One core rule to prevent all arguments

by Ivan Mazour

seriouslydudeAs groups grow, it becomes exponentially harder to keep everyone happy and aligned. This applies to companies, families, holidays – anything where there are multiple individuals all in regular contact and sharing responsibilities and goals. In a startup, this is a particularly important issue, because expectations are high, dedication is high, and hence tensions are high too.

As you may have read in these posts on building a cult, and applying for a job, at Ometria we have an environment which belongs to the entire team. No one should ever feel uncomfortable, unhappy, or forced to work with someone they don’t like. The thing is, that’s a grand vision, but it becomes ever more difficult to maintain with every new member that joins the team. I’m always worried about losing control of this, and having to accept tension and awkwardness in the office, and the inevitable detrimental effect on both morale and productivity.

We’ve lived through, and resolved, some major team issues already, but for the past few months things have gone incredibly well. Everyone has been happy, aligned, and working hard to get us to the next stage. Yesterday, however, things went wrong, and it happened in a way that was totally preventable.

Two very senior people, who have both had far too much on their plate recently, and under whom we’ve been trying to hire to ensure that some of the pressure is taken off them, had a miscommunication. One was very stressed, and sent an emotional, irrational, and inappropriately worded e-mail to the founders about the other. The contents were incorrect, but most importantly the wording crossed the boundary of being rude. And instead of sending it to the founders, he accidentally sent it to the person it was about.

Overall, I blame myself, as any good CEO should do. I’ve been working on the Ometria culture deck for a while, but haven’t yet finalised it and released it to the team. One vital point that’s part of the culture deck, if internalised by the organisation, would have completely prevented the issue that arose yesterday.

We cannot avoid emotional reactions. Some people are more in control, and others aren’t – but all of us will react to something. I still start to fume when someone says “my PA will arrange it” in an e-mail. We also cannot avoid misunderstandings. People will not always have full information, and the best tech founders make decisions based on instinct, because they have to – no one is going to tell them what to do. So the group, whatever kind of group it is, needs to be able to cope with both emotions and misunderstandings.

What we can, and must, avoid, however, is very clear. Back-channel communication must not be tolerated. This is a major, vital section of the Ometria culture deck. I can’t take credit – the original idea came from Ray Dalio’s Principles, one of the most epic books I have read on how to run an organisation, and a must-read for anyone building a business. This one single rule is something that I am going to put significant effort into making sure my team internalises.

The group must realise that they have nothing to fear from the truth. All critical opinions must be allowed to exist, but they must be stated, and they must be stated in such a way that you would be comfortable with the entire team, including the person it’s aimed at, hearing them. They must be discussed openly, a debate must be allowed to happen, and a decision must be arrived at. But they must not be allowed to exist outside this framework – they cannot be discussed without involving the person they are about, and they certainly cannot be said in a tone that would not be tolerated openly. The fallout and detriment to the group’s morale is far too severe.

So the rule is simple. Now comes the hard part – making sure that everyone lives and breathes it.


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dudley May 10, 2014 - 7:48 pm

Thought provoking again Ivan..
Im reading Ray Dalios book thanks to your recommendation.

I also have a question re back channels. If someone senior is underperforming and the staff reporting into them cant approach their bosses boss, how do they raise the issue in public without potentially undermining their immediate boss and suffering their ire?

Ivan Mazour May 11, 2014 - 7:24 am

Thanks Dudley. A wiggly answer, given that my company is currently 14-16 people so we haven’t faced that issue yet, but I would hope that the visibility provided by this sort of approach would mean that the most senior person would very clearly see that someone is underperforming without needing to be told by someone more junior. There should also be plenty of opportunities for everyone to be able to raise matters not just with their direct boss, but the people in charge as well. The whole “don’t be afraid of the truth” mentality that means everyone can be very open, even if it involves suggesting that they think their immediate boss hasn’t made the right decision. I welcome people who question my decisions, as long as they do it in a rational way and either accept my rational explanation, or offer a better one.

Dilanka Wettewa May 26, 2014 - 7:50 am

Ivan —

Interesting thoughts. One of Richard Branson’s main motivation(s) behind breaking up his company into smaller subsidiaries was fueled by the potential of culture dissipation. While the popularly known Dunbar’s number is set around 150, I wonder where the inflection point is at – as far as culture dissipation.

Also, regarding “not being afraid of the truth” and your comment aimed at dudley above: “..There should also be plenty of opportunities for everyone to be able to raise matters not just with their direct boss, but the people in charge as well…”

With this type of thinking, you are bound to enjoy Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace by Ricardo Semler. Read it if you ever get a chance.


Ivan Mazour May 26, 2014 - 9:24 am

Thanks Dilanka – will definitely check that out. And cultural dissipation is something that I’m always really worried about, as there’s no going back once it happens. Currently at under 20 we are still good, but I’m already feeling the big difference compared to when we were just 8 or so. I reckon the breaking point will be much lower than Dunbar’s number – I think that there will be a big break once the company goes from 20 to 50, and that it will require very careful management, and commitment by the whole team, to make sure the culture survives.


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