I previously shared our founding story and my history of solving startup communication and collaboration problems here. In this article, I wanted to focus on...
Our startup's mission is to remove communication barriers and break down information silos. I wanted to share my experiences (and horror stories) of why I believe the problem of collaboration is what makes or breaks a business. I've been lucky to have had four distinct leadership roles in fast-growing startups, all of which made it evident that leadership issues are usually not technological in nature. I'll elaborate.
Learning inter-team collaboration
I started my career in the nineties before the dotcom bubble burst by designing a web-based B2B sales promotion catalog for a women’s lingerie manufacturer. The role seemed simple enough at first, but I quickly noticed how each stakeholder - the salespeople, lingerie buyers, and marketing all spoke different 'languages' i.e. had different priorities, different words for the same things, and different ways of collaborating.
I learned a lot about the importance of customer interviews and transparent communication to avoid wasted design efforts. You need a detailed level of knowledge to collaborate successfully with subject matter experts. For example, it is not common knowledge to know how to calculate bra size, based on band length and over-the-bust measurements. Gaining an understanding on this level is paramount to be able to communicate with the customer. Little did I know, it would be the first role of many where I dealt with the same issues of communication, knowledge, and information flow between teams, companies, and specialists.
My time at CERN had a big influence on my understanding of the importance of collaboration. I was associated with MIT during the time of the search for the Higgs Boson. It was an important collaborator, but only one of many of the CMS project's 200 institutes from 50 countries. I saw first hand how scientific collaboration at CERN would not happen without a relentless focus on inter-team and inter-cultural collaboration. Working on new releases in the data processing team with physicists, engineers, and technicians taught me the importance of contextual translation.
The same can be said for the business world. I can still vividly remember how I led a new team, which consisted of employees from four different companies: a vendor, a client, and two third-party consultancies. Figuring out their individual needs, bridging them, and creating common goals for us to strive for was challenging to say the least. And the stakes couldn't have been higher. We were running a multi-million, multi-year transformation program. The key was extensive collaboration and open communication. We finally achieved forecastable delivery with high-quality software, and I am really proud of our accomplishment.
Fast forward to 2020, and I found myself pondering the nature of inter-team collaboration and communication, what they could be like in the future, and what would be the critical fix to stop situations getting worse. Based on my experience, nine out of ten problems that tech company leaders encounter are about people, communication, and the flow of information.
After the fourth startup in a row where I was putting out the same fires, I'd had it. I felt like a broken record with my mentoring mantra to each team: knowledge needs to be shared, explain the bigger picture, remote team collaboration requires free access to information and for the love of all that is holy, stop putting up artificial barriers between each other. There has to be a way to fix these simple issues once and for all, right?
Common problems within startups
Take a deep look at your work history. Do you remember incidents like these happening?
Absurd communication barriers
A technology company I once worked with had siloed their commercial and technical teams so badly, that both sides refused to use each other's IM tool of choice. The commercial team insisted on lightweight WhatsApping on the fly and the technology team insisted on Slack with fully integrated daily workflows. The leadership didn't see this as an issue (it was their first time in startup-land). They encouraged everyone to send emails to the other teams instead. Well, this encouraged behaviour definitely didn't bridge the gap. At the end of the day, no-one bothered to read the torrent of email chat one-liners flooding their inboxes. When people stop caring about their work, they also start looking for greener pastures.
Saving, or wasting money by creating information silos
Another topic that keeps me puzzled is the nature of SaaS per-seat pricing for stingy startups. Is your company really saving money when you are not allowing your product or engineering teams to access information troves like Salesforce? Time and time again I have witnessed weeks of work going down the drain, when eventually one team discovers information, or another team shares information by accident, which invalidates product and feature assumptions of client behaviour and desires. "Well, no one asked."
How many times do your star employees need to waste their effort and commitment before they conclude their service is valued more elsewhere? In the worst case, this star performer has put in extra hours to complete the work on time. For someone who is productive and driven, it might only take that one time before they call it quits.
Lost team members and out-of-date information
People come and go in startups, that's the nature of growth business, where the type of people needed changes over time. So why add to the burden of churn by losing your star players, who want to grow and be part of the journey, with internal communication stupid mistakes? The more critical knowledge you only have in key employees' heads the more detrimental the effect. It is often said that documentation and admin is the red tape of the corporate world and hence needs to be fought against to make the company agile. That is a fallacy. Companies live on knowledge and can't afford to be reinventing the wheel again and again. Poor communication, bad collaboration habits, and lost faith towards the execution of the company's vision can cause the information maintainer to leave, and then that knowledge is gone for good.
The above examples are backed by industry research. Deloitte found in its 2020 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report that 55% of respondents reported organizational silos as the top barrier to knowledge sharing and management.
Transforming tech company communication
I've always known I will take the step to become an entrepreneur one day. That day came over the holidays last year when I managed to articulate what it was that I had known all this time through international collaborator to tech company leader. I took the decision before the world changed overnight with the pandemic, and remote work became the norm. The issues have only been exacerbated, and there is no better time to embark on a journey to remove communication barriers and break down information silos. A company with the right mission and the right product to make knowledge more transparent will solve a real problem.
I would love to have you onboard on our journey. Please let us know if you have similar examples of work communication in the comments below, or on our social media!
Learn what we do to fix the problem once and for all:
Founder & CEO of Flowtrace