Three Things I Learned in 2016

This is a short (and cleaned up) version of an internal post written for Triggerise’s Global Team. For context, in 2016 my organization grew from a handful of jacks-of-all-trades to a fully functional global team, based across 6 different locations and operating in more than 10 markets. We are an unusual organization in that very few people on the team actually know each other – a significant amount of our work is done virtually. Our business model is also pretty complex. Our revenues come from donors and impact investors. Our operational success depends on sophisticated technology working on some of the world’s most under-served markets. Our measure of success is impact.

The internal post had (a lot) more items than the two listed here. But most of them were very specific to our organization and would not be too relevant to readers outside of the Triggerise team. However, these three should be relevant for anyone in the growth stages of any company/ organization.

Lesson no. 1 – Do not Hire Company Men/ Women.

As your organization is growing you are faced with what seems like tremendous complexity and pressure. Every day. It’s intense. Things break. It’s frustrating. You need to hire people. You need them to hit the ground running. Obviously, you don’t have a human resources team – it is too early for that – and, anyway, at this stage, all hires will become critical players within the organization so you feel you need to vet them properly and personally.

“What if I hire someone experienced”, you start thinking. “From a reputablecompany”. This is your first mistake. Do not hire that person who spent 10 years growing through the ranks of a large company. You will regret it. This person is used to relatively reliale support structures within the organization. During the last 10 years working at that reputable company, they did not keep up to date with developments in technology. They have not been forced to multi-task and/ or take decisions in environments of uncertainty. Meanwhile the one skill they have probably sharpened at the reputable company is covering their a**. To make things worse, they will not be very open to learning new things – “at Reputable Company I used to do this and that”. This person has been contaminated. They will bring friction to your fast growing team and will be a handful to turn around.

Here is what you should do instead: hire that young person. Coach them. Invest in them. They’ll do just fine. The thing is during Growth phase, it’s raraley about fine-tuning performance or optimizing things. It’s really about relying on people to keeping too many things from breaking and taking on role after role, as required.

Lesson no. 2 – Stay Away from Experts

Only hire consultants as a last resort. And if you do, be wary of large incumbents.

Wherever you are, if you walk outside on the street and throw a stick, you will probably hit a consultant. They’re everywhere. Experts. Specialists. Keen to offer their knowledge and their “support”. They’ll cold-call you. They’ll hound you on Linkedin. They’ll email you with suggestions to “have a coffee & learn more about what you do”.

If you do meet with them (mistake!) and listen to their impressive credentials, you may be seduced by this very attractive idea: what if I hire this person, and they can help me solve that very complex problem I am dealing with?

Don’t do it. They will not help you solve that problem. They will suck up more time and resources from you.

Now, obviously, consultants have their role to play in your growth and you will encounter those highly specific situations where you need to hire one – to deal with a clearly defined, easily measurable problem. Legal stuff. Finance stuff. An application to a government institution.

Here is the mistake we have done. We hired a large consultancy to support us with such specific problems. We reasoned that they have global experience and expertise and that we’ll get a world-class service.

Boy, were we wrong.

We are such a small player that our whole account, while highly expensive for us, is nothing but a rounding error to a global consultancy. Even worse, we accepted a fee discount because, you understand, we are a charity.

Large consultancies are geared and optimized for a certain type of clients – large, global players. Our model requires custom gearing. However we are so small and we pay so low – relative to their typical clients – that not only will such a large player be unwilling to customize their offering. They will actually manage us as the rounding error that we are to them – forever passed around junior resources and interns. The time we spent re-briefing and re-explaining what we do to and waiting for our contact to “get feedback from the partner”, and the number of times we received memos that were basically content straight off the internet is hard to believe. When raised this issue of poor quality, the response has been a variation of “We do you a favour as a charity/ you guys don’t pay us enough”. What happens here is the balance of power as perceived by them is them doing a favour to some poor relative. There are probably exceptions to this, but overall, the best partnerships are the ones that make business sense for both, as equals.

The solution? Look for small practices, where the owner/ partner is giving you the time of day. She has a genuine interest inn your business model. She is keen to accompany you through your growth journey learning along with you. They are out there and, by the way, we have some excellent experience with this profile.

And there is another thing. I personally go around preaching the benefits of small and agile. We consider ourselves insurgents, out to challenge incumbent (inefficient, outdated) ways to do things. And yet, when it comes to engaging services we default to large (not exactly agile) incumbent players to help solve problems that in practice they even struggle to understand.

Lesson No. 3 – Innovating around processes instead of innovating around our products is a huge mistake.

Early in our existence there was a point where we toyed with the idea of ourselves as a bottom-up, “Community Driven” organization. We started with flat, non-hierarchical ambitions and we spent quite a bit of energy trying to devise clever ways to interact with each other and move things forward. There are a lot of merits to this approach (and the spirit behind it) and I am personally very much convinced of the potential. But the very important lesson to learn is that developing and optimizing those new processes takes A LOT of time and energy, and this is time and energy that is NOT spent making things happen around our products and our markets. We also learned that many of these processes are counter-intuitive and they require time and explanation plus a period of transition every time a new person joins the team – which is very often during the growth phase. This shaves off productivity, creates more internal friction and takes more resources away from doing our work. Managing and optimizing these processes becomes the work.

A first big step we took to fix this was adopt a traditional org structure the moment the team started growing. This came with its own set of challenges, but overall it made things a bit more predictable for everyone which helped with flow.

The big lesson here is a lesson in economics: there is only so much energy available to a team. No matter how much we love or admire the intellectual idea of “disrupting” the way teams and organizations are organized, there is no going around this basic economic fact:

It’s a zero-sum game: resources spent on navigating processes are resources not spent on making things happen in the field. Our job as an organization – and indeed the very reason we have processes – is to “drag” the blue area all the way up. That means we need processes and policies that facilitate flow, eliminate the unknown, increase predictability.

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