Plagues of Mediocrity

It’s Passover this week, which has always been a favorite of mine (perhaps partly because it coincides with my birthday). Speaking about the story of Passover with my kids, and especially my son, who seems fascinated by the “magic” happening, I decided to write a fun article about the problem I routinely see when working with companies and that are holding them back. Which of these ten problems plague your organization? With attention, effort, and perhaps a bit of external help, you too can be liberated!

Cost Thinking

No matter how much the current financial climate is affecting startups and inducing them to tighten their belts, that doesn’t mean you should agree to be viewed as a cost center. Even worse, some tech executives I work with are singlehandedly adopting such a viewpoint, for example, by making their year’s most important objectives things such as “reduce cloud costs.”

As I say at the beginning of every Tech Exec Podcast episode, our goal is to triple impact-per-engineer, which is all about creating more value. There’s a clear limit to how much you can cut on costs, but the value you can create is virtually limitless. Focus your efforts there.

Order Taking

If you believe your team is successful when it accomplishes whatever it was told to do, you’re selling yourself short once again. A tech organization that optimizes how fast it translates initial product requests to code in production is missing a crucial step: impact-tuning. Do you know who simply
“takes orders” and executes them without attempting to poke holes, suggest ideas, and change scope? An outsourced software boutique.

Assuming you do not intend to run a feature factory, your team should always understand the “why” behind the various objectives it is pursuing. That way, they can be sure whatever they spend their time doing is a) what the product team means and b) the best way to achieve the wanted result. That’s impact clarity.

Tech Debt

Oh, don’t get me wrong. Tech debt isn’t the plague. The plague is your senior engineers’ focus on that debt. I’m sick of seeing engineering teams allocate 20-30% of their time to fighting tech debt. First, it is related to having cost-center thinking because you can only lower debt so much.

Second, it is incredibly easy to justify for ourselves investing in tech debt that doesn’t make a difference for the business. Past a certain threshold, working on tech debt is self-indulgent, and that threshold is surprisingly below what many engineers think. Instead, you should spend extra time cultivating innovation and amassing tech capital. Get the free sample chapter of The Tech Executive Operating System here to learn more about that.

Stale Talent

Has your team’s improvement, till recently, relied solely on increasing the headcount? That’s the story of many startups who are now blabbing on and on about “doing more with less.” I don’t care about that; I care about doing better. How? By making your ICs regularly improve. Growing the talent you’ve already got is much easier than pushing in more and more people.

If your managers don’t know how to coach people properly, you’re leaving “talent” on the table. And don’t expect a motivational speaker in your next offsite to fix this in an hour (like I’ve been approached about several times recently).

Organizational Fluff

Similarly, are you letting people who are a bad fit stay on for too long? There are still founders around who think “not firing” makes sense as a company value. I’ve got news for you: your company isn’t a family.

This is why so many CEOs recently told me about layoffs they held without expecting to have their team’s velocity go down. We have allowed ourselves to create bloated companies. For example, how many nano-managers do you have? I’m talking about managers managing nano-teams (1-2 people). These contribute to managerial overhead and add little value.

No Allies

As a tech executive, you should cultivate relationships with peers and create healthy partnerships. The most important one, naturally, is your relationship with the head of product. Failing to foster these is like playing on hard mode, where you must push for everything by yourself, and executive meetings are often argumentative. Instead, you can make things much easier by aligning with your colleagues. More on that here.

Not Moving Upstream

If, as a tech executive, you are not present in the meetings where the shots are being called, you are doing your organization (and the rest of the company, really) a disservice. That’s because tech is not a service function but should be a genuine part of the strategy. Even further, you shouldn’t just be sitting there but actively participating.

You shouldn’t fear speaking up in board meetings, for example. If you’re not even there, that’s the most important thing for you to change. Moving upstream is all about ensuring that you are poised in the right place to be able to contribute to the company’s success.

Tactical Focus

I believe that the more a startup mentions its “strategies,” the less clarity it has about what a strategy is. Trying to lead a company with a tech strategy, a marketing strategy, a sales strategy, etc., is like herding cats. Not only are these usually not connected enough, but the lack of a clear vision and a unifying strategy also leads to far too many tactical discussions.

As an executive team, you should devise one clear strategy that is then communicated to the rest of the company. If you don’t refer to the strategy regularly to decide what to do, it’s not a very good strategy. If you don’t even have one—you’re just playing around. Reach out if you want to learn more about Sentient Strategy®.

Poor Communication

Communication is a big term and applies to many different problems in teams. For example, how often do people come out of meetings having understood different things? Or, do you regularly find out that something was done even though there was a better way of doing it or that someone on the team knew it was a bad idea?

Especially nowadays, when many of the meetings are remote (or worse, hybrid), we have to set a high standard regarding communication effectiveness. A big part of that is ensuring people are not afraid to speak up and say what they think. Teach your people how to leverage chutzpah.

Settling for average

Lastly, the worst plague is simply settling for being plagued and being ok with living with a mediocre team. I always tell my clients that life is too short to lead an average team! You can and should expect more of your team and of yourself.

Make this the year where you push yourself forward and upgrade your skills. Get a proper support system, either by getting a good coach/advisor or finding a community that’s good for you (such as my free and closed community for startup executives).