Startup energy

I attended, thanks to a series of encounters, an incredible pizza brainstorm sessions for startup founders during a CIC Venture Café in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Thanks a lot to Erik Modahl (a charismatic human catalyst in the CIC) and Randall Bock (Chairman at and facilitator of the session) for letting me in.

Pizza startup brainstorm

The idea was that every venture founder would express his hottest challenge and gain insights from his fellow entrepreneurs, tips, or even find new partners to move forward.

What struck me was the level of energy, enthusiasm, positive thinking in the room. Ideas were popping everywhere really fast. Everybody was ready to lead a 10,000 people company in ten years.

I’m afraid my teams, in a large company R&D, even though they are pretty skilled and motivated, don’t reach that level of commitment and excitement. What lessons are there to be learned, what could be made better? I see two main angles: autonomy and speed.


The strength of the startup founders (particularly in the early stage, before they get funding) is that they decide everything. In one second, a pivot can be decided, an entire business model can change. No project approval committee to convince. No 8-level approval chain for internal workflows. No game-of-throne-like power struggles to understand and leverage.

Of course, I don’t think that deciding everything alone is a good thing – reviews are good; if you idea can’t resist some criticism, how will it withstand the harsh bite of reality? But large corporations die on spreading decisions (and incidentally accountability ) to too large groups of people. This is especially true in regulated industries, where the norms we abide by have a constant obsession for external reviews, checks and approvals – as if nobody could ever do anything useful in autonomy. This paves the way for a culture of unpowerment (un-empowerment).

What can we do to re-empower people?

Swarms consist of a large number of simple entities that have local interactions (including interactions with the environment). The result of the combination of simple behaviors (the microscopic behavior) is the emergence of complex behavior (the macroscopic behavior) and the ability to achieve significant result as a “team”.

I encourage everybody to read again Jürgen Apello’s Management 3.0 book. Autonomy and empowerment are not a hippie thing (even though I believe happiness in the workplace is a powerful driver, but that’s not the topic today): it’s about survival. The best-run complex systems are run by autonomously controlled units. Remember “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.” in the agile manifesto? It’s true. It works. The inherent problem with approvals is that people higher in the hierarchy, whatever their talent and experience, have little time; they will always introduce delays, or worse, hasty bad decisions.

As a manager, what can I do concretely to decentralize decisions? It’s very simple. Every time somebody in my teams asks me for a decision on something they should decide alone, I try to refrain my natural impulse to tell them what I think, highlight the fact that it is inside their realm, that they are empowered to decide alone. The are welcomed to ask for advice when they feel unsure (and very often people find alone a solution to their problems by the mere fact of having to explain it clearly to somebody else), but not approval (which means to transfer the decision responsibility to their boss). This is not easy to do. I can’t say I always succeed, especially when I’m tired, stressed or in a hurry. Subordinates have a tendency to act as if you’re right, even when you’re not. It’s rewarding to decide – there must be something in the human psyche that makes power addictive. This tendency must be fought against or every organization will end up hierarchical.

This leaves a delicate question for managers: what do you do with your time when you stop stealing your subordinates’ natural areas of responsibility?

  • Help them. Be a ScrumMaster. Coach. Remove impediments.
  • Think. Now you have time, add value to the whole. Spot roadblocks. Have new ideas. Start new initiatives. Be creative.
  • Reclaim to your boss the areas of responsibility you should have been accountable for while you were micro-managing others.

All I see in this list is geared towards progress. By leaving room for others to grow and provide them the support they need, you naturally are inclined to grow yourself. Jürgen Apello has an excellent metaphor on people management: you should see yourself as a gardener. You choose bulbs and seeds. You design the macro landscape. You provide fertilizer and water, you remove pests and weeds. And then you let the plants grow. Just be sure to treat yourself as a plant in the garden too.



Once you have restored autonomy, half of the work required to speed up things is done. At least the decision process won’t be in the way anymore. So what about the second half?


Automation. Computer programs are fast. They work outside business hours. They don’t catch cold, get hit by a bus or change company overnight (okay, they have bugs and production issues, but these must get fixed). Aside from their benefits in cost and repeatability, I believe their prime benefit is to speed up the enterprise. So automate everything you need. Not only what’s related to the software factory  (continuous integration, automated testing), as I expect more or less everybody these days to be be on this path, but also administrative processes and quality-related records generation.

Speed up the others. On a personal level, I think everybody has a tremendous power in speeding ups its environment and business partners by being disciplined and having a sense of service. Get organized (for example, GTD works well for me). Always make sure you unlock any person waiting for you. When the job is represents a sizeable amount of work, consider splitting it in several iterations that you put to production (and take advantage of getting customer feedback as soon as version 1 is released, by the way).

Simplicity. Have a lean approach on every task – can you make it simpler, faster, cheaper? I heard Gregg Rodne Kirkpatrick say it the other day: “There is always a faster and cheaper way to do things.”

Startups have two special motivations to go fast:

  • Make money before you go bankrupt
  • Take that unique idea to the market before someone else does.

These two drivers are closely linked to survival and trigger very powerful reactions in venture founders’ heads. Large corporations have the second driver, only it’s not as powerful since they usually have several products and will survive if competitors do it first. And what about the first driver? I wonder if it’s possible to create inside larger corporations an environment mimicking startup drivers. Create a temporary group of people around an idea with a fixed budget (including internal staff cost). Name a leader enabled to take all kinds of decisions. When the money runs out, the group is disbanded. If the product gets to the market (or maybe a successful prototype), more funding can take the initiative to the next stage. I heard 3M is more or less organized this way. Has anyone experimented with it in the medical devices industry?