As someone who has spent time in both startup and corporate environments, I’ve observed a key difference between them: Larger companies have lots of specialists, while startups are home to folks who are more often fluent with multiple areas of the business at once.
Startups naturally live in a context in which engineering, product, marketing, and strategy are mish-mashed into a dish of ingredients shared on every table in the building, every minute of every day. When I was an executive at a startup that was bought out a few years ago, it quickly became apparent how different the new organization was from our pure startup group. Most notably absent was the startup’s rich tapestry of different-colored threads woven throughout the day-to-day workings of the acquiring company. In this larger organization, everybody had a specific task area but little knowledge of other areas of the business.This was somewhat frustrating, because it was clear that these missing threads had cost the company a lot in terms of productivity, direction, and decision-making. Let’s take a look at what that means.
A company or business is in essence a complex set of interactions among employees, managers, investors, customers, competitors, and the wider environment in which the business takes place. Within this interplay, myriad things are happening at any given moment: Ideas, money, messaging, paperwork, decisions, conversations, and transactions that span a wide range of skill sets are flowing throughout and are in constant motion.There is so much going on, that as a company grows beyond startup mode and establishes itself in its market, executives and planners begin to break it up (by necessity) into the functional specialties of marketing, product, engineering, sales, strategy, HR, and so on. The CEO and leadership determine what the big-picture strategy should be. The product folks design what should be developed and sold, down to the feature level. Engineering builds the product. The marketing team comes up with the messaging to attract customers. And the sales team gets in front of customers and convinces them to buy. Each of these functions is separate, with its own unique inputs and outputs. For example, engineers receive design specs from the product team and a timeline from the executives, and will deliver the product according to both. Marketing gets a product description and a budget, and will design messaging around customer needs.
If we shift our perspective up —way up — and look down at the ebb and flow of the whole organization, taking a powerful view at once of the “whole company” in our mind’s eye, a curious thing happens: The boundaries between functional specialties begin to disappear. If our perspective gets high enough, the edges between product/strategy/messaging/engineering blur out and give way to the realization that the company is really one complex, exquisite, and beautiful dance among customers, competitors, and employees and that boundaries within are not as clear as we may have thought. This unified view of company comings and goings leaves us to wonder how we can function effectively when team members live primarily in separate individual domains with little understanding of the whole. The answer is simple: They don’t. It is clear to see that without unifying communication between business functions, companies begin to lose efficiency — and lose touch — with themselves and with their market.
The Danger of Silos
What happens when engineers have no clear idea of what is needed at the customer level? Urgency is absent; quality degrades, and schedules slip. This can shutter a business in no time if left unchecked. Imagine engineers taking long lunches and casually focusing on trivial details of software development while the sales team is getting chewed out by angry customers and losing sales. The urgency is missing because the engineers don’t see and feel what the sales team does. What a disconnect!
What happens when product and marketing folks don’t understand why the company exists, and how it makes a difference in the lives of its customers? What if they don’t understand the technology behind what they are selling? Performance and the ability to drive value falls off the proverbial cliff.
We see that high-functioning companies have gotten past this challenge and have figured out how to communicate across and through functional groups — and this communication is most effectively carried out by individuals who can live and breathe in multiple environments within the company. These people are rare indeed, and they are the most important people in your organization: Meet the “boundary spanners.”
Get Them A Cape
Boundary spanners are the superheroes of your organization. They carry and promote insight and drive coordination and good decision-making throughout a team both in obvious ways, and in more subtle ways that management will never notice. Boundary spanners connect engineers to a solid “in the gut” understanding of market timing and customer needs. Boundary spanners connect product, marketing, and strategy into one wide-reaching conversation — bringing all concerned closer to market truth and good decision-making. Boundary spanners bring together groups and individuals who would otherwise be isolated in context and insight to their functional specializations.
Sometimes boundary spanners are the executives — those who plan strategic communication down into the organization so that every part knows how it connects with the others. This is expected from every leadership team, but is only ever a part of the picture because of the limited bandwidth of communication and planning time between leaders and teams. A CEO cannot be signaling through the organization non-stop, but boundary spanners can. By virtue of how boundary spanners move day-to-day, conversation-by-conversation, and task-by-task through an organization, they are by definition a coordinating force that binds the farthest-flung corners of the company into closer unison.
Creating Boundary Spanners
While it is labor-, capital-, and time-intensive, it is possible to create boundary spanners. Larger organizations that invest in executive development can rotate executives to different departments, allowing them to absorb the perspective, skill set, specialized vocabulary, and relationships from different functional specialties. This is a long-term investment. Interestingly, in Japan, the process of building in boundary-spanning perspective is part of “classic” organization development. Panasonic Corp., for instance, takes engineering new hires and cycles them through sales and manufacturing roles (six months each) prior to assigning them to build products. This has career-long benefits for engineers, who then understand the organization deeply before ever touching a design task.
In our experience, it has been very valuable to simply take engineering and product people to see customers, and see our industry at work. How about sending each product team member out on the road for a day with a sales person each year? How about having the marketing folks sit alongside the engineers and product people?
Beyond home-growing boundary spanners, it is a good strategic investment to find, recognize, and encourage natural boundary spanners within your organization. One way to do this is through the formal practice of organizational network analysis, which creates insight into the existing trust, influence, and knowledge relationships in your organization. Consultants who specialize in this kind of analysis use structured interviews to determine the topology of relationships that already exist among your team members. A look at this kind of diagram will often show the boundary spanners in vivid detail — they are the folks who are connected to the most varied set of teams, while “normal” team members are primarily connected to a more limited group of teammates who share the same physical office, building, or functional specialization. Having identified natural boundary spanners, it is valuable to focus on retaining them. You also can enhance their boundary-spanning role by seeding them with even more information and helping them to be mobile and wide-ranging in their interactions.
Being from a startup background, it is clear to me that hiring employees from startups is an excellent strategy for larger organizations looking to energize their companies, as startup executives are very often natural boundary spanners. By sitting in a startup executive’s desk you are sitting in the world of marketing, engineering, product, strategy, HR, and everything else all the time. The talent and perspective that startup executives can bring to established companies are among the most valuable assets gained when startups are acquired.They naturally bring the perspectives of marketing, engineering, product, and sales to every conversation, enriching your organization on a daily basis.
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