I’ve always loved the work of W. Edwards Deming. I recall watching a brief clip of a video once where he relates his interactions with a group of middle managers. He asks how they’ll accomplish the company goals, and Deming’s response is perhaps the best description of the problem with most management. “Immediately, a hand shot up in the back. ‘By everyone doing his best.’ Sounds great! But you know, that won’t work. Everyone is already doing his best.”
In the startup world in particular, the response to difficulty is almost always a cry to work harder, and rarely do we interpret those difficulties as an indication of flaws in our procedures or our business plans. I can understand that. Our hearts are usually wrapped up in those plans, and our first inclination is to protect our hearts, right? A problem has to lie in the effort we’re expending, right?
I don’t think so. I don’t think the difference between a successful startup and a failed startup has much at all to do with the amount of effort put in to try to make the company work. In fact, although I’m certain startups would fail without effort, I don’t know of any that didn’t make it for that reason. In general, I believe people work hard and try their best.
Deming was pointing out that the success of a company is reliant on the direction given to the company by management. He wasn’t discounting the role of a worker at all. In fact, he said the workers already do the best they can. Management is responsible for the success or failure of a venture, and that means we need to step back when things aren’t proceeding as planned and evaluate our business before we decide more long hours and whip-cracking is the solution.
I thought about this recently when I read a quote from Jeremey Liew. His insight into startups is evidence by his success at Lightspeed Venture Partners. He said, “Working harder is usually not the solution (actually working harder is usually the solution for when things are going well). Doing something differently (up to and including giving up and trying something else) is usually the right answer…” It’s not what we want to hear, but it’s good advice.
You’re already doing your best.