written by
Major Tom

The unspoken "bug" that hurts every start-up

4 min read
Is this bug making your life miserable?

Starts-up live and die upon solving a problem that matters.

A start-up which isn't solving a problem that people want to fix and are willing to pay for will often have challenges scaling.

But one problem that remains unsolved permeates every start-up. Yet, this one continues to remain untouched, even though it is experienced by people the most capable of solving problems.

The symptoms and root-causes vary from place to place. But when talking to high-performing individuals, one word seems to best capture the problem: "politics."

First, I'll talk about some of the form-factors and symptoms. Then I will share my point of view on the costs. This post will not talk about solutions because I want to hear from you how close I am on really describing the problems and the pains.

Although I do have a way of framing the problem and, as a result, proposing a solution, I really want to see if the problems even resonate.

The symptoms

"Politics" is a genuine bug in the "operating system" of start-ups. The operating system consists of the rules, habits, relationships, communications and procedures -- written and unwritten -- that drive the daily activities, conversations, and experiences within a start-up.

"Politics" is the bug that breaks things. Here are some symptoms:

The co-worker who tarnishes the reputation of another by going to the executive team and throwing that person under the bus.

One team going around another team entirely to fulfill an agenda.

One executive trying to undermine the authority or engineer the removal of another.

Paying the "Cover Your Ass (CYA) Tax" by adding time to document conversations with people who seek to avoid accountability.

Someone taking credit for work you've done.

Managers who show favoritism for another over you.

Politics is often a self-replicating bug: once people start engaging it in, others either mimic it because they have the license to do so, or they adopt it as a form of self-preservation.

How costly is this bug?

The costs are not just in wasted effort by team, time that could be spent building and selling things that customers want and need.

It can be from the reduced quality of the work because people no longer trust each other in order to innovate, explore, and even make mistakes together.

For example, one team was reluctant to comment on actual problems another team was doing to improve the outcome because they knew it would be used against them. Imagine if this otherwise healthy check-and-balance were suppressed throughout a company.

When people have to pay the "CYA Tax" it not only reduces productivity, but reduces engagement. Employees are less able to really dig into the problems or tasks that matter -- whether it is designing or building the right product, constructing effective messaging, or selling to customers. This poor engagement also accumulates a kind of debt. Unlike technical debt, which can be explicitly identified, the debt is psychological, emotional, even spiritual.

But the ephemeral nature of "engagement" doesn't diminish its economic impact.

Innovation, productivity, engagement and quality -- all of these things can work as a virtuous cycle to create products and businesses that grow exponentially, or can spark a vicious cycle which dampens the company's true potential.

But if this kind of environment is so costly, why does it exist and often thrive?

The bug no one wants to triage

Product-market fit covers all sins.

In other words, if a company has PMF, they have little incentive to address a "buggy" work environment filled with politics. No VC would ask that this problem be addressed when they see the value of their holdings shooting up and to the right. Executives are likely running blind to this issue. Most leaders, when they have PMF, have little incentive to uncover and inspect these bugs since things are going so well.

Conversely, companies who have yet to have PMF also don't tend to want to face this problem. They are so focused on finding fit against a declining runway that cultural concerns fall dead last.

So there's no real incentive to acknowledge and tackle it. There are bigger near-term goals: exploit or find PMF.

As a recruiting tool, the "messaging" that the culture is "bug-free" does have value. Founders and executives a need great talent, and one of those ways to lure them is to message having a great culture.

The messaging further reduces the need or likelihood of surfacing the problem. To do so would be off message.

The first step

No bug can be fixed unless identified.

In the same way that acceptance criteria help quality assurance teams and, to a degree, automated integration tests to identify software bugs, clarifying the patterns and anti-patterns of a "political" environment is that first step.

What do you think are the common problems?

I am building a solution for this problem.

I am connecting with talented performers in fast-growing start-ups to help them thrive, even when politics is grinding them down.

If you are interested and want to be a part of fixing it and making your life at work more pleasant by eliminating this "bug", please make sure you fill out the form!

Confidentially share your story

Thanks for reading!