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Friday, September 26, 2008

Startup Crisis Management Culture

Many startups exist in a state of perpetual crisis management. I question the virtues of this state of mind on a regular and consistent basis. Is this really good for business and is it necessary? The fight or flight reflex is an evolutionary phenomena designed to address an emergency. It is a short burst of adrenaline designed to stimulate an extreme reaction. Our bodies are not made to exist in the state for a prolonged period of time. I will defer comment on the long term potential medical issues associated with being in a crisis state for long periods of time. I am more interested in the organizational implications in keeping a company or department in this state for perpetuity.

Startups are inherently risky and unpredictable environments. Crises naturally occur when you are predicating your future based on a set of assumptions that are speculative. When you run into situations where your assumptions are wrong, you rushed something to market and the product does not work, an investment fails to materialize, etc. then you have a crisis. These situations should be dealt with swiftly. Focus is important and there is nothing better than a crisis to get people focused. If these kinds of issues are happening over and over again putting everyone into a state of daily crisis and chaos the organization and individuals engaged in the movie are going to begin to break down. There is something very wrong.

The downside of this perpetual state is that people become fatigued. This results in mistakes being made, no planning and poor communication within an organization. From an engineering perspective this could be disastrous causing a self perpetuating crisis mode for the company. The software and hardware platforms could become unstable because of software errors, a new feature set cannot be supported because no architectural consideration was made for the future and productively decreases because people are just tired and demoralized because they feel the company is in a never ending state of firefighting.

The other phenomena I have witnessed is the expectation that everyone should be in crisis mode when in fact there is not a crisis. I have worked in companies where there is a bizarre expectation that all startups should be in a perpetual state of crisis because that is what startups are like. This attitude of let’s just do this quickly without planning and consideration for organizational consequences is a prevailing cultural mandate that everyone is expected to participate in. Even if this culture is leading to negative business consequences or no real progress that is OK. You are all stressed out you are all working all night so who cares this must be good. A company should look at the value of a crisis state and not just assume that it is actually beneficial.

The moral of the story is that success and failure is not directly attributed to how often a company or group is in crisis mode. A crisis should be taken seriously and communicated properly to the individuals that can best help to address it. Call a spade a spade and not something else. Planning and communication are important. Do not use the crisis de jour as a reason not to have a plan and not to give some thought to action before it is taken. Crisis culture for the sake of it has little value and can be destructive. Breed a culture of success that inherently knows when to put the pedal on the gas pedal and when to take time to think about the consequences of an action.

1 comment:

Traveller said...

Nicely written and very informative.
My recent chats with some entrepreneurs at the Convergence 08 conference, led to the same advice.