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December 20, 2022   |  Articles

Dear Ben Horowitz, Yes AND!

A few months ago, I listened to The Hard Thing About Hard Things (THTAHT) audiobook and was so struck by the process Ben Horowitz outlined for scaling a company that I purchased a paper copy of the book for ongoing easy reference.  Although I have written several articles geared towards explaining how I approach my work (as early as Truth in Abstractions and as recently as Mystery Solved), THTAHT was the closest I have ever come to seeing someone else articulate my process and it was an incredibly exciting moment for me.

In the time since I first encountered THAHT, however, I have realized that Horowitz’s process is actually a more detailed breakdown of the last step of my own approach.  So today I thought I would put one of my favorite communication tools (Yes AND) into practice:           

Dear Ben Horowitz, When it comes to Org Design, you have nailed the Design Process *and* I’d like to suggest a Step Zero: Start by setting the stage.

0. Set the Stage – Before you dive into any sort of org design, get clear on what problem you are trying to solve, the assumptions you are making, what constraints you are working under, and what resources you have available.

Of course, in the context of the book, there have been ~180 pages dedicated largely to exactly this type of stage setting so I can make a case that this step is heavily implied by Horowitz himself.  But my experience has been that when people decide to follow a numbered list, they jump right to whatever step is listed first.  This means that the founders who read the book a year ago and are ready to do some org design are going to flip right to Chapter 6 (or look up the blog posted I linked above) and dive right in.

Unfortunately, for a founder or CEO who is in the thick of a challenging situation such as scaling or re-organizing an entire company, the answers to these questions often feel so obvious as to demand no conscious thought or time allocation.  I say that this is unfortunate because equally often, those obvious answers exist only in the leader’s mind.  Even worse, sometimes there are a plethora of “obvious” answers that mean everyone in the conversation is approaching the design process from a different frame of reference.  Taking the time to articulate each piece of the Stage up front can go a long way towards improving the quality of discussions and buy in of the final result.

So how did I arrive at my Step 0?  It turns out that in the years before I encountered THTAHT, I did eventually find a way to describe how I approach my Operating Model projects.  When I decide to start listing steps, I break down my approach by saying that it mimics engineering problem solving:

  1. State the problem (often a 5 Whys-type exercise)
  2. State your assumptions (tightly coupled with constraints)
  3. Identify your constraints (probably the most commonly overlooked aspect)
  4. List your resources (helpful but is the step most safely skipped up front)
  5. Design your solution (aka, follow Horowitz’ 6 steps)

THTAHT helped me to see that it was possible to even more clearly articulate what my Step 5 looked like – and further emphasized that “put names in boxes” is really and truly nowhere near Step 1!  

So if you happen to be one of those Founders or CEO’s who is thinking about scaling or re-organizing and you want to use the THTAHT approach, please do yourself a favor and pretend that the list starts with Step 0 – Set the stage.  

And if you’d like a little help with any of the steps (mine or Horowitz’s), feel free to reach out to me any time!

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