In a recent episode of Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale, Eric Schmidt of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) tells a great story about his first day of CEO at Google. I won’t recount the story here, give it a listen for yourself.
Hoffman kicks off the podcast with a thesis that I immediately connected with: “A dash of insubordination is the secret ingredient to Google’s success.” When I heard this, I was reminded of one of my favorite conversations of my early career which taught me the recipe to running like a lean start-up.
Here’s my story
I was working in a standard management role in the early days of eCommerce (they were still calling it eTailing back then) and we were trying to get a new distribution center infrastructure to function as designed. Months and months had gone by and we were still operating at only about 10% capacity.
My personal contribution was not ideas, analysis, or training staff; it was creating chaos.
I was asked to work over a weekend to test system changes that would finally help us make the leap to fully operational. My director pulled me aside and said: “Jordan, break everything.” He obviously did not mean burn the place down, he was asking me to push every process and system to the limits. He was orchestrating chaos that the engineers and programmers never had to deal with in test environments.
Sneaking around all weekend, I was pushing everything to its limits and in the end, we could not implement the updates as they were presented. However, the next update had considered so many more scenarios that it became the single biggest advancement in my time there. My personal contribution was not ideas, analysis, or training staff; it was creating chaos.
There’s no space for complacency
Disruption has become such a sexy word in the world of business, so many companies say they want it but even the smallest changes cause these organizations to revert back to their existing practices. Life cycles are the easiest place to point to for most established organizations. It is easy to enjoy the comfort and routine of “We do this [process] at this [time of year],” but too much structure only serves to hinder an organizations ability to respond to market changes and customer demands.
An overwhelming majority of my corporate clients say that they want to “run lean like a start-up” and ask me what I think they need to do. In some cases, running lean means cutting out corporate bloat. This bloat comes in the form of a top-heavy management structure and insane amounts of unnecessary travel. But in a majority of cases that I have seen, the real underlying issue is complacency.
In business school, this is the “boiling the frog” issue—that is that your workforce does not understand the urgency of the issues until it is too late. This lack of knowledge around how urgent market forces have become is usually the product of sustained success. It is the old “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset.
Historically, that mentality has been sustainable because the forces of change have been relatively slow. We existed for tens of thousands of year as hunter-gathers, a few thousand more as agrarian societies, a few couple centuries with analog machine assistance. However, only a few decades into the “information age” and now, we are sitting on the dawn of ages that could very well be measured in months.
Given the speed of this change, what it means is that upon impact, everything that your employees have considered to be “ain’t broke” will shatter in the blink of an eye. That is, with the exception of the most resourceful amongst your team. The real key to a large established organization running lean like a start-up requires a workforce conditioned for ingenuity.
The recipe: Commit to chaos
However, many people I interview in my day-to-day work believe that running like a start-up is a competency issue. I have heard 1000 times: “I don’t need my staff to be creative, I just need them to do their jobs.” This points not at a competency issue among their teams but more than likely, a permission issue from the management. Their staff doesn’t feel empowered to put their ideas forward and so the stagnation mounts.
The recipe to running like a lean start-up is easy: Push the limits, break things and find new solutions. In short, commit to chaos and be ready for anything.