Stepping on toes

When each independent team works effectively, a company can solve any remaining problem through collaboration between teams. An organisation where teams and individuals are constantly concerned with issues in other teams, to the detriment of their responsibilities, descends into ineffective chaos. Realistically, most startups exist somewhere on a spectrum between these two states, with some teams who work effectively and others who consistently mishandle their responsibilities.

This uneven distribution of competence commonly challenges startup leaders and individual contributors because for one team to succeed, another typically needs to have their house in order. In small companies especially, teams tend to work downstream of other teams and are therefore highly impacted by their coworkers down the hall. For example, life for a support team can be comfortable or arduous, depending on the quality of the product they support. Sales teams can live and die by the quality of the leads they receive from their colleagues in marketing. Product teams depend on customer success teams to manage customer expectations. Engineering teams depend on product teams for product strategy. Individual contributors depend on leaders for direction.

So, how much should competent people, confidently managing their responsibilities, meddle in the affairs of other teams they perceive to be dropping the ball?

Conventional career advice is for individuals to focus primarily on their areas of ownership. Getting too invested in resolving problems you ultimately cannot control is a recipe for unnecessary stress and can sour an otherwise enjoyable job. Stephen Covey famously articulates this in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, outlining three buckets for problems in business and life more generally:

While this is sound advice, it’s better suited to individuals in large organisations, where deeply entrenched processes, politics, and other organisational structures make it incredibly difficult to affect change in areas other than your own. In these organisations, if you try too hard to transform the organisation around you, you can inflict unnecessary stress on yourself and potentially sabotage your career. In startups, however, individuals have much more agency, and the best thing you can do for your career is to exercise this agency.

Startups are small teams. In a small team, each person accounts for a considerable share of the effort expended and responsibilities owned by the whole. When a big chunk of a small team fails, the team usually fails. In an early-stage startup, almost everything falls within every single person’s circle of influence, if not control. So, most employees of an early-stage startup can affect change in any department if they try hard enough.

Not only is it possible for most employees of an early-stage startup to affect just about any type of change, but it’s also crucial for career success. In a large enough organisation, you can progress your career despite your employer’s challenges. In a startup, you only succeed as an individual if your startup succeeds. If you leave problems unresolved to avoid stepping on people’s toes, your startup may fail.

So, leaders and individual contributors should focus on their areas of ownership. Most of the time, in a startup, this is more than a full-time job anyway. However, for a startup to succeed, capable people must influence all parts of the business because failure in one team can be an existential threat to a small company.

Employees of large organisations should be more conservative when assessing their circle of influence and control, if for no other reason than mental health. In a startup, however, assuming you have broad agency and influence is best. When startups win, it’s thanks to people like this.

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Stepping on toes

How much should competent people, confidently managing their responsibilities, meddle in the affairs of other teams they perceive to be dropping the ball?