What packing can teach us about management in a startup

May 27, 2014
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packing-stressEver notice how packing a suitcase always seems a lot more stressful and time-consuming when you’re planning what to bring on your trip at the same time? Conversely, drafting a packing list before actually opening the empty suitcase makes the packing exercise flow so much more smoothly.

Behind this phenomenon lies a trait inherent in human nature that frustrated me to no end when accompanying startups… until I read some research about child psychology and something clicked.

A fast-growing statup inevitably encounters the need for drastic upgrades to people’s roles and responsibilities as the company takes off. Some people rise to the challenge of new responsibilities with flying colors, while others struggle to increase their game and are written off as not quite having what it takes to go the next level.

A startup’s top salesperson is promoted to Head of Sales, and subsequently revenues and sales pipeline start to suffer. The company’s best developer is promoted to VP of engineering, and tech development stagnates.

Investors often react in knee-jerk fashion, along the lines of, “Well, that guy is a great coder but clearly incapable of being a great manager,” or “You are a tremendous salesman but just not cut out to be a CEO.” I used to react this way too, but the pattern was so consistent that I couldn’t help but suspect that some other factor was at play.

The problem is not that such individuals are too narrow-minded in their competencies or inadaptable. Rather — and with the caveat that I do believe that great salespeople are truly a unique breed — I submit that the fundamental reason for this comes down to basic human nature.

the brainFor the human brain, managing an activity is distinct from actually doing the activity. The former is handled by the Executive Function, which is an umbrella term for the brain’s set of mental processes that help perform activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space. The research I had read reported that bilingual toddlers develop more advanced executive functions due to their need early on to be able to distinguish between languages as they learn to communicate.

Since the act of managing a task is different from the act of performing it, strong coders or salespeople struggle in their new responsibilities because they are often expected to simultaneously straddle their former duties as well. Force an organization’s newly-promoted Head of Sales to maintain his top hunter status as a salesman and you deprive him the mental freedom to think about the broader issues a Head of Sales should think about, like global pipeline management, or prospect segmentation, or recruiting.

Even the New York Times (as per the now famous leaked internal memo) with all its staffing and other resources — its R&D lab, its mobile team, its editors focused on issues around design, digital, or new initiatives — feels like it doesn’t have the time or power to get outside of the day-to-day grind of making a newspaper to think about its future. Even the mobile group doesn’t have time to look at how the Times can use new technologies, the report says. “That helps explain why it took a group removed from the daily flow of the newsroom — NYT Now — to fundamentally rethink our mobile presentation.”

The solution? Allow your employees the freedom to separate managing from doing. Establish dedicated teams or encourage employees to carve out dedicated segments of the week to acknowledge this distinction.