A Butterfly Flaps Its Wings Inside a Start-Up: The Initiation and Effects of Team Communication

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(Editor’s Note: This article on team communication within start-ups was originally published on LinkedIn)

I’ve been thinking about how teams within start-ups need better ways of communicating changes quickly and broadly. Companies with high growth expectations need to move fast in every aspect of their business. While we try our best to be diligent in our planning and preparation, time is never on our side. Speed is the means by which we gain traction, find product/market fit, outperform the competition, and pivot when needed. It is also the very reason most of us have chosen the industry and the company in which we work.

We all know the value of speed. It is a hallmark of most, if not all, of the greatest tech stories of the past 25 years (remember “Move fast and break things”?). And due to these successes, its trickle-down effect has impacted every start-up regardless of industry.

What we don’t talk about too often are the potentially negative consequences of moving so quickly. After all, speed is only one of the required ingredients in success–think focus, passion, disruption, culture, to name a few others. Entire semesters of business school classes are spent dissecting the question of why some start-ups succeed and others do not, and this analysis continues long after graduation.

Alignment serves as the foundation

In my experience, alignment has consistently proved to be a critical element of companies that break through the crowd. In this context, I define alignment as more than the team having a singular collective goal. Alignment means that, in addition to everyone moving in the same direction, we are lock-step in how we move toward a collective goal to the greatest extent possible. It permits the proverbial left hand to know not only what the right hand is doing but also, what the hell the right hand is thinking as it does its thing.

When you do not have alignment, you run the risk of unintended divergence. If a team makes a small shift (whether in strategy, execution, or otherwise) and is not aligned with its peer organizations, you may discover yourselves running in directions that are slightly askew. This is particularly true when speed is involved and each team is moving (and sometimes changing the direction of that movement) as fast as possible. Over time this builds up and, even when the best of intentions exist, you lose the focused forward momentum that you worked so hard to develop.

This doesn’t mean that speed and alignment have to be mutually exclusive. Communication is key to keeping them in sync. Making a decision and executing upon it is only part of your leadership duty when you are part of a broader team. You need to communicate the decision out to the right people, at the right time and through the right channel. You may get feedback or questions which you must address. You may discover other dependencies you had not considered and which now must factor into whether you decide to alter your plan. If you don’t engage in this communication, you run risk of unintended consequences.

The butterfly effect within a fast-moving company

One of the principles of chaos theory is the concept that when a butterfly flaps its wings in Texas, it has unforeseen and unpredictable effects which can range from creating a nice cool summer breeze on a beautiful Greek isle to being the initial catalyst for a deadly cyclone that strikes Southeast Asia. Either outcome is just as likely and unknowable at the time the wings flap.

Similarly, decisions made in a silo within a fast moving organization can have unexpected yet profound effects on other departments or the company as a whole. For example, a marketing team interviews a customer and uncovers a new use case for one of their current products. They perform some research and realize this is a real and valuable opportunity that they can seize upon without any technical changes. The CMO talks with the CFO, who is convinced and unlocks more funding to run campaigns at this newly discovered market opportunity. Sales is alerted and trained, and we are off to the races.

The effort is successful, sales increase, and the company is proud of its ability to execute so quickly. However, nobody has brought the customer support teams into the loop to educate them on the fact that this new usage model is expected to creep into the support tickets as more customers begin leveraging them. Customers startasking support product questions specifically tailored to this new use case, but because it is an unfamiliar one, the customer support reps are not able to efficiently answer questions or troubleshoot questions; they may even sometimes tell customers that they are not using the product correctly. This leads to longer resolution times and customer frustrations. Maybe it even causes some customers to leave.

In this scenario, everyone within the company operated with the best of intentions, though the lack of a specific communication to a particular set of team members became a significant drag on an otherwise positive event.

By fostering communication (and in some situations over-communication), you enable a much deeper understanding of how any individual action within your organization may impact other teams, processes, or strategies.

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The importance of the right communication channels

But establishing the need for communication is only the first step. You still need to determine how to communicate to the right person(s) and the means by which you should do this. As a company grows, the number of and seniority levels of people who should be informed grows as well, thereby threatening to make communication inefficient when a shotgun approach is taken. The communications must be targeted. However, missing a single necessary stakeholder in the communication can negate the fact that you did inform all of her relevant colleagues.

Similarly, the means of communication matters. We are drowning in communication methods: formal and informal, internal and external, fixed and mobile, in-person or electronic. I have definitely been victim of remembering a particularly important message that I had to respond to, then searched 4 or 5 applications to try to find the message, only to give up and call the person who I think may have sent it and ask to resend it to me. The inefficiencies created by sending to the wrong person or not via the most optimized channel for the topic can not only create frustration, but they can also have real impact upon individuals, teams, departments, and the company as a whole.

I certainly do not profess to have all of the answers as to how to solve these issues, though we’ll continue to discuss these topics and how we operate at Act-On in future blog posts to hopefully engender some discussion as to how others are solving these problems. For now, I think it is relatively safe to say that communication (even if inefficient) is a major component of ensuring that our proverbial butterfly is helping to put the wind at your back and not in your face. 

Check out more thought leadership by Bill Pierznik on LinkedIn