Startups tend to experience a succession of crises – a subject I’ve already written about in Do the Problems Ever End? It is extremely tempting for a startup team to direct most, if not all, of its energy into dealing with current crises. This is known as firefighting, and it can become an almost permanent state for startups. If this happens the team tends to lose focus on what they are really trying to achieve, lose sight of the vision, and fail to plan for the weeks, months or even years ahead. If it becomes a long term state, firefighting can become extremely damaging to a startup’s health.
The idea that one day the crises will come to an end and there will be unlimited time to look to the future is a seductive one, but sadly it doesn’t seem to work out that way in practice.
Instead, successful startup teams learn to balance their time between dealing with things that are important, and those that are just urgent. I have seen lots of different approaches to this. Some people are able to keep track of longer term goals instinctively. Others need to create opportunities for doing so, scheduling time to use tools such as the Business Model Canvas, or review their business plan on a regular basis. Board meetings also have a role to play, bringing in people from outside the day to day operations of the company with the experience to take a longer term view.
I am very much in favour of building a board very early on to serve this purpose. It doesn’t have to be a legal board of directors – an informal advisory board can serve the same purpose if it meets regularly and challenges the team to think about the longer term. Realising that no progress has been made on key issues like funding or market research from one board meeting to the next can really help a team to demonstrate the effect firefighting is having! A board can set deadlines for the team, adding a sense of urgency to important tasks.
Sometimes firefighting can be a form of escapism. It can feel really productive to be fixing broken code, debugging hardware or dashing off to a customer site to save the day. By addressing these “urgent” issues, it is possible to avoid scary (but important) questions like “will customers really want my product”, “how will I fund the business past the current project” or “do I really understand the market”. Founders who use the excuse of “urgency” to focus on things within their comfort zone will tend not to get very far.
It’s also natural for people to give priority for tasks they know how to complete. I know that if I have two tasks in front me, that is my natural tendency. Writing this blog is a great example – given a free 20 minutes, I know I can clear my inbox, OR I could do some blogging. My natural tendency is to do the obviously productive job (clear my inbox) rather than the difficult one that requires creativity. The key tool I use to address that problem is to break tasks down. If I decide to “do some blogging” that is a big task – how will I measure success, especially compared with a clear “win” like an empty inbox? So that’s not what I do. If I have 20 minutes, I challenge myself to spend the time writing a list of blog topics. Then next time I have some time, I challenge myself to write a blog on one of those topics. By breaking the task down, I make it possible to succeed at the task, and therefore I am more likely to take it on.
Once company I worked with had a technical founder, and his first instinct was always to pursue technical development over any other activity. Early on we had a discussion about this, and recognised that in the current phase of company development there were four equally important areas – technology development, increasing market understanding, building the team, and funding the next phase of development. We wrote four things in the top left corner of the office whiteboard (in red capitals!) to remind us all of these – “TECH”, “TEAM”, “MARKET” and “££££”. A year later they are still there, and almost every time we are talking about what needs to be done, we refer to them to remind ourselves it’s not just about technology! The areas will be different for different companies, but the approach has proven remarkably effective.
In summary, while there will always be a need for some firefighting a startup team needs to balance the important against the urgent. Boards can play a key role in doing this, as can breaking tasks down into manageable pieces. Establishing a regular routine of reviewing priorities and progress, and establishing that as a core part of company culture, is an investment worth making and helps to avoid displacement activity and escapism.