by MK Ward
Little is known about how work is designed by entrepreneurs, and scholars have begun to wonder about steady versus changing aspects of start-ups . As entrepreneurs scale up their business, they need to make decisions about people’s roles, such as who should work together in a team and how specialized each role should be etc...
We had the opportunity to talk to one entrepreneur, Matt, about his thinking on work design. Matt started up, and now directs, a digital marketing agency with a focus on programmatic and dynamic ad creation.
Matt’s company has grown quite quickly from 4 people to over 20. An initial change was in Matt’s own work design, and that of Nick’s, the co-founder. In the early days when the company was small, both Matt and Nick were more hands-on, doing the technical work as well as sales. They worked very long hours, with little divide between work and non-work life, with high information processing demands, pressure for speed, and juggling many different tasks.
But now, specialised technical and creative teams have been put in place to handle the daily problem solving. This means Matt and Nick can focus their daily work on strategy and sales. There are also separate teams for advertising operations and accounts management.
Of course, whilst giving Matt and Nick time and energy for bigger picture work, the creation of new functional teams can create challenges for co-ordination. It is also important for teams to not only apply their technical and job specific expertise, but also to understand the strategy of the organisation so they can provide the best long-term solutions for the problems they are facing. All this makes the weekly meetings that Matt has introduced vitally important.
“Even though you might think a programmer doesn’t have any ideas outside of their tech area, we’ve had some fantastic thoughts and ideas (that we’ve passed) over to the creative team. So that’s the left brain and right brain thinking. If you share your experience and what you’ve done during the week, you get good feedback from all areas.”
As the company grows and it becomes impossible for everyone to come together as a whole group, other methods of integrating across the specialised teams and ensuring co-ordination will likely be needed. Conversations between people in different functional areas, sometimes called lateral integration or horizontal coordination , is particularly useful for scaling startups that compete on their promise of speed and agility. Quick turn-around times for clients requires fast problem solving and that means talking with co-workers who think differently from each other.
Another future challenge could arise from the emergent approach to work design. So far, the process of growing the company has been based on adding people when the demands of the work have noticeably exceeded the resources to do the work. But such a process, whilst lean and cost-effective, can be stressful for employees because their work load can get very high. High stress can become chronic, leading to burnout . Too much stress can also damage the reputation of the startup as a good employer, increasing the difficulty of attracting talented staff when there are future growth spurts.
We expect that – when the company gets time to take a breath – it will be vitally important to take stock, and think strategically and systematically about how the work is designed. Start ups need to grow when there’s opportunity, and running lean is usually unavoidable, but good work design will be important for sustainability in the long term.
DeSantola, A., & Gulati, R. (2017). Scaling: Organizing and Growth in Entrepreneurial Ventures. Academy of Management Annals, 11(2), 640–668. https://doi.org/10.5465/annals.2015.0125
Torraco, R. J. (2005). Work Design Theory : A Review and Critique with Implications for Human Resource Development, 16(1).
Demerouti, E., Bakker, A. B., Nachreiner, F., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2001). The job demands-resources model of burnout. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(3), 499–512.