Many first-time founders make decisions “behind closed doors” — or, in other words, entirely on their own, without team input.
When my co-founder, Dennis, and I first built Dairy Free Games, that’s exactly how we operated. We thought that was our responsibility as founders — setting strategy, making calls, solving problems. Especially early on, we were constantly iterating our products, testing new ideas, adding features, adjusting presentation – making important decisions and pivots affecting strategy and scope, literally behind closed doors.
But right from the jump, these “closed door” decisions, big and small, generally resulted in team pushback. We found people were getting frustrated – especially after multiple iterations and testing cycles – and we started getting into some pretty fiery disagreements.
In time, we realized the reason this was happening was because our team didn’t understand the “why” informing the decisions we made. They didn’t get how the decisions came into fruition. They thought we were doing some of these things for no real, logical reason. As a result, they didn’t believe in them. Looking back, who wouldn’t push back after being told to change something multiple times without a logical explanation why?
The truth is, being a founder isn’t just about making the right decisions
Your job as a founder is to make important decisions while ensuring the people who work for you understand the data, strategy, and reasoning informing your logic. This understanding is critical to fostering motivation and team buy-in – and, ultimately, it’s just as important as the decision itself.
This is a lesson we had to learn the hard way, through team frustrations and totally preventable misalignments.
But for Dennis and I, internalizing this fact was a total game changer. We adjusted our decision-making processes to make them more transparent and to even, at times, actively involve and call for team input. As soon as we increased transparency, the pushback nearly evaporated, company morale significantly improved, and the products we put out into the world increased in quality.
So how do you involve your teams in your decision-making processes and ensure they’re transparent?
This will ultimately look different for every company, but Dennis and I find that when it comes to Roadmap Planning, in particular – a process in which lots of big decisions are being made about the future of our product – it’s useful to involve and get input from your team on the front end. This is the scenario I was referring to where we like to actively solicit team ideas and feedback. This is one of the major times when your team members of all levels can make a genuine impact and actively get involved.
However, opening up the decision-making process without a clear structure and process can quickly become a mess (you should have seen our first attempt at this). To ensure the process runs smoothly, we now start by approaching team leads and asking them if they (or anybody on their team) have any feature ideas they’d like to see make it into a future product release. If they do, then we ask those leads to submit ideas in an Excel spreadsheet. We do this so we have an organized list of ideas instead of random thoughts thrown our way piecemeal through email, Slack, or, worst of all, “brainstorming” meetings.
Those ideas are then peer-rated based on:
- Business Value
- Design Cost
- Engineering Cost
A major element of the cost side of the equation is whether or not the proposal can be developed in parallel with other proposals, or if it’s something that needs to be run sequentially and could bottleneck other progress.
We found it extremely beneficial to get everybody on the team in the habit of thinking in terms of business value, as opposed to simply suggesting things they think might be “cool” to add.
Having everybody on the team (at every level) aligned and optimizing for the business value and success of the studio was a huge turning point for us as a team. This was one of the most beneficial and important side effects stemming from the increased transparency in our processes.
The peer-rating part of the process is equally crucial. It encourages honest and intelligent conversation, through which the best solution or decision usually becomes apparent. Especially when going through many new proposals from multiple people across the team, I’ve found that peer feedback is more powerful than that which comes only from “the boss.” At the end, the spreadsheet looks like something of a leaderboard, at the top of which the most valuable cost-adjusted ideas sit. Dennis and I ultimately still make the final decision — and that is something communicated to the team upfront — but the ideas atop this leaderboard help us make more informed and potentially valuable choices so far as direction and strategy.
Of course, we’re hardly perfect, and this process doesn’t always work out exactly the way we want it to. But what we’ve found is, not only does this strategy generally help us make better decisions, but team members appreciate being involved in decisions and feeling like their voices are being heard. That’s one big reason why many people on our team joined an early-stage startup in the first place, after all.
Do we abide by this sort of highly democratized process in every decision we make? No.
It doesn’t make sense to with smaller decisions – that would be a waste of resources. And it’s also unwise to make giant, direction-changing decisions so democratically. Your team will understand this.
But when you do make decisions on your own, there are three components of this larger decision-making process that you should deeply think through and be ready to explain if somebody on your team pushes back.
1. The cause of the decision. This is the catalyst or reason accounting for why this decision needed to be made.
2. The process. What system or framework did you use to evaluate the variety of potential solutions or directions?
3. The execution. Finally, you have to flesh out exactly how the decision will be implemented in practice, step by step.
Of all three components, by far the most important one to communicate effectively and confidently to your team is execution. Your team needs to see that regardless of the decision being made — and whether they agree with it or not — there is a clear plan in place for how it will be implemented. Especially if you have decided you need to pivot, having a clear plan in place is crucial for preserving team morale and preventing a contagious panic.
If anybody is interested in seeing the Excel model we use for Roadmap Planning, send me a DM, and I’ll shoot it your way.