See the world in a grain of sand
English poet William Blake offered this beautiful possibility many centuries ago. Every time it rings true, and every time it forces us to think of life beyond opposites. The world and a humble grain of sand aren’t two ends of a spectrum – literally or even metaphorically. Think hard enough and even a hard-nosed realist, with a total irreverence for poetry, would begin to see what it means.
Strategy is one of the most overused and hyped word in corporate conversations. Some companies even have a “Strategy Function” – almost suggesting that strategy was a function like marketing or operations! Why are these teams always staffed by those whose claim to fame was creating Excel-sheet models or cracking numeric aptitude tests?
After more than a decade of working in startups, I think I can summarize in one line the kind of people that attain nirvana in a startup environment (and by contrast the kind of people that turn and run).
They are the kind that:
“See strategy in humble acts of execution”
A large organisation lends itself to specialisation and most large organisations separate thinking and doing. For thinking, they have people that detest doing (or tolerate it), and for doing have people who aren’t good at thinking (or barely so). Startups don’t have this luxury. The one trait of an entrepreneur is that she “sees God in the big picture and the devil in the detail”. This is the culture she ingrains and these are the people she would hire and love to work with.
Let me substantiate this point with a real example:
Here are two real conversations with two different people in a startup:
Between Manager and Employee 1
Manager: The travel desk is totally broke. Payments to service providers have not been made, the travel claims of employees have piled up and employees have threatened to stop business travel till expense claims are settled, there is no clear travel policy as a result of which Finance is not processing claims. I know that this is not part of your role, but can you take charge and fix this quickly?
Employee 1: Sure; I will take stock of the situation and get back with a plan in two days. I may need some resources for fixing this
Manager: Show me a plan in two days. By the way, you need to hire whatever resources you need. There are none that can be assigned to you.
Employee 1: Okay, understood. I will schedule some time on your calendar two days from now.
Between Manager and Employee 2
Manager: The travel desk is totally broke. Payments to service providers have not been made, the travel claims of employees have piled up and employees have threatened to not proceed on business travel till expense claims are settled, there is no clear travel policy as a result of which Finance is not processing claims. I know that this is not part of your role, but can you take charge and fix this quickly?
Employee 2: I don’t think this assignment will help me add anything meaningful to my CV. This is just cleaning up shit that some others have created. There is nothing strategic about this and I don’t see how this fits into my career path.
Manager: But, we need this to be fixed urgently. Everyone else is currently tied up. This is mission critical. Could you help?
Employee 2: Give me some time to think about it. It would call for substantial effort, and can I expect the company to consider a bonus if I can get this done? And will the company provide me the resources to get this done?
What happened next
Employee 1 took up the assignment and this is what she did:
- She figured out precisely what was wrong both at the front end (travel booking and interface with employees) and at the back end (integration with travel partners and the payment process)
- She hired two interns with the help of the hiring team, called them to the office over a weekend and looked at all the backlog
- She took some calls on how to deal with issues where documentation was missing or lost and processed every case based on these calls
- She cleared the backlog
- She defined new processes that would ensure this did not happen again
- She sent out a communication to employees on the dos and don’ts
- She simplified the entire reimbursement process by moving most travel to a per-diem policy
- She set up a governance mechanism with travel partners so that issues were detected and addressed proactively
What she did, in effect, was very strategic. But strategy was in the context of execution!
William Blake would have said, “She saw strategy in the humble acts of execution.”
By the way, Employee 1 went on to head operations at the startup at the ripe young age of 32, and the startup is going from strength to strength. Employee 2 quit within 7 months of joining the startup and she is now part of a strategy team in a large Indian conglomerate working on a five-year strategy plan.