Startups and High-Performing Teams Working on the Edge of Failure

While much of my work is derived from my military experience and focuses on high-performing crews and teams in high-risk operations I wanted to craft this post for teams that work in startups or other high-risk organizations where their risks may be related to operations, processes, or their ability to thrive as they push the boundaries of what is possible in terms of business creativity and scaleability. I hope you find this post helpful.

I was recently listening to a Podcast by Seth Godin. Many of you already know this, but if not, Seth is a serial entrepreneur and author and he offers a great deal of practical advice for businesses. During one of his Podcasts, he stated the following:

“I think that the purpose of just about everybody when they feel like they have achieved their purpose…I think it’s to dance on the edge of failure. I think that when people are dancing on the edge of failure and they’re growing and there is a void over there, but they keep moving forward, that’s when we feel alive as people.  There are people getting close to the precipice. That’s who we are as people.”

                                                                     -Seth Godin, Seth Godin’s Startup School Podcast

To me that was a profound statement and I want to reflect on that quote in this post. Why do I think it is important? Because as organizations learn and grow they are constantly taking chances. If they don’t take chances, they risk stagnation and failure (or mediocrity) as their competitors swallow them up. We don’t have to look far in recent history to realize the examples. Netflix overtook Blockbuster, Facebook overtook MySpace, and while Kodak still exists, it ignored a big opportunity to make an early transition to digital photography.

So, what sets resilient organizations apart from brittle organizations? In many cases, organizations must move close to the edge of failure as they try new things, whether these new things are entirely new business services or product offerings, or even new techniques to improve current operations. This is a challenge because in high-risk operations where the consequences of failure are often unacceptable, organizations and teams must take risks, but how do they “dance on the edge of failure” without actually failing, and is there a way to fail gracefully, minimize damage, learn, and grow as teams and organizations?

Also, how does this relate to operational teams? After all, it is the organization that dances on the edge of failure, not the teams, right? Let’s look at this with a close-up lens. Organizations are made up of teams and teams are made up of individuals. It is the collection of group actions that helps organizations try new things, to manage business risk smartly by setting up decision gates for redirecting courses of action when necessary, and by creating defenses in depth with triggering events which may help teams and individuals understand when to shift courses.

Okay then, but how does this apply to startup teams or teams in legacy organizations (those that have been around for a long time) during planning and execution? As organizations feel the external pressure to change strategies and create new tactics, these requirements may flow through the organization down to operational teams and unless those teams understand how to create resilient strategies they may experience failure at their level and this failure may also include unacceptable consequences. Think about how teams must react to major business setbacks. Suppose there is a major upset with a supply chain as a result of a natural disaster. Teams must react and adapt in order to continue operations. In many cases it is not an option to simply stop work. However, if they don’t react and adapt intelligently with a risk-managed approach (with resilience designed-in) they may risk major failures themselves at the team level. Now what if those reactions were not due to a major disaster, but to a shift in business strategy? Isn’t the end result similar? The end result includes teams having to change tactics to meet the new strategies.

So, what are organizations and the teams within them supposed to do to address emerging threats to stay competitive? How are teams supposed to maintain resilience in their efforts to deliver top quality products and services? Here are just a few strategies:

·      Plan early: planning early and often is necessary to avoid getting halfway through operational execution only to realize major important steps were left out. Pay particular attention to risks to operations and processes and develop methods to reduce risks to acceptable levels. 

·      Be prepared to shift strategies: As von Moltke said, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Listen to the signals during operational execution and be prepared to smartly adjust and adapt strategies to match reality. Adjust the plan and rebrief the plan to those who may be impacted.

·      Build in triggering events to know when to shift: Try to identify the likely forks in the road or major potential failure points and triggering guidelines that may be acted on when those points are reached. Strategies like “If X happens we will do Y” may help.

·      Use a diverse team and allow everyone a seat at the table and a voice in the process: Nobody knows everything and by bringing in a diverse group this may help leaders identify opportunities and threats and ways to mitigate risks.

·      Set up operational performance boundaries, and include warning signs to help teams and employees know when they may be getting too close: There are a number of boundary types and while some may be generic, spanning multiple industries, others may be more specific to industries or organizations. Leaders, managers, and supervisors should be trained in recognizing when teams and individuals are getting close to the boundaries so that decisions can be proactively made to prioritize risk management approaches over production when necessary to protect the organizational assets.

·      Build a defense in depth, including "safety gates" tied in with triggering events: Multiple barriers may be used to help protect processes and teams when triggering events occur. These may be thought of as "safety gates" designed to protect operational processes during task execution. Teams should be prepared to build in layers of protection in case certain defenses fail, particularly for Operations Critical Functions.

·      Know when to Pause To Assess: When things are looking good it can be easy to get lulled into a false sense of security. So, when you see things start to go astray, examine the weak signals and take a time out when able or conduct a Pause to Assess Activity (PTA) Activity, which I describe in my book Team Leadership in High-Hazard Environments: Performance, Safety and Risk Management Strategies for Operational Teams

While this is not an exhaustive list, it may serve as a primer for helping teams and organizations understand how to build in resilience strategies as they seek to innovate. Organizations must work to create resilient systems and teams that will fail gracefully, continue core operations and be able to rebound quickly so that if they do “dance on the edge of failure” they will be able to protect their most important assets, minimize losses, and continue operating under conditions of uncertainty in the quest to deliver better products and services while helping to position their organizations as major players in their industries or sectors.

Thanks again for reading. I hope this blog serves as a useful tool to help you with your organizational and team operations and safety performance efforts, and I wish you a wonderful, safe, and productive day!

If you liked this post you may also like this post: Can Organizations Skip Levels of Resiliency?

P.S. If you have found any of these blog posts helpful and are looking for ways to improve your leadership team performance, you may be interested in our online training, including our supervisor courses or Crew Resource Management Courses. These courses are derived from years of application of military aviation crew performance systems. All courses may be found in our Course Catalog.