Seeing Through the Mist


Sintra, photo by Janie Hanson.

Working to grow a young company can sometimes feel like peering through mist, trying to see through the fog to the path ahead. Startup organizations have to figure out nearly everything from scratch — operational processes, employees' titles and roles, how they talk about and market their work — while staying fluid as they test, learn, and iterate. 

In "Are You Suited for a Startup?", an article in the November-December 2017 issue of the Harvard Business Review, author Jeffrey Bussgang breaks down three general stages of the startup life cycle. In the first stage, "jungle," you're hacking away at a tangled mess, with no sense of the path forward. 

The second stage is "dirt road," which Bussgang describes by saying, "The path is bumpy and winding, but it's there, and the goal is to move down it as quickly as possible." There are still plenty of uncertainties and challenges, he explains, and the business model might not be fully defined, but there's a clear sense of what the organization is offering and to whom. 

Finally, there's the "highway" stage, in which the path is clear and quick, and the focus becomes executing and growing while making small improvements and adjustments along the way. 

One of the challenges of startup leadership is that it can be very difficult to communicate about where you are and where you're going when those destinations are still uncertain. Even programs and educational materials designed to support startups often fall into the trap of expecting dirt road or highway-level communications when the entrepreneur is still in the jungle. In fact, Connect the Grey's Ecosphere program and guidelines for Constructive Dialogue were designed to help people give and receive feedback on early-stage ideas that aren't fully defined yet. The goal is to push toward clarity, while recognizing it may be foggy for a while. 

No matter the stage, startups by definition are venturing into uncharted territory and creating things that didn't exist before. That's why, Bussgang says, one of the key skills of working for a startup is being able to manage uncertainty. "Startups represent giant experiments," he writes. "One hypothesis after another is being tested." 

Even after an organization has reached the highway stage, there are still hypotheses to test, and moments that feel just as misty and confusing as the jungle. And in a volatile and complex world, even established companies must always be ready to innovate and to adapt to new trends, market conditions, and systems changes.  

That flexibility requires a startup-like mindset of being comfortable with uncertainty, able to venture down the path even if the endpoint isn't clear. One way to practice uncertainty and exploration is to create art. Art is open-ended and invites possibility, so simply doodling, painting, writing, making a collage, or practicing another creative activity helps you move past the "blank page" and get used to the lack of a predetermined conclusion. A creative mindset can help organizations of all sizes embrace the fog, experiment while managing risk, and move forward without getting lost in the woods.