Even more than winning, Startups are exhorted to action, to Go Do. It was one of the key qualities I highlighted in my blog about what makes a great Startup team a couple of weeks ago. Numerous writers and successful founders talk about a bias towards action. Others go further. It is better to do the wrong thing than to do nothing. The Lean Startup and other well regarded theories have brought forward the idea of experimentation and iteration. Basically, succeeding by doing stuff, checking it and then doing it better. This mindset has replaced traditional planning and testing for many.
I am totally with this movement and I am a big believer that traditional corporates need to get some of this urgency into their own organisations. But like anything, Just Do It is not a complete answer. There has to be some time for reflection, consultation, considered judgement otherwise we risk becoming hamsters spinning our wheels ever faster and going nowhere. How can we strike this balance?
Action and reaction
Start with action. Things have to get done. Founders and Entrepreneurs get twitchy when they are not making stuff happen. Actually things are a little more complex. Do something, measure or review the result, learn and then do the next thing is more realistic. This mini cycle tends to get swamped in the early stages because everyone in the team is doing multiple things at a frenetic pace so covering all four steps of the cycle for different activities all at the same time (that’s how Startups fill the time between pizzas folks.)
So we are actually doing some thinking and adjusting all the time. Business also needs some deeper thoughts though. To stick with Startup language, when and how to pivot? When and how much funding to raise? Where to spend that money when you have it in the bank? What is the best balance between more development and more marketing? These types of questions are fed by the learning we take from multiple actions but they are not easily answered from individual outcomes.
Set the clock
Most Startup teams I know recognise this and try to find time for some deeper thinking. Senior executives in the corporate world face the same problem. Many of their hands on actions may be delegated to their teams but reviewing the outcome of multiple streams of activity and deciding the next step is also very different from strategic reflection.
I have seen three basic approaches to making the time. Most common in the corporate world is to carve out set times on an agreed cycle. Annual strategy away days are common and there are also examples of CEOs who carve out an entire week of “white space” on a regular basis. This is good discipline and the tools and approaches taken can be very valuable. However, determining a schedule in the Startup world is very different. There is no predictable cycle to the business so 6 months time could be too late or too soon.
Pull the trigger
Another approach is to build time around key triggers. These could be foreseeable in advance like a new round of funding, or arrive out of the blue, an offer to licence your product internationally for example. I think this approach has plenty of merit and is probably necessary in a lot of circumstances. It works less well in the corporate world where the trigger is usually a crisis, a big drop in sales or a major new initiative by a competitor for example. The “reflection” then often smacks of panic and the result is often action for action’s sake.
The brave will rely on their gut. A sort of fartlek approach to strategy. When it feels right, maybe because of an accumulation of small things, a big shock in the outside world or just a sense of things being a little jaded, the great leaders will stimulate thinking and change only if deeper analysis says this is the right way to go. Putting your foot on the ball in this way will be a hard decision to make but don’t be afraid to try it. Many things in a Startup depend on the gut instinct of the founder so it pays to use it.
Find your torch
The balance will almost always be towards action but pauses for thought are essential. I have no easy answer to when and how to do this. I would suggest keeping your mind open as far as possible. Find time to read widely, fiction and non fiction, not directly business related. Network with people because they are fun and interesting not just useful. Exercise and use the time to allow your mind to wander and ponder. Allow yourself to be broad as well as focused - at least a little bit.
Kenny Fraser is the Director of Sunstone Communication and a personal investor in startups.