Posted by: malstott | October 12, 2015

The Gordian Knot of Start-ups

gordian+knotThe Legend: The Phrygians needed a king. An oracle decreed that the next man to enter the city driving an ox-cart should become their king. A farmer named Gordias shows up on an ox-cart and got the job. Out of gratitude, Gordias’ son Midas dedicated the ox-cart to Zeus and tied it to a post with an intricate knot. An oracle again prophesied that the one to untie the knot would become king of Asia. Alex showed up and attempted to untie the Gordian knot. When he could not untie it, he sliced it in half with his sword. Apparently that was good enough and Alexander the Great went on to rule Asia.

The Gordian Knot of Start-ups: Every start-up faces at least one unsolvable problem. Every leadership team worth its start-up salt knows that these problems, no matter how insurmountable they seem, have solutions if approached with the right mindset and attitude. Sometimes the solution is to slice the problem in half. In any case the approach needs to include out of the box thinking and acting.

Roadblocks seems inevitable in a new company. These can come in the form of schedule slips, cost overages, performance issues, customer delays and more. With a start-up company there is little room for error and the problems can feel insurmountable. This is the test of leadership. While there is no simple approach, here are some ways to slice through your Gordian Knot.

  • Redefine the problem: See the situation with deep clarity and really understand the limitations presented to you. In some cases a solution or work-around will come up with a calm and studied approach. The key to this work is to not panic and react but to let the problem unfold. Gather the facts. Clarify the obvious alternatives. Dig deeper. This added perception is very valuable and often is overlooked in our haste to resolve. For example, if there is a slip in the schedule due to a delay in supply perhaps there is a way to substitute in another part or delay the addition of that part to the end of the manufacturing process. Maybe a partial ship of the late supply would keep the project on track.
  • Trade-off: Often times you can have it all but not at the same time. If a project is in jeopardy due to functionality or cost perhaps there is a way to trade-off one for the other. Can you spend on a component or transportation mode that puts you back on schedule? Or, can you push a piece of functionality out in time and keep on track with the release? Prioritize and then respond with a trade-off that keeps your values and company goals on track.
  • Lead with confidence: Often an optimistic approach is just what is needed to blast through obstacles. This starts at the top. Even if there are what appear to be insurmountable problems, a great leader will dig deep and project confidence in the outcome. This shouldn’t be an arrogant or dictatorial response but one that reaches into past history and reflects on similar times and good outcomes. There is a time for realism but as you approach a big issue the first approach should be positive and should engender optimism about the future.
  • Lead with humility: Humility isn’t a sign of weakness. Knowing what you know and what you don’t know is a sign of inner strength. If you are open to the ideas of others and realize that the collective wisdom of peers and subordinates often results in a better answer, you will often find a path through what appears to be an impossible situation. If you have hired well and there are people in the organization who are not like you, there is a good chance that their perspective will be different and could help with a solution.
  • Redefine success: There is a point where a problem requires a new definition of success. Alexander the Great decided the successful “untangling” of the knot was a slice with his sword. His success wasn’t what others expected but it was success none the less. In a start-up company this is often called a “pivot”. When the product being developed simply can not get you where you need to go it is time to redefine the company’s success. Perhaps the change will drive a new design or a new market approach or even a new product family altogether. But success can be redefined and the right kind of leadership can rally the troops to this newly defined battle.

Gordian’s story drives us to think about the impossible problem. It should also drive us to think about creative, out of the box solutions and the idea that bold problem solving defines leaders.

“Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Lewis Carroll


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