Balancing The Ideas Of Many With The Decisions Of Few

Stowe Boyd has a great new post: Balancing The Ideas Of Many With The Decisions Of Few:

In it, he recounts some of his findings from consultancy engagements for software companies.  Stowe’s approach is to spend a half day discussing the company structure, its workings, its approach to devlopment and products etc. with the whole team, and then a half day discussing ideas of how this can be improved.  Here he discusses some of the company types he regularly comes across:

I have come to anticipate any of the most common ‘software company in distress’ configurations, and I try to apply the appropriate response for each:

  1. One Man Band — A strong CEO, perhaps successful in previous projects or lines of work, gets an unfinished idea in his head and starts a new company. He hires others to be on the team, but they do not exactly share his vague product notions, and he never relinquishes final authority about product decisions while remaining only partly involved. The hired hands feel unappreciated and powerless. The only solution is to convince the CEO to either act as chief architect — a role they are seldom suited for — or to hire a chief architect strong enough to demand and get product control.
  2. The Band Of Brothers — A pair (or trio, or combo) of friends start a company, in a fairly (or overly) egalitarian fashion. They ‘design’ a product without necessarily agreeing on design principles, a process, or any explicit decision making process. When the partners don’t have obviously complementary skills — like one is technical and the other is the marketer — you find the ‘everything is everything’ result: all features find their way into the product because no one wants to tell Joe that his pet feature is dumb. On a setting where everyone has a veto, products are badly designed and bloated, and change is sl-o-o-o-w. The solution here is to put someone in control of the product design, and to carefully unthread the gathering of ideas (brainstorming) from the narrowing of ideas (design).
  3. The Band-Aid — A weak CEO with a random team of principals, generally people with little social capital between them, recently hired into the start-up. The CEO has decided to focus the company on a promising corner of the market, but doesn’t have a real product vision, just a collection of platitudes masquerading as principles, like “so easy even my grandmother could use it”, or “the MySpace of X” where X is some noun, like grandmothers or Idaho. The collection of principals — I won’t call it a team — can’t cohere without a catalyst, and suffers violent mood swings: from a marketspeak buzz campaign, to a rework of the design based on a new competitor, to a rethinking of the target customer based on new market research. The group hopes the next superficial notion will save the day, but it’s just a series of band-aids. The real solution is to fire as many of the ronin VPs as possible, and keep the one (or two) obsessed with building the product rather than endless meetings and powerpoint exchanges.

In my time I think I’ve seen all of these at work in companies I’ve worked with.

So here’s the challenge then, how do we “harness the wisdom of the crowds” within our organisations, whilst also retaining decision-making ability, keen leadership and elements of company structure.  Not a simple task at all, and something I’ll come back to later this week…

Stuart McIntyre is a Senior Strategist at Fostering Community Limited. He curates a number of product-focused news sites, is a lapsed podcaster, founded the Social Connections user group and regularly speaks at conferences and events. This blog represents his own slightly-eccentric and usually-controversial opinions!