Startup Life

How we made sure that our team was always on the same page

It's hard to manage even small teams. Here's how we saved ourselves from misalignment
Francesco | 31.01.18

As start-up founders, we’ve found how hard it is to manage even a small team. Even if you are very motivated, it doesn’t mean that your work is coordinated towards the same goal. And, since start-ups’ resources are usually tragically limited, wasting time and efforts is something you definitely want to avoid! At Mindiply, we learned this lesson ourselves, and here I’ll explain how we managed to solve this issue.

Not on the same page: From our own experience

Mindiply is a small, passionate team very motivated into developing innovative software. In the last months, however, we realized that many of the times we were not aligned. We had different ideas about what was the most important thing to work on, and about the next big steps for our business. Of course, we did many meetings and created documents and presentations with our decisions. But after a few days, individual thinking started to take over and so we were missing a common focus, sometimes also working at cross purposes.

After noticing that we were facing this problem periodically, we took a step back and started looking into it, in more detail.

Why even small teams can work at cross purposes

Sure, when there is plain hostility or just some attrition, teams become dysfunctional. But research in business and in cognitive psychology shows that even high-cohesion and motivated teams can work sub-optimally. This is often due to another problem: it is hard to see the big picture.

The big picture

In the words of British marketing guru Dave Trott, Strategy is the big picture. Tactics are the little pictures that make up the big picture.

Working in a start-up is like trying to make a puzzle with other people. It doesn’t matter if different people adopt different tactics (borders first, search for pieces of the same colour, etc.) as long as you all can see the big picture that’s on the cover of the box. Otherwise, if the big picture is missing, it’s really hard to coordinate your efforts.

So, why is it so hard to see the big picture? It’s both a communication and a cognitive problem.

Communication

The success rate of a strategy could drop by around 50% due to communication issues. You cannot expect coherence and alignment if your team doesn’t understand your beautiful plan and how their work fits into the overall strategy. One of the best practices for good internal communication is to always state why something is important and to use clear and, if possible, measurable goals.

Information accessibility

Most of our daily work is at the tactical level, so it’s quite natural to focus mostly on finishing all the stuff we’ve left behind (fixing the bugs, answering emails, contacting people, etc.) rather than going back to see the big picture. Moreover, switching attention from tactical execution to strategic planning is cognitively consuming, so it’s something we usually don’t like to do.

But there is more: it’s also a problem of accessibility. Think about this: We all have meetings for making big decisions and create documents with our plans, but how many times do we actually access those documents? Almost never, was my answer, and so did most of the many start-up founders and employees we interviewed in the last couple of months. The reason is that usually those documents are hidden somewhere in a shared folder. So for us it is easier relying on our memory instead of looking for the right document (hey, where have we put it?) and searching for the right information (ouch, it's 8 pages long!).

And, as every cognitive psychologist knows very well, when we have to rely on our memory, we face the risk of many common failures. We may forget to do something (prospective memory fault) or recall something wrongly (retrospective memory fault).

So, if you can’t see the big picture because it’s hidden somewhere and you have to remember it (and remember to remember it!), then it’s hard to understand current priorities and there is a great risk of wasting time and effort.

This memory problem happens very often with big strategic decisions. In other words, with the most important stuff for moving your start-up forward.

Our solution: Visualize your strategy

So it's a cognitive problem and not a problem of us being, well, bad teammates. This has been reassuring!

Research is very good at explaining why this problem arises, but it doesn’t tell us exactly how to fix it, so we had to tinker around to find a solution that could work.

We thought that we could have solved both the communication and the accessibility-memory problems, by making our whole strategic plan always visible for all the team. Yes, everything, from the medium-long term goals to the more mundane tasks, always in front of us.

Some (discarded) initial solutions

A big whiteboard with the whole flow of our strategy would have been perfect. Big, easy to edit, with colours, arrows, and lines, always in front of you in the office. But we don’t share the same office, we are a remote team. So no, thanks. And what about a software solution? That’s what we were already using, without much success. We had a strategic plan in a shared presentation, we also had a timeline in a spreadsheet, and we were using another tool for managing the weekly tasks. Different tools for different levels of our strategy, and that’s why we often missed the big picture.

A bold decision: let’s create ourselves what we need

Using existing software was not going to solve the problem of making the whole strategy always visible.

So we decided to build the tool we needed, ourselves!

A tool for keeping your team on the same page

Our solution is called I am WHY, a web application for visualizing and sharing your whole plan for the future of your start-up. We like to describe it as ‘Google Calendar meets Trello’. On the same page, you can see everything from the strategic goals down to the weekly tasks.

We use it currently for our Monday catch-up meetings where we check our past efforts and decide how to move forward, and it has saved us from wasting time, effort and misalignment.

Strategy, tactics and weekly tasks, where they need to be: on the same screen, in front of you and your team.

I Am Why screenshot

We use it currently for our Monday meetings where we check our past efforts and decide how to go on, and it has saved us from wasted time and misalignment.

Strategy, tactics and weekly tasks, where they need to be: on the same screen, in front of you and your team.

Being on the same page it’s just one click away: try I Am Why now!

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