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Keeping Start-up Culture Alive

Keeping Start-up Culture Alive

Keeping Start-up Culture Alive

OGSystems was created to help defense and intelligence organizations think differently about engineering solutions for their hard problems. Bringing agile techniques and replacing almost total reliance on custom code with commercial tools was a calling card – in general bringing a faster moving West Coast option to East Coast contracting. As we’ve grown, it’s been a constant fight to restrain the large company mindset of more stovepipes, defined chain of command, and less tolerance for risk taking. It’s a natural desire to control our environment and reduce dependence on outside forces, and that’s where silos get created. The fundamentals of management theory for the last 100 years are all about hierarchy and alignment to reduce variation - if you can stamp out a product with minimal quality issues, you win. It’s a new world now though, and that’s why Peter Drucker said that the basic economic resource is now knowledge rather than capital or natural resources. The upshot is that creative technology companies do their best when they increase variation (in terms of new ideas and innovation). This can be a challenge to manage as companies grow because there’s always learning, pivoting and adjusting, and top down management can’t possibly respond quickly enough to opportunities at scale.

As a start up, everyone knew each other. There was a high level of trust among engineers and variations were huge multipliers (we had shouting matches over particular approaches because you knew the person across the table was awesome and there was mutual respect, and this openness ensured the best idea would win). The small set of capabilities we had were additive because people had a holistic understanding of the company and its customers and could quickly make decisions to combine ideas. As we’ve grown, what worked naturally with a handful of people hasn’t automatically scaled. As a recent example, a project lead identified a customer need for a 3D visualization solution for visual imagery. Howvvever, the lead was not aware that such a solution was in the development queue for Urban Robotics, a business unit that we acquired. There were 3 or 4 steps of communication that needed to take place in order to get information into their hands, and synchronization had to be perfect to make that happen. These steps were missed and we missed a great opportunity.

So what is our solution? We certainly don’t have all the answers, but for starters, we’re emphasizing the start up mentality and including more people in critical decisions and conversations. This helps to push responsibility and authority further down in the organization and eliminates those sequential conversations a hierarchy needs to connect the dots. Everyone is getting more information firsthand, along with the message that they are empowered to act on opportunities. Here are some specific focus areas for 2016:

We’re opening up communications.

Openness in leadership dialog that skips or eliminates layers in the management chain. Big things like inviting everyone in the company to dial into bi-weekly leadership meetings and sending a weekly video message from top leadership on success stories and priorities. Small things like hiring a couple food trucks near a major client site so that remote employees could get together and form connections across the company in a serendipitous way.

We’re embedding leaders at lower levels.

Some of this is just old school management by walking around. There is nothing better than getting out to talk to people! We’re also having managers join meetings that aren’t in their principal area of responsibility to build trust and share knowledge across the organization.

We’re asking better questions.

.Open ended discussions to encourage honest dialog. “What are we doing wrong?” or “What can you do to make us better?” At OGSystems, the technology “stuff” will always be the cool part and the natural subject that everyone wants to discuss. The open communication about our organization is what takes more of an effort and focus, and in the end, is just as vital to our growth. As important as our national security innovation focus is our drive to offer an awesome and entrepreneurial place to work on par with Silicon Valley. We are connecting our people so that they can grow professionally and giving them a lot of responsibility at every level because we trust them to act in the company’s best interest. I’m personally interested in anything that you’ve used to be get more effective and meaningful conversations and information flow in a large organization – please share!

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn on Monday, January 25. Connect with and follow OGS President Garrett Pagon here.