On The 'Decay' Of Small Organizations into Large Organizations

Some observations on challenges in managing quality and talent in organizations of different sizes.

Size is just a number. Unless you stop using a number and qualify with adjectives like large and small. Implicitly, when speaking of companies/organizations, we somehow associate young and old with small and large respectively. We associate the term start up with a young and small company. But more accurately. there’s a sub-conscious association of various characteristics with such a company - agile, ad hoc, tech-savvy, dynamic and lively, top-notch folks. These are considered a given. And we somehow marvel large companies who display even a fraction of these characteristics. Because we don’t expect elephants to dance.

So, when does a start-up stop being a start-up? When does a company become large? That’s a tough question to answer, so we might as well try to find out the reasons why and when does a company become overcome with inertia, processes, tech-advancement averse thinking. Don’t get me wrong, but all these problems on the surface appear to be related to the leadership. And no, I do not think it is about bad leadership, but more about bad-fit leaders.

A leader who does not either understand what her subordinates do or is too overwhelmed by the size of the (sub-)organization she is leading may be forced to hire more of direct subordinates to help her overcome the situation. And she should! But irrespective of whether the subordinate is an employee or a consultant, quality matters. “Of course!”, you say. But here’s the problem. The organization is looking to hire an expert or experts for a problem they possibly themselves do not understand well. So, how in the first place do you judge quality?

Enter the much cliched jargon - processes, metrics, industry-standards, and what not. Unfortunately, these are but buzzwords, distilled from years of experience through failing and succeeding by some really good souls. But buzzwords are exactly those because people who may have had no experience personally applying and failing and/or succeeding surface as relative experts. So, if you found the wrong people to help you overcome your situation, you end up putting the entire organization’s operations in a jeopardy. And if this continues for a long time, you have some bad news…

So, what’s the way out? I don’t know an absolute answer, but to me it appears to be a case of delaying finding a solution until you really feel the pain and then finding a quick-fix. So, it would not be out of place to suggest that you need to look for the right people to join you much earlier, as much as you are willing to fire the wrong ones as soon as you realize that they are the wrong ones. It might feel like a non-optimal step when you actually hire someone in advance, but a very likely globally optimal step.

There’s another distinction to watch out for. As a leader, you need to distinguish between being overwhelmed due to lack of time versus being overwhelmed due to a lack of understanding of the whys of the problem. And this may be another discussion.

The above is a build-up to make a case for quoting the following, well-known hiring principle. Always hire someone smarter than yourself. And then qualifying that further with - Much earlier!

On a small scale (like, in a start up), the effects of hiring B-grade people are more drastic and immediate, and the system pushes back quickly for course-correction. As the company grows, the B-hires and C-hires are absorbed much more easily, as the process of hiring and firing is a lot more cumbersome and far-removed from the leaders in most cases. The decay then gradually spreads.

It’s not without reason that some of the best known and sought-after large companies like Google and Facebook are so hard to get into. Right?

In some future posts, I’ll attempt to put forth some more thoughts on the decay problem from both a human resources perspective, and from a technology adoption/upgrade perspective.