand what the cause(s) is or could be, you can introduce measures to bring that area under control.
- Compatibility – choose your team wisely.
I have coached several people in the tech sector who either dream of working for a start-up without truly understanding the environment they will be stepping into, or are currently working for a start-up and want to get out! The reality is that some personality types are more suited to working in a start-up environment than others.
Some personality types thrive in chaotic environments where they don’t mind a little chaos as long as they can navigate themselves around it. Others struggle or become quickly frustrated working in a structureless or messy environment with a little organisational framework.
During the early years of working in the legal profession, I recall working for a partner whose office looked like a whirlwind had hit it. His desk was permanently covered with three layers deep in paperwork, yet he could always find what he needed when he needed it.
If you’re a founder looking to build up your workforce, consider using some form of aptitude testing and spend time asking potential candidates the type of working environment they work at their best in – are they flexible? Can they quickly pivot into different roles? That leads to my next point.
- Understand the dynamics of your team
Depending on the size of a start-up, the team will often comprise individuals with different levels of experience, working styles, and possibly sitting in different parts of the world. In addition, all of these individuals will process information differently.
Simon Wardley (Thought Leader) advocates that different types of talent are needed as your product/service evolves through its cycle. He categorises workers into pioneers, settlers, and town planners, and maps out the differences between them and what aspects of work they tend to be happy dealing with.
For example, he states pioneers can deal with “failure, experimentation, and uncertainty”, Settlers are happy with “constant improvement, market analysis, trend spotting,” and Town Planners are happy with “Operational Efficiency, metric-driven, and analytics”. Know who your pioneers, settlers, and town planners are in your team. They will all deal with challenges from a different perspective. When chaotic periods hit, depending on which stage of the product/service cycle you are at, you may need more support from your pioneers to help push things through that phase.
- Create simple business processes or operating procedures and checklists
Start-ups are constantly juggling multiple activities. Raising funding, adaptations to prototypes and other changes are often required at short notice. While some start-ups use agile approaches as a way to maintain some form of control, many do not. There are still a lot of early-stage start-ups who avoid building a framework or structure initially, as they view this as inhibiting innovation and the casual environment of the business. Rather than seeing business processes as a blockage, look at them as a way to keep things moving forward in your business.
If there are specific ways of doing things or certain procedures repeated regularly, document the steps. Any framework put in place could be kept high level and flexible so that it can be easily adapted as the business grows. This will help new joiners adjust to their new environment quicker and can help to avoid key person risk.
- Maintain good communication channels
Errors are easily made due to lack of communication or miscommunication, which can cause things to quickly spiral out of control. Having clear communication channels with basic guidance around levels of notification and the use of communication tools such as Slack and Connecteam can easily reduce the risk of chaos arising from miscommunication. There may be no need to invest in these tools at the very early stages when the team is quite small. However, as the team starts to expand, consideration should be given as to when such tools might be worthwhile investing in.
- Have a Personal Board
A personal board is your small inner circle of people you can reach out to for support on various matters such as decision-making or challenges you are facing etc. This board could consist of up to six individuals who each play a particular role and all help to hold you up through challenging times. For example, it might include a mentor, coach, a connector (someone who can connect you with other people in your industry or help build relationships with key people), a supportive peer who encourages you or a thought leader.
Chaos doesn’t have to be a start-up’s enemy.
Celebrate the small wins during turbulent times and research relevant case studies of those ahead of you on the start-up ladder who operate in your industry or market sector. Listen to podcasts that share insights, successes, and failures of entrepreneurs and start-ups. For example, How I Built This With Guy Raz, The Tim Ferriss Show, She Did It Her Way, and Masters of Scale.
After all, why make chaos your enemy, if it can become your ally.
“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”Sun Tzu
About Jacqueline Lawrence
Jacqueline Lawrence is a career and business performance coach with a background of over 15 years of experience in the corporate, banking, and financial services sector as a lawyer, supporting and advising individuals from junior level through to senior management.
Her experience of working within corporate and international organisations has enabled her to relate to and understand the wide range of challenges clients often face. She now supports small business owners through the early start-up stages of their ventures coaching them through challenges so that they can build a successful business.