Why I almost left my own company because I was so bored with it

About a year ago it dawned on me that something was wrong. It was when I found myself having more meetings in the café around the corner than in my company’s headquarters in trendy Berlin Mitte. In fact, you had a fair chance to bump into me anywhere around the globe – rather than at my own office.

But what had happened to the once vibrant qualitative research firm my business partner Christian and I had founded a decade ago over happy hour cocktails? Where was our ‘no risk no fun’ attitude toward things? And when had this cliqueyness, this ‘mental Gemütlichkeit’ (German for comfy) given way to reactive risk-averse thinking?

I realised that I was thinking about leaving my own company, out of boredom.

From inside the ‘growth trap’

What had happened? Like many other entrepreneurs we had to deal with a phase of rapid growth (from 7 to around 25) just to find out that more people come with more rules and more structure. And, yes, this process has a tendency to eat up the very flair and the family feel which used to be so characteristic for your way of doing business.

We had to face the hit of this when we outgrew the typical critical size of 10 people. In fact all the books were right: informal information flow didn’t work anymore. Communication needed to be organised and structured, in order to avoid things slipping through. And, like in a game of dominos, once you start inventing rules you need to define responsibilities … which again leads to creating hierarchies. Before you even realise you’ve switched from ‘a family playing company’ into ‘something serious’.

Getting organised

Our company’s first teething pains didn’t hit us entirely unprepared (a big thank you to you business bloggers out there!!). We soon counteracted by hiring a business consultant. Claudio did a great job helping us to grow into our new shoes. We implemented a middle management, created the structures, hierarchies and rules that everyone seemed to be asking for. Working with a pro here seemed to be the right thing as neither I nor my business partner comes with a formal management training so we needed to learn how to invent structures from scratch.

Mission completed?

By the end of our self-prescribed re-structuring cure we felt quite on top of things again. We thought we had created a solid fundament for the next phase in the life of our company.

But this initial enthusiasm soon faded away. What came along with all the new organisation were the first signs of entrenchment. ‘Who’s responsible for that then?’ seemed to be the question of the day. There was an air of possessiveness and a struggle of powers in the air. What had happened to our usual ‘all for one and one for all’ spirit?

When the skills fuelling your growth are not the skills you need anymore

Another growth-induced issue is your company’s increasing need for management. So, like many entrepreneurs before me, I found myself almost over night in a new job. Gone where the days when I could dwell on new cunning research approaches; my day to day work now was dominated by dealing with office politics instead. Avoiding the latter is among most people’s key drivers for founding companies to start with.

Needless to say that my personal motivation hit an all time low…

Fight or flight?

What in hindsight appears to be a typical structural problem that most non-management-heavy founder teams encounter can truly feel overwhelming while you are right in the middle of things. My first impulse was to seek inspiration outside and spend an increasing amount of time outside the company with clients, conferences, buddies etc. And, yes, I was also pondering potential exit strategies.

On the surface nothing was wrong: the company was thriving. That’s probably why it took a while to realise that my personal loss of motivation was merely an early indicator of what we later deciphered as a larger cultural issue. Our firm was about to lose one of its assets – a fresh and dynamic goal oriented culture that is so compelling and characteristic for small entrepreneurial hubs.

What helped to contextualise these first symptoms was again input from the outside (thank you to some very patient peers listening to my lamenting!!) to investigate the growth induced cultural change in some more detail.

Culture vs. structure

A very general definition describes culture as

‘the way communities organise themselves around their defining outside constraints’.

And the more people and outside constraints you add to the equation the more attention needs to be paid to the way the situation is handled. Managing growth also means to manage the increasing complexity of the ‘social organism’ called company.

When, like in our case, the work involves creativity and strategic thinking rather than well-structured routines you want to limit rules and reglementations. An overregulated work environment almost automatically leads to self-restrictions. It is bound to have a negative impact on people’s creative problem solving abilities. The result? Playfulness and idea bouncing gradually die down to give way to a climate of risk adversity and a ‘painting by numbers approach’ towards business issues.

We needed counterbalance the side effects of our new, bigger and more structured team and create a team culture that unlocked peoples full potential rather than inhibiting it. Our company needed to get back its swagger.

An intercultural ideas infusion

New inspiration came when we were ready for it: Lorri, an American researcher/designer/strategist who had only recently moved to Berlin, literally knocked on our door ‘just to say hi’.

Lorri came with a profound expertise in leading innovation processes and in design thinking paired with an optimistic and warm-hearted personality. Her creative reading of and human centric approach towards team culture issues sounded promising. And Lorri herself was eager to take up the challenge of transforming our company culture. So, within weeks after our initial conversation we all decided to embark on a six month process.

Tinker, tinker, Design Thinker!

Lorri entered our lives with her design thinking skills and a toolbox full of sticky notes, blu-tack, big paper sheets, glue and scissors … and her open ear and heart.

The first month or so of her work was dominated by opening doors: She had an unobtrusive way to listen and learn and lean into even the most resentful team member’s space. And gradually people opened up to her and started sharing their aspirations and frustrations. And what came up was not always nice.

We, as ‘the bosses’, made a clear point to stay ‘neutral’ – to not influence Lorri’s work and give her and the team the maximal freedom to explore the pain points and develop their own vision of what the company and their work life could all be about.

Blind spot spotting

It is in the very nature of a re-thinking and re-designing to leave no stone unturned. So, as you might have suspected when reading the last paragraph, 2 key members of the team, the founders, remaining ‘neutral’ was out of question. So maybe we turned out to be Lorri’s biggest challenge. Even so we had identified a more risk taking and innovation friendly team culture as one of our main goals we had to learn how to make room for a plurality of opinions and make the way for sharing responsibilities more evenly with the team.

The bumpy road from ‘I Culture’ to ‘We Culture’

Business lore has a tendency to portrait entrepreneurs as a bizarre crossbreeds between nerdy loner, 8 armed powerhouse and obsessed believers their own ideas.

The image of ‘a manager’ is probably more centered around his car (bigger is better!) and his salary rather than his talent as a team player. Of course there are great books out describing successful leaders as modest personalities with excellent social skills – but old clichés die hard. You have to actively search for a more accessible role model.

‘DYI-leaders’ such as my business partner and I often change from being the secretary, cleaning lady and CFO rolled into one person to team leaders literally over night. And there is very little that prepares you for the new role in a growing team. The result? Shifting from an ‘I Culture’ to a ‘We Culture’ is hard and might even feel counterintuitive at times. There is a lack of role models to identify with. And unless you consciously drive the change you might never get there at all.

Scared by your own big shadow …

Being ‘the bosses’ (especially with a team where many of the new people were not ‘just like family’ to us anymore) meant that things we say and do have a severe impact on everyone else in the company. And whatever you aim for, want to achieve or claim: ‘actions speak louder than words’ and people will read your behaviour more than any of your catchy mission statements.

If you want people around you to be more vibrant, inspiring and to let go of the safety protocol, to experiment and explore, you have to make sure that they know that you will back them up … even if they might fail. And you have to allow for diversity of approaches and opinions. Stand back and let things happen, give away control.

This all must sound very commonsensical – however, it can feel overwhelming at times while you are living through your ‘own’ company getting out from under your wing. Listening to people how have been with you for barely a year or two discussing your company’s values without even asking your opinion was an experience that took some time to get used to.

A dynamic, communicative and thriving culture is the basis for a healthy growth.

However, I might not sit here and do this write up if I could not say that it was worth it. In fact changes were as subtle as they were profound: e.g. the atmosphere in the office is fairly different now; there is a lot of laughter in the air and people stick head together a lot more. And on a personal level when looking for ideas and inspiration – or coming home from a conference with new input our company has become the place to go to for me again.

We also find ourselves to attract more interesting people – to join the team as well as to hire us – and to shape and sharpen and unify your thinking, people need to connect and interrelate. … this can not be prescribed but must be lived.

Celebrating our new culture

At the end of our 6 month journey with Lorri several things happened: PBI has changed and we presented our transformational process at the HPI decon festival. 10 team members telling their individual unedited stories of transformation made a powerful testimonial and a great team experience. Lorri has decided to stay with us as a permanent member of the team. And me, I have decided to linger on for a little longer … and started to miss the team hub again when on the road.

An on-going journey

But we have also learned that, when it comes to culture there is no such thing as ‘mission accomplished’ … it is an on-going thing that needs to be nurtured on a day to day basis – but we found taking an active stand on it extremely rewarding:

 “Culture is expensive no matter what – either you pay for it in sick days, court cases and anti-depressants or you choose to proactively invest into your culture and get an uplift in return.” (anonymous dconfestival workshop participant)

Further reading:

Change by Design’ | ‘Built to last’ | ‘From good to great’ | ‘Delivering Happiness’, by Tony Hsieh (Zappos) | HPI dconfestival video

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About the author

Dörte Töllner

Dotti is co-founder and Managing Director of Point-Blank International. In nearly two decades as a qualitative researcher she has founded two companies, travelled the world on the behalf of brands from FMCG to pharmaceuticals and added value to countless businesses. She is known for her lateral thinking. Conjuring up cutting edge research designs and providing fresh thinking for ‘her’ consumer brands are her recipe for inspiration and a passionate working life. You can follow Dörte on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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