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.
I was fortunate to spend an hour with a group of about 30 people and Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC yesterday morning. It was a super interesting and stimulating conversation that preceded an excellent speech that Wheeler gave on his Net Neutrality proposal. Go read it and ponder it. It’s in English (not legalese), is blunt, direct, and at times humorous. And it hits the soundbites that are being used against “the government takeover of the Internet” and “the end of the Internet as we know it” crowd quite effectively.
But in this post I want to talk about a phrase Wheeler tossed out early in the conversation that really stuck with me. He said:
“In the 1800s, in a very short period of time, we experienced two innovations that created the death of distance and the end of time.”
I’ve been very open about my belief, which I wrote about for the first time in my book Startup Communities, that the global financial crisis was the point at which networks overtook hierarchies in importance in our society. And, while I’ve read about the history of railroads and the telegraph, I never really thought about them as the starting point for the creation of networks given the death of distance and the end of time.
It’s a powerful construct. Today we are starting to see the self-actualization of networks and the path to what many refer to as the singularity. Regardless of whether you believe this, are comfortable with it (like I am), or are afraid of it (like many others are), it is inevitable that innovation, networks, machines, and AI will continue to evolve at an extremely rapid pace. If you don’t believe me or understand this, go read William Hertling’s amazing Singularity Novels.
As a species, I do not think we can control this. Nor should we. We should enable it. We should explore ways to make us a more amazing species. A more fascinating society. We should embrace our innovations and evolve with them.
The path we are on started in the middle of the 19th century. The debate over Net Neutrality is a tiny blip on this path. If we study history, at all points along this path companies behave in their self-interest. We expect that. Human behavior and economic interest always move toward the question, “How can I maximize the position I’m in?” Think about the evolution of the railroad industry. Think about the evolution of the telegraph, and then the telecommunications industry. Think about where we would be if AT&T still prevented us from putting non-AT&T manufactured things “on their network.” Or, maybe more importantly, think about where AT&T would be, which given the passage of time would likely be still promoting Picturephones. Ok – that was gratuitous and unnecessary, but I couldn’t help myself.
In our discussion yesterday, the idea of epistemological modesty came up, reminding us that we can’t predict the path of innovation even in something we know well. I live this every moment in my business as a VC and strongly believe that we should enable, not try to control, innovation.
After listening to Wheeler, reading his speech, and thinking deeply about this over the past few years, it’s clear to me that he understands this. And for those saying “he’s using 1930s monopoly-style regulation to have the government control the Internet”, you are simply wrong. Read his words:
“We will forgo sections of Title II that pose a meaningful threat to network investment. That means no rate regulation. No unbundling. No tariffs or new taxes. I would note that when applied to mobile voice service over the past two decades, the use of such light-touch Title II – which, by the way, was sought by the industry – went hand-in-hand with massive investment.”
It’s really hard to ignore the soundbites and dig into the facts. But I encourage everyone to try.
This post should be sung to the tune of The World Is A Vampire by the Smashing Pumpkins
“the world is a vampire, sent to drain
secret destroyers, hold you up to the flames
and what do i get, for my pain
betrayed desires, and a piece of the game
even though i know-i suppose i’ll show
all my cool and cold-like old job
despite all my rage i am still just a rat in a cage
despite all my rage i am still just a rat in a cage
then someone will say what is lost can never be saved
despite all my rage i am still just a rat in a cage”
Some VCs like rap, but I’m old school 80’s grunge, heavy metal, head banger music with some 90’s fruit bands mixed in. The chorus of The World Is A Vampire was echoing in my head as I took a shower this morning. And then the first line morphed into “My world is a network” and I started thinking about networks and hierarchies.
Earlier this week I was in New York. I spent Tuesday with my dad. I got up early, went for a run along the Hudson River, grabbed some Starbucks oatmeal, and did phone calls and email until 11. We then got together and wandered over to Union Square Ventures where we had lunch with the USV partners and talked about the healthcare industry and how technology could radically alter it as well as the relationship between each of the different constituencies. After lunch we got in an Uber and went over to MakerBot’s office (the Botcave) where I gave my dad a tour of the world of 3D printing. We took the subway back to Manhattan and walked to dinner with Fred Wilson, where we talked about healthcare some more.
Sometime during the day I had a few phone calls. One of my calls was with a Senator about PIPA. Another was with a CEO about a strategic partner. Another was with Eric Norlin about Blur. They were all short calls (as anyone I’ve ever talked to on the phone knows – I’d rather be off within five minutes than discuss football, the weather, and the kids I don’t have.) After the call with Eric, my dad asked “how do you keep track of all this stuff?” It was asked in a loving way with a glint of humor and amazement. I responded simply “I don’t – I just let it wash over me.”
If you follow USV’s investment thesis, you know that it’s different from Foundry Group’s thesis. While my partners and I are focused on a set of broad horizontal themes, USV is investing in the application layer of the Internet with a particular focus on Internet services that create large networks. Sometimes our paths cross (as in Zynga) and we co-invest together, but independent of that we are close friends and intellectual counterparts.
At the lunch with my dad, I participated in the conversation but spent most of it reflecting about the doctor / patient relationship and how critical it was for that the be the essence of the dynamic driving the healthcare system. Unfortunately, this relationship has been completely co-opted by all of the other constituents such as insurance companies, healthcare product vendors, hospitals, drug companies, and the government.
As I was working with a bunch of other amazing people over the course of the week to defeat SOPA and PIPA, including my partner Jason Mendelson and Phil Weiser (the Dean of CU Law School), I realized that the network was taking back control of the discussion about politics from the hierarchy.
This morning, I pondered that some more. I’m sure I’ll be writing about it a lot in the next few months, but it’s clear that my entire life has shifted from a hierarchy model to a network model. I’m sitting in a hotel room in Cambridge, connected to a network (the Internet), communicating with anyone who wants to hear from my (a network) via a publishing approach that is the ultimate democratizer (my blog) while getting ready to go to a board meeting for Yesware (a distributed company that has a broad network of users), followed by a bunch of meetings with random people who reached out to me via email and the web. And, throughout the day, I’ll continue to interact with the many companies and people I’m involved with, mostly via email, but in a completely distributed and untethered fashion.
My world is a network. And being part of a hierarchy sounds to me like that poor rat in a cage.