An experienced VC once described the stages that he saw B2B companies going through as the jungle, the dirt road, and the highway.
I found his simple metaphor tremendously powerful. As he pointed out, very few founders (with the probable exception of Gates, Dell and Ellison) have managed to successfully steer their companies through these transitions. But it’s not just CEOs that need to adapt – it’s the whole organisation, and I believe that this provides an explanation for why so many apparently promising companies get stuck in either the jungle or the dirt road, and why companies who appear to be masters of the superhighway end up running out of road.
Managing to evolve…
The attitudes, skills and experience needed for employees to make the right contributions (and I’m not restricting my remarks to executive leadership here) can vary significantly from one stage to the next. Factors like the ability to work with or without structure or supervision, tolerance for ambiguity, willingness to change and openness to innovation all play their role. Successful companies manage to establish the appropriate culture and bring in the right people at each stage along the way, but one thing is clear – they manage to evolve.
For example, I’ve seen many “dirt road” companies accelerate their progress as a result of bringing in a suitably experienced chief operating officer (COO) or equivalent who can complement an entrepreneurial founder by adding the appropriate degree of discipline, focus and alignment. But I’m sure that you’ve also seen many hiring disasters when jungle or dirt road companies were tempted to bring in “heavy-hitter” sales leaders from a leading highway-style company who turn out to be completely incapable of delivering results without the support of the infrastructure and brand awareness they have become so accustomed to.
Getting the right people on board…
Having the “right” people on board prior to each transition seems to be vital, as does finding ways of helping existing employees grow with the company. The experience that comes from coping with change often proves to be critical. When adding new talent, the evidence suggests that companies should strive to bring in key people who have successfully (and recently) experienced the transition from the current stage to the next.
The journey isn’t over when the company finds itself on the highway, because as we’ve observed, companies that are optimised for this mode can find it difficult to travel off the beaten track. As Clayton Christensen pointed out in the Innovator’s Dilemma, organisations at this level of maturity can find it hard to exploit radical new opportunities. Adaption – and ultimately, survival – may depend on creating autonomous business units populated by people with a jungle or dirt road mindset.
So – where is your organisation? In the jungle, on the dirt road, or driving down the highway? And – assuming that you have ambitions to accelerate your progress or move to the next stage, what steps are you taking to ensure that your team is fit for the journey?