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Building fences makes us better

We had a really intense week this past week at the office. It was a really good week for me, but definitely one that we will all need to reflect on, and improve upon if things are going to get better.

One issue that really stands out to me, and I’ve been spending a few days thinking about it, and trying to make sense of, is the idea of being really good at one’s job. A lot of buzz was made about the CEO of Zynga giving ownership of one thing to each employee when the NYTimes article detailing his leadership approach came out. I found a lot of gems in the article such that I really do think I’ll come back to it one or two more times before all is said and done. I wanted to start by taking his notion of owning your own role, and taking it back one step to the notion of roles in a company to begin with.

In the fantasy that I arrived with when I came to the Valley, I imagined a start-up world where everyone was responsible for doing everything, and it was the organized chaos that somehow led to a successful company. Of course there are buckets within that chaos. There are those that have to ultimately make and be responsible for the decisions. There are those who are the flag bearers of the common goal to which the team is marching. Finally, there are those who are the foot soldiers of the charge who are, at the end of the day, responsible for execution. Here’s the amazing bit of those buckets though… at any given moment a person can be in all three buckets or any combination of them (of course being in none is a bad idea, as it means you’re about to get fired).

As it turns out, this is one of those thin lines between which organized and chaos must tread carefully. When the buckets overflow, there are lots of hurt feelings and bruised egos. On the flip side, empty buckets mean there are important roles that are going unfulfilled, and empty buckets lead to a chaos which hurts execution and drags on success.

This past week has shown that balancing the two is very difficult, and I think it starts with defining both buckets and what an individual’s role is in that given bucket.

That’s where I think building fences comes into play. Fences do prevent whatever is inside from getting out, but at the same time they can play the role of keeping out what isn’t supposed to get in as well. If fences aren’t defined, then people have a tendency to run into each other, and given that a start up is a herd of bulls running wild in a field, this can only lead to problems. So clearly, there can be a positive purpose for a fence. That said, I’ve never thought that fences were part of a conducive environment for progress or development, and so it’s an awkward bit of advice to tell people to build a fence to make things work better.

Why then do I think that we need the fences? Fences aren’t necessary when all three buckets are filled or where there’s a level of maturity and understanding to perform without boundaries. I’m worried that our middle bucket is either not filled, or isn’t filled properly. I think this is a historical issue, and stems from having too many chefs and, in general, lacking a kitchen. I think we’ve started resolving that issue, but I think building fences will make us better in the short term so that in the long term we won’t need the fences in place.

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Published in just thinking out loud

  • saket

    Good observation. Are fences no longer needed, or rather at the next level the 'fences' don't have to be explicitly defined? I've seen this too — you bring a bunch of smart, multi-talented people in a room and everyone has an opinion. While you want an open atmosphere, at some point you need to focus on your area of responsibility (the part that you own) and make that the best it can be. I've needed help with this too.

  • If you don't have something which is a good mixer, then I think you need fences to make sure the components don't mix. That said, if there's a good mixing agent, whether it be a great motivator or someone who can make everyone else laugh in tense moments, then I think you can start breaking the fences down and allowing the different components to mix because there's an agent keeping the balance.

    I think finding the right agent is actually the toughest bit.