Startup Hyper Paralysis

I recently had chats with a bunch of founders of early-stage startups, and they all happened to ask me the same question: What problems do I repeatedly see in my work with startups their size? While I listed a handful, I thought that hyper-paralysis is an interesting one to delve into. It sounds like an oxymoron, and especially for very young startups, the concept of paralysis seems absurd. After all, they’re supposed to be moving the fastest. Nevertheless, it’s there. You know you’re suffering from this when you and the team exert lots of effort yet seem to be achieving no or small business progress. You, my friend, are on the startup hamster wheel.

Why Even Run?

The dissonance here is that we seem to be working extremely hard yet not going anywhere. Why would rational people exert effort for no result? Poking around, I believe the problem, in many cases, boils down to motivation. Good people working in good companies just don’t feel like it’s ok to sit down and do nothing when the direction isn’t clear. I get it; in general, movement is better than doing nothing. Thus, we fill our time with projects, tasks, and features, even if those don’t make much sense.

Because we care, we ensure to do something. However, sometimes it makes more sense to take some time and assess your plan instead of simply charging forth mindlessly. It doesn’t mean that you’re lazy or slow.

Fear of Decisions

Another reason for not making real progress is that companies all over have an issue with making decisions. And when we constantly postpone deciding, what happens? Either your team works on things that aren’t as important until the decisions are made, or they attempt to do something anyway. The former is trivially suboptimal, but what about the latter?

Sometimes this approach works, especially when the team can accurately guess which way the chips will fall. That’s not always the case, and that’s how teams end up doing a lot of failure work: redoing things because they weren’t done correctly the first pass. Not deciding is also a decision, and it has its own consequences. Embracing faster decision-making can be a substantial competitive advantage.

Lack of Vision

This is similar to the previous issue. Often, at smaller companies, it is like nothing ever has to be certain or known. You accept the uncertainty of startups too far and take that to mean no strategy, roadmap, or vision is necessary. Many times I’ve heard founders proclaim something along the lines of, “A yearly strategy? I don’t know what we’ll do next week!”

Without deciding on a direction, your team will have trouble reaching the finish line on the road to achieving its objectives. Along the road, they will be repeatedly tempted by beckoning sirens in the form of shiny ideas, hyped tools, and FOMO. A good strategy or a clear roadmap essentially provide you all with permission to focus. It’s what you point to when you notice something interesting that might pull you away. Without it, everyone’s more likely to go off on tangents. (By the way, a clear vision is something I cover in my just-released book, Capitalizing Your Technology to Disrupt and Dominate Your Markets.)

Pomp and Circumstance

This other problem harkens to last week’s article about shibboleths. Sometimes, the culture that has formed is a slow-moving one. Everything requires several meetings. Those meetings are long. Each step has to follow some plan. Everyone must be notified, heard, synced, looped in, and made aware.

It’s hard to move fast when we take ourselves too seriously. So you’re busy, but that’s only because your days are filled with pointless meetings. Especially when you’re in a small team, embrace the benefits of informality.


Another example of poor communication is when people think they are on the same page, and they are, but each is holding a different book! What does it help that we’re all “productive” if each team member is running off in a different direction, and when we finally have to attempt and integrate things, we spend twice the effort it took to write the damn thing? Poor alignment is a real productivity killer for startups, especially those getting used to working in a hybrid/remote manner.

Your people should not be working on things on there for too long. The faster we arrive at the “show and tell,” the less drift will occur. Many meetings are useless, but if you fear all meetings, you’ll have to pay double the time in meetings to save the project.

Can’t Handle the Truth

One last point is that sometimes we fear addressing an uncomfortable issue. So we let the project go on even though we know the new hire isn’t working out. Or invest more into a product direction that clearly has no profitable future just because we’re afraid of the implications speaking up would have on the team. But life’s too short to sweat it out on the hamster wheel aimlessly. Wouldn’t you like to get somewhere?