For Startups, Joel Spolsky’s Management Model is Mostly Wrong
Posted by Bob Warfield on February 13, 2012
I read with interest Joel Spolsky’s guest post over on A VC. It’s all about how he sees the hardcore command and control model as the wrong model for startups and that it has been wrongly emphasized by highly autocratic leaders like Steve Jobs. As an alternative, he advocates inverting the hierarchical pyramid so that leaders are not management, they are a service organization. Those on the lower rungs who are “smart and get things done” (Spolsky’s trademark phrase) make all the hard decisions.
There are a lot of important and very subtle issues missed by this model, though it does capture at least some of the importance of empowerment and initiative as a means to success. The best quote in the piece is this one:
Turns out, it’s positively de-motivating to work for a company where your job is just to shut up and take orders. In tech startup land, we all understand instinctively that we have to hire super smart people, but we forget that we then have to organize the workforce so that those people can use their brains 24/7.
Spolsky is absolutely right about that, but his article makes it seem like organizing that workforce to use their brains 24/7 is largely a matter of getting out of their way. It isn’t! Apparently most of the readers also disagree, because the comments certainly start out negative there.
He goes on to suggest that he expects “more entrepreneurs model their behavior on Captain Picard from Star Trek than any nonfiction human.” If that’s true, it’s great because Picard is the right one of the two famous starship captains to copy. Kirk was notorious for making arbitrary decisions his staff disagreed with based on his gut and with no explanation or attempt to get their hearts and minds to follow. Why bother, he was the captain and they had to obey. Picard, by contrast, went about things in a much better way. He was thoughtful and always careful to enroll the inputs of everyone on his team. At the same time, he made sure that when it was time to make a decision, a decision got made. Much closer to the leadership ideal any business needs.
Let’s drill down into it a bit and try to tease out some of the key leadership and organizational/cultural characteristics a healthy, vibrant, and growing startup needs.
First, on the subject of leadership, start by asking what the difference is between a leader and a manager? I would suggest that leaders motivate by charisma and an ability to sell the vision whereas managers motivate by hierarchical position. Every time a decision maker has to force someone to do something they don’t believe in, they burn political capital. The farther up the chain you are, the more capital you get, and the faster it is replenished, but even CEO’s eventually run out if they’re too autocratic and the chips turn down. Leaders need very little political capital. They sell their vision so that everyone wants to follow it. The use of political capital is friction in the machine. Too much friction yields heat. People sit around steaming about the dumb things their boss is making them do instead of being wholly vested in implementing the awesome vision behind the company.
Being a great leader means knowing how to tweak the plan to fit the players rather than trying to beat the square pegs that are the players into the plan. The great leaders will know instinctively how to get the essential elements of the plan executed in ways that uniquely maximize the strength of the available players. It’s part selling the player on what needs to be done and empowering them to figure it out their way, and part knowing when a little change of plan will make it far more palatable to certain players without harming the plan in any great way. In the end, no matter how perfect the plan is, people still have to execute it and they will do so far better if they actually want to do what it calls for.
What other qualities, besides being able to sell the vision, should a great CEO have? Eventually, the comments get to some of the classics:
- They need to have a Vision
- They need to Hire and Retain the Right People
- They need to make sure there is Cash in the bank (e.g. fund raising)
For a startup, this is right. At some stage the vision and cash thing are no longer on that list, but a company can get pretty large before it reaches that point. I think the second point falls a little bit short. Just hiring and retaining the right people isn’t enough. Those people have to be inspired to do the very best work of their lives. Many of us have been in jobs where we didn’t have that inspiration and can contrast with jobs where we did. We may have stayed at the less than inspirational jobs far longer than we should have. Shame on us, but also shame on the CEO for not having made it more inspirational.
Another part of hiring and retaining the right people is not settling for managers. How far down the ranks can we place true Leaders who can inspire others to be the best that they can be and to love the vision the company is trying to pursue? Are we able to create an organization where those Leaders not necessarily very near the top can stay excited, productive, and challenged? Can we provide enough rope, an interesting enough territory, enough funds, or whatever it takes to really empower those people? Now we’re starting to get at the heart of perhaps what Spolsky is wishing for.
Can everyone in the company be one of those Leaders? Alas, no, they can’t. And that’s why assuming the leaves on the tree can run the place is the mistake Spolsky makes. Sure, they’re smart. But do they have the experience? Do they have the vision? And do they have the Leadership to get it done? Or, as many commenters suggest and as I have seen all too often, do things just devolve into committees that argue endlessly? The more smart people you push into a room to make a decision together the less likely you’re going to get that decision.
Clear areas of authority with empowerment for autonomy in those areas is the solution. Making organizations sing has a lot of parallels with how we geeks modularize our code. Put too much function in a single module and it becomes unweildy. Put too little and it is inefficient. Find the “just right” amount of authority and empowerment to give a particular Leader and the organization will sing. Being skillful at that constant refactoring of an organization is another thing a great CEO Leader must do.
Let’s turn to some of the less happy and empowered notions of organization that still matter. Spolsky talks about Charlie Bucket screwing the caps on tubes of toothpaste and how Charlie’s job is well suited to command and control. It isn’t exactly command and control that suits Charlie’s job. It is process.
Organizations have two important tools at their disposal to help their people be more productive. One is empowering people to take the initiative. The other is establishing a process to optimize some repetitive but well understood task. There are many functions and tasks in a company that fall into the repetitive and well understood category. Spending too much time empowering initiative on them is a good way to miss out on the opportunity to optimize those jobs. Take a Call Center for example. Most of them thrive on process. Only a few, such as Zappo’s, are able to thrive on initiative. Not every company can or should wake up and decide to be Zappo’s. The trick here is to make sure that the right people are in a position to use their initiative to continuously improve the process.
Companies need to be great at both maximizing the value of personal initiative and of process. It’s horses for courses.
Last point, and it is an extremely critical one: great leaders have to control the focus. It’s fine and well to empower initiative and launch new processes, but focus is critical to achieving an organization’s goals. The smaller the organization, the more focus is needed. Focus, in my mind, was the critical piece Steve Jobs (also much maligned in Joel’s post) brought to the table. Clearly he was often unpleasant to work for, but just as clearly he knew how to require focus on what he viewed as his vision and how to empower people like Ives to “make it so” as Captain Picard would say. His success is no accident as a result of that unique combination and balance.