February 24, 2021

What Is The Right Amount of Bureaucracy For A Startup? Introducing “Minimum Viable Bureaucracy” (MVB)

Minimum Viable Bureaucracy or MVB (a purposeful reference to the Lean Startup MVP) should be your goal to manage any startup: the minimum level of management needed to adapt and run an organization at different phases of growth. 

No one wants bureaucracy and red tape, but companies often find themselves implementing heavy systems based on past experiences even though these practices may have been developed for large multinational organizations. 

Our goal is to deliver frameworks for your personalized MVB to adapt as you grow as a company and as a manager. Hopefully, we can help you embrace and reap the benefits of the lighter side of bureaucracy.

1. Why does management training matter?

There’s a famous saying that people don’t quit companies, and don’t even quit their jobs, they quit their managers. People are meaningfully affected by their relationship and experiences with their manager. Managers can inspire, encourage and motivate employees but can also lead to a destructive leaky bucket of lost employees. 

If you do the simple math, whether your company has 100 or 1000 people, most of the experience for people on your team comes from interactions with their direct manager and peers, not interactions with you as CEO.

When you’re CEO of a company with 10 people or less, you can personally manage everyone. However, as the team quickly scales, you can’t manage everyone individually, and once you’ve surpassed Dunbar’s number, with 100, 200 or more employees, you can’t even keep track of everyone in your head. As soon as you reach 15 or 20 employees, you should start to have individuals on your team that work on management primarily.

2. How do you conduct effective onboarding? What are the top tips to make sure onboarding is successful?

Onboarding begins before the employee is officially hired! It starts with the interview process. Start talking with the candidate pre-hire on what the first 90 days on the job might be like including what they would want to do and how they envision the role to evolve over time.

Then, the manager should develop a first day checklist for everything from the mundane and procedural (e.g. how to get a laptop and get signed up on logins) to tactical on key projects to learn  about or people to meet. This checklist matters especially in a remote environment and COVID era where you can no longer tap on the shoulder of the person next to you in the office for help. Beyond the procedural checklist, the manager should work with the new employee to lay out three first quarter goals and encourage them to modify, change and improve them over time.

New team members often like to hear on their first day or week, “your goal today is to just get to know the team, set up a developer environment, or push some code.” Giving clear direction on the first day or even first 30 days helps new employees know what to expect and accomplish. 

As Dan Pink writes about in the book Drive, which examines the science behind motivation, the key is to give people autonomy. After setting up the onboarding framework, you want to quickly transition to team members taking ownership over their own tasks and goals with your support. 

Here’s a sample list of basics to include on an onboarding checklist:

Logistics and tech setup

Office Norms & Compliance Docs

Laptop, Logins, Slack, etc. 

Zoom / coffee chats

  • Generate a list of people to have coffee chats via Zoom or in person in the first month or so

Sources of Information

  • List of Notion links, Google docs etc. and appropriate dashboards to look at every morning, including links on how to get access, etc. 
  • List of key reading, industry publications, or people to follow on Twitter relevant to the job

Initial goals

  • First Day: usually light and just get situated, don’t add to the anxiety they already have for the first day, but maybe give a small achievable goal so they feel like they accomplished something.
  • First Week: Add a little more
  • First Month: Add some structured goals
  • First Quarter: Sketch out their suggested goals for the quarter, but remembering Dan Pink and autonomy, your goal is to have the team member take ownership of their own quarterly goals. Even if they change, you should be a partner in any changes and agree and help them navigate.


3. What are tips for conducting effective 1:1s? 

Max Levchin has called 1:1s the lifeblood of a company. 1:1s are the connective tissue of a company and are crucial to keep a company flowing and working together effectively.

It’s important to do 1:1s regularly. At a baseline, we recommend an hour 1:1 between each manager and person on their team on a weekly or biweekly cadence. Try not to overload managers with more than 10 direct reports, as once the reports number starts approaching 10, 11, or 12 the meaningful time spent in 1:1s starts to become unbearable (in this situation, for instance, consider splitting the group of 12 into two groups of 6.) 

The goal of a 1:1 as a manager is to help motivate and unlock value for the team, and unblock any obstacles. If employees can’t get something done, can’t get attention, or are stuck, especially if you as the manager are the bottleneck, you should resolve it in a 1:1.

Example: Eat24

Eat24, a company acquired by Yelp, had no 1:1s pre-acquisition and employees had to ask for managers' time ad hoc every time they wanted to speak with them. Post acquisition, 1:1s were implemented between managers and direct reports. At first this was a huge drain to productivity for recurring 1:1s but in hindsight employees were very happy and ended up doing them regularly. It helped resolve bottlenecks quickly and effectively and also improve team morale. 


Structure

30 minutes to 1 hour biweekly 

Goal: “Your Time” - Not the manager’s time, it's the employee’s time.

Agenda
  • Include a personal check-in beyond just work. This can range per person, but at least 2 mins or max of 20 mins of 1:1 of personal chat is recommended.
  • Manager asks team members to start to see what they want to talk about today, how projects and work are going.
  • Encourage the person in 1:1 to set the agenda and drive the conversation. Usually there are two buckets of employee agenda-setters.
Type 1: Set Agenda
  • Team member lays out agenda, ticks through list quickly
  • How to Work With This Style As Their Manager: Narrow down on what’s important across the longer list and push employee to talk about bigger questions or higher level items--help them with focus.
Type 2: No Agenda
  • Someone who has no agenda and just wants to catch-up
  • How to Work With This Style As Their Manager: Slowly probe employee to provide info and encourage them to be more structured by suggesting examples and ways to prepare for 1:1s.

1:1s are also good opportunities to do quarterly check-ins, and at least once a quarter have a higher level conversation about goals, priorities, feedback, and last vs. next quarter performance.

4. How do you motivate employees?

There is surprisingly little written about the science of human motivation on the job. The best and only book that comes to mind is the aforementioned Drive by Dan Pink. The key idea of the book is autonomy. People need to feel like they have their own goals and priorities that they are driving and feel as if they are running their own enterprise. While this might seem hard to understand for a young engineer fresh out of college, as a manager it’s your job to make sure everyone has this feeling of autonomy and purpose at all ages and levels of the organization.

It’s also a manager’s job to understand the broader responsibility of why employees are doing the job, e.g to provide for their family vs. a career change on the horizon. You should get an idea for what career path that person is thinking about as well as their hobbies and aspirations--do they want to be promoted to manager or stay a sales rep? 

A lot of managers mistakenly think everyone wants to be just like them although sometimes people don’t want the same thing! You should always understand what your employee’s motivation is, and how their current job and daily tasks fit into it to create the most helpful environment for them.

As a CEO specifically, it’s your responsibility to paint the A-Z vision on how the company should work, promote wins and milestones along the way and illustrate how you, your employees and the organization is tracking towards your overall “northstar” vision. You should drill in your vision at every All Hands meeting once a quarter at minimum (and perhaps more often for smaller companies), projecting slides showcasing technical and sales wins and how all the work ties together. These slides help people connect their daily work with the mission and intrinsic motivation so they will be autonomous and independently motivated as well. 

Case Study: 

Mike worked with a top IT procurement expert who he helped hire in business development at Yelp. She was an exceptional, high horsepower team contributor, but a few weeks into her job at Yelp she hit a bit of a personal wall. Her commute from the peninsula to San Francisco was a disaster! She had trouble driving due to traffic, BART public transit was difficult to time and she no longer had time to workout, ultimately driving down her happiness and satisfaction. About a month or two into the job, she let Mike know that the job wasn’t for her due to the commute even though she was really good at it!

As her manager, Mike wanted to find a way to make it work for her. He looked to understand her motivations, personal situation and the obstacles in the way. Back in the pre-COVID era, work from home wasn’t the norm, but Mike proposed having her only come into the office 2-3 days a week so she didn’t have to make the commute. Given intrinsic motivation was particularly important to her more than just a pay raise, he was able to create a work-life balance that made her excited about her day job, the company and the opportunity, and she became the most productive person on the team by far. The team used to joke that she got more done 2-3 days a week than anyone else did in a full week in the office!

This case study speaks to the mindset of being a good manager. Try to move mountains to help team members achieve and exceed their goals based on their personal needs.


5. How do you manage for performance and manage for quarterly priorities and year-long, career goals?

We recommend instituting quarterly priorities that you can even start sketching out in the final interview process. Invite team members to take those quarterly priorities and make them their own.

People feel more motivated to make their own quarterly goals because they have greater ownership. Let them decide what their goals are for this quarter and next quarter and understand how you can help as a manager. 

Thanks for reading! Hope a few of these aspects were helping as you thought about your big-picture “MVB.” Stay tuned for future editions on how to have tough conversations, how to offboard and manage for performance! And feel free to reach out to Mike (@newmike on Twitter) or Grace (grace@canvas.vc) if you have any questions.

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