The Three Machines

Lately, I’ve been stewing over increased complexity being generated by companies around their organization approaches. While this activity varies by stage, in many cases the leadership team expands to a large (greater than six) number of people, there become two executive teams (the C-Team and the E-Team), the CEO gets sucked into endless distractions and working “in the company” rather than “on the company”, and I could go on with a 1,000 word rant on the challenges and complexity.

Recently, I saw a structure rolled out by a CEO at a company I’m an investor in that made me pause because of its simplicity and brilliance. I didn’t like the labels the CEO used, but I loved the intellectual approach.

It coincidentally had three categories. Three is my favorite number and has been since I was three years old. While I can carry more than three things around in my head at a time, when there are only three attached to a specific thing I find that it’s second (third?) nature to me and requires no additional processing power to remember and organize my thoughts around three things.

If you recall my post on Three Magic Numbers, this will immediately make sense to you. Or if you’ve ever heard my story about struggling with clinical OCD in my 20s where the number three was one of my key anchor points, you’ll have empathy for my relationship with the number three.

I abstracted the structure I saw from the CEO recently into what I’m currently calling “The Three Machines.” While this can apply to any size company, it’s particularly relevant to a company that is in the market with its first product, or a company that is now scaling rapidly with a set of products.

The three machines are: (1) the Product machine, (2) the Customer machine, and (3) the Company machine.

If you step back and think about all of the activities of a company in the phases I described above, they fit in one of these three machines. However, most leadership teams don’t mirror this. Instead, in a lot of cases, there is a traditional leadership team structure that has a CEO and a bunch of VPs (VP Engineering, VP Product, VP Finance, VP H&R, VP Sales, VP Marketing, VP Customer Care, VP Operations, …) which are often title inflated with CxO titles (CTO, CFO, Chief People Office, CMO, COO, CRO, …) or artificial demarcations between VPs and SVPs (and EVPs.)

Regardless of title structure, the CEO has a span of control that gets wider as the company scales, often with more people being added into the hierarchy at the VP or CxO level. As this continues, and CxOs are added, you end up with the C-team and the E-Team (which includes the non-CxOs). The focus of each person is on a specific functional area (finance, marketing, sales) and traditionally scoped.

In a few cases, big organizational experiments ensue, often after the organization dynamics hit a wall. Holacracy, which is still bouncing around, was a relatively recent trendy one. I disliked holacracy from the first time I heard about it and resisted even experimenting with is, preferring to watch what happened when others tried it. In 2013, Nick Wingfield wrote an often-citied article in the NY Times titled Microsoft Overhauls, the Apple Way that is liked to a now famous graphic of different org charts for Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Oracle, and Apple.

I’ve wrestled with hundreds of conversations around this in the past few years. I never have felt satisfied, or even particularly comfortable, until I landed on the three machines recently.

My current hypothesis is that if you are a CEO, focus your organization on the three machines. Product, Customer, and Company. Then, have a direct report own one of them. If you have a sub-scale leadership team (e.g. you are three founders and four other employees), as CEO you can own one, but not more than one. As you get bigger (probably greater than 20 employees), hopefully how you have enough leadership to have one person own each, but recognize that if someone is being ineffective as a leader of one of the machines, you will have to replace them in that role (either by firing them or re-assigning them).

Let’s assume you have enough of a leadership team that you have a key leader who can own each one. Organize the company leadership around each machine. The titles don’t matter, but the hierarchy does. Naturally, you will have a product or engineering leader for Product, you will have a sales, marketing, or operations leader for Customer, and you will have a finance or admin leader for Company.

But, this does not mean that your VP Engineering is your VP Product and Engineering. That rarely works – you want to separate these two functions. But your VP Product, or your VP Engineering, or your CTO could be responsible for the Product machine, with the other VP functions reporting to her. You probably also don’t want to merge your VP Sales and VP Marketing and VP Customer Care function into a VP of Sales, Marketing, and Customer Care. But, if you have a Chief Revenue Officer, you may have done this. While that can work, recognize that it works if the CRO realizes he is in charge of the entire Customer machine.

I’m still in the first few weeks of really building a theory around this so there’s a lot of sloppy thinking on my part so far. For example, I don’t think this necessarily means that the CEO only has three direct reports. But it might. Or, in some cases, at certain scales it might. I haven’t focused on what it means in terms of the overall hierarchy. I haven’t really thought about how multiple different product lines come into play. I don’t know if there needs to be dramatic retitling at the top.

I do, however, have several companies that are very clearly focused on these three machines. Yet, they are at different scale points and have different formal hierarchies. Over the next few months, I’m going to use this lens across every company I’m an investor in as I poke and prod at how it might, can, and should work. And, determine if it’s a valid hypothesis.

Feedback of any type is welcome.


Also published on Medium.