Brad Feld

Tag: organization structure

I’ve been doing a three-year future org chart exercise with the CEOs of a number of the companies I’m involved in between $25m and $250m in revenue.

This can be done on a napkin, a sheet of paper, or a whiteboard. It should not be done in PowerPoint, Google Slides, or a fancy org chart maker app. It should be done in real-time, without preparation, and in front of a small group, which could include co-founders or board members. But, start with a small group – no more than four people in total.

Draw your current org chart. If this is difficult, messy, or ambiguous, then slow down and talk it through with whomever you have in the room. You probably have some opportunities for improvement here.

Do not draw any empty boxes. Do not have any TBH boxes. Try to avoid dotted lines, although own up to them if they exist. Given that you are at least $25m in revenue, go two levels down (your direct reports and their direct reports.)

Now, stare at it for a while and discuss with whoever is in the room. If you are the only person in the room, go get other people on your board or leadership team who you trust to give you blunt and constructive feedback before you continue the exercise.

Write down all of your thoughts and feedback. Don’t change your org chart, but try to decide what you don’t like about it. Identify when you have the wrong person in a role, or when they have too much, or too little span of control. Are all your direct reports white guys? Are they functional peers? Do you trust them and respect them equally? Do they communicate well with each other – both one on one and as a group? If you were to rehire them today for the role they are in, would you? Are you paying them too much or too little? Do they have too much equity or too little? Or is the org porridge just right?

Close your eyes and image three years into the future. You are three years older. If you have kids, they are three years older. If your parents are still alive, they are three years older. There are new politicians in office. The New England Patriots just won the Super Bowl again for another year in a row, but no one except people who live in New England care. You still get way too much email and VR is still pointless for anything except video games.

Open your eyes. Your business is somewhere between two and three times bigger than it was when you closed your eyes. Do not look at your old org chart from three years ago. Draw a new org chart. This time you can have empty boxes and TBH. You still don’t want dotted lines if you can help it.

Once again, go two levels down. But start with the CEO box. Are you still in it? If not, are you in a different box on the org chart? As you fill out the future org chart, once again only go two levels down. Make a list off to the side of people you have in the company today in senior roles who you don’t think will be with you in three years. Make a different list of the people who in senior positions today who will still be in the company, but won’t be in the top two levels of the organization.

Now, compare the org charts. Are there any changes you would (or should) make now, rather than in three years? As with the current org chart, discuss this with the people in the room. Let them challenge you, allow yourself to be defensive and feel whatever feelings you have, rather than try to please them or get to the right answer. Let it be uncomfortable.

As a bonus, design your ideal board of directors for three years from now. Once again, start with your current board. Close your eyes. Then draw your future board. Instead of names, put characteristics in the boxes. After you’ve done this, you can put names against the future board members when the person fits the characteristics.

Again, discuss.

Now, bring more people into the room. Ideally, you will now bring in your entire board and your leadership team. However, if you are uncomfortable bringing in your full leadership team (all of your direct reports), don’t bring in anyone from the leadership team at this point.

Walk everyone through today’s org chart, the future org chart, the current board, and the future board. Pause after each one for feedback or thoughts, especially on the future org chart and future board. Finally, go person by person for feedback on where you have ended up.

If you take this exercise seriously, it will take an hour or two. While you don’t have to do it face to face, I’ve found it most effective if the first set of people involved is in a room in front of a whiteboard. If you attach this exercise to a board meeting, do it at the end, and go out for a meal afterward.

As the CEO, record all of what you did (at the minimum, take photos with your phone.) Put it off to the side for a week, but then revisit it and decide what changes you are going to make and how you are going to make them to your team to get from today’s org structure to the org structure three years from now.

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.