Friday, August 28, 2020

Management and Real-Time Strategy

Managing a startup organization can sometimes feel like you're playing a real-time strategy game (RTS) with 2500ms latency. Every decision takes a day, or a week, or even months for functional units within the organization to acknowledge and execute. As your tech startup scales in head count and as markets evolve, your organization may start to show signs of strategic dissonance.

There's a concept in RTS called APM (actions per minute). Most professional Starcraft players can sustain 300 apm throughout the game and during intense battles can burst up to 500 apm. To put this into perspective, beginners usually sustain at 50 apm. In real-time strategy, the ability to make quick decisions based on game state and effectively achieve results can decide whether you win or lose.

If we relate the concept to a typical Series A technology startup, it could look like this:

The most important part of this diagram are the lightning bolts. These lightning bolts represent lines of communication that put the organization at risk of increased latency. When decisions are made by executive leadership, these orders need to be relayed down through several layers of the organization. It's not as simple as blasting an email or Slack @everyone message and have everyone acknowledge it. 

In between the layers, miscommunication can happen: precision and speed. In order to manage precision of your lines of communication, ensure managers  In order to manage speed, managers need to have frequent 1on1s (weekly) with their direct reports.

From a tactical standpoint, 1on1s with direct reports are generally 80% them surfacing any critical issues with the organization; however, that 20% is used by the manager to reinforce what are the new decisions, why these decision are being made now, how their contributions impact the company's OKRs. Lastly, great managers always find a way to reinforce why it's exciting to be working at the organization.

Depending on the industry the startup is in, competition can be fierce, talent can be limited, markets can change quickly, and opportunities can emerge at a moments notice. These are called Strategic Inflection Points (SIPs). Hard times will inevitably happen to you and your team. In a leadership position, it is absolutely critical that you are able to identify when there are shifts in the market and start making strategic decisions. When your strategy changes, your organization needs to be able acknowledge and execute quickly by monitoring and reinforcing the lines of communication between different teams.