We hear a lot of disparaging comments these days about the hyper-inclusive management style of many early-stage businesses--how it's hindering their progress and growth. I'm sure you've heard some of these statements as well, and they're not all simply unhappy whiners or sour grapes. In many cases, it's a serious issue and, as the workforce continues to get younger, it's going to become a bigger problem. Oversharing is fixable for the most part, but only if addressed, explained, clarified and resolved in a straightforward and honest manner. People like to know who's actually leading the charge in their company, and where the business is headed, as well as what their own roles are-- what's expected and not expected of them. But, in some young and fast-growing companies, because so much of the organization is in flux, it's hard to determine who's actually running things and who can make a binding decision. If the finality of decisions turns on who's loudest or last to get in the face of the CEO, the place is doomed.
A lot of this carping may just be background noise, but there's also substance to these discussions that's definitely worth thinking about. You hear wisecracks about founders letting "the inmates run the asylum" in the name of equality or democracy and that, as a result, those businesses are headed right into the ground. Or you read angry rants about the need to "get the amateurs off the field" so that the real professionals can take over. I don't really think that this is just an age thing or purely the province of people who are fundamentally resistant to change. It's more philosophical than that and has much more to do with figuring out a good governance strategy for your company than it does with gray hair.
And, as easy as it would be to write these conversations off as just the latest manifestation of the generational conflicts that are seemingly rampant today, it's a much harder argument to make when you're talking about startups, where there really aren't as many age gaps as you might find in larger and more established businesses. Just because most of the people in your business are roughly the same age doesn't automatically mean that they're in accord about how, and who, should run the show and who should be included in decision-making.
It's less an age thing and more a culture thing that depends largely on where they've been and where they're coming from, and actually how they were raised. There are plenty of people who buy into ideas like radical transparency and complete information sharing or participatory management at all levels. Too bad they haven't necessarily tried to manage systems like this. Instead, they've heard about them without having seen how badly some of these experiments have gone. You can be totally sincere and very passionate about your feelings, but still be completely wrong about what's good for the business. And the sooner you get straightened out, the happier and more productive you'll be. Or, if it's not for you, you'll be gone. Organizations can grow through adoption or attrition - either way works. You can get with the program or you can go elsewhere.
And frankly, it's not really your call anyway. Good businesses aren't run by majority rule. You may all be in the same bed, but everyone's got their own dreams and their own obligations and responsibilities. Collaboration and community and Kumbuya are all cool things, but--in a crunch or a crisis-- it's the CEO's job to make the hard calls and everyone else's job to line up behind the decision and execute the plan. Period. Full stop.
At a certain point, even for the CEO, seeking more input is as much about putting off the tough calls as it is about arming yourself with more ammunition. Expanding the decision set and waiting to decide almost never results in a better outcome. Better to make the best decision you can based on the available data at the time than delaying until a crisis sets in that limits choices and offers less attractive options.
And, as it turns out, data acquisition and evaluation issues are actually the less challenging parts of the problem. The bigger and more difficult issue has to do with managing the expectations and emotions of your people. This is where the wickets can quickly get sticky and where no good deed ever goes unpunished. You can repeatedly explain things to people, but you can't understand for them. It's very hard to tell someone that their participation isn't required, or that their input isn't being solicited, without essentially telling them that their opinions don't matter and yet that's basically the exact truth - at least in some areas of the business. This is especially difficult today because (particularly in a new business) everyone considers themselves an expert on almost everything.
Bottom line: it's always going to be hard to tell people what they don't want to hear and it's never going to get easier, but it's essential to the integrity and effectiveness of your decision-making and your company's operation. And while no two situations or businesses are exactly alike, there are a few critical considerations that you-; as the boss and the one ultimately accountable for the final decisions and the consequences need to take into account.
1) Democracy in decision-making is diverting and delusional
If everything that's up for discussion is also up for grabs because it's subject to further changes, second-guessing, and unending debate and everyone in the place is entitled to not merely an opinion, but a vote on everything, nothing worthwhile will ever get done. This creates major roadblocks (both inside and outside the business) to getting the right things done in a timely fashion. As I wrote in an earlier INC. piece, it's pretty clear to anyone with any real management experience that not everything in any business is everyone's business. See With This Much "Help," You'll Never Get Anything Done.
Not everyone's opinion is necessary or valuable; not everyone's ideas are great or need to be considered; not everyone knows what they're talking about; and, in any event, consistent unanimity is never essential to a strong and effective decision-making process. It's just another fantasy from the four guys who started in the garage. All for one and one for all is fine for a slogan, but having too many cooks in the kitchen makes for some very sorry soup.
2) Democracy in meetings is demoralizing and debilitating
Meetings don't run themselves unless they're being run by morons. There needs to be a meeting leader and the leader needs to be a good listener, but even more than that, he or she needs to be a good chooser and a great editor. It's also not a popularity contest. It doesn't have to be a rude process, but it does have to be ruthless in protecting the purpose of the meeting, moving things along, cutting off people who are off track or off message, and managing the outcome of the discussion in the time allotted. Democracy in meetings is not a value in and of itself and trying to pretend otherwise is a waste of everyone's time and dysfunctional as well. Business meetings are neither occupational therapy sessions nor venues for free expression. If they have a valuable purpose at all, it's about getting things discussed and decided and not about giving everyone in the room scrupulously equal air time to express themselves. In meetings, it's a lot better to make one person unhappy than to suck the life out of the entire group by making them suffer through someone's enthusiastic, but stupid, suggestions
3) Democracy in design is dumb
Style and design talents aren't equally distributed in the general population and certainly not among the employees in your company. Quite the opposite. There are very few people who are really good at these things. That's why you find and employ them. You need to commit to and trust a talented design team and express a simple vision and set of objectives to them and then get out of their way. This isn't a class project where everybody gets a try. I've concluded that design committees are the singly most useless entities in the history of collaborative enterprise and-- without exception--result in wasted time and money as well as a crappy outcome. That's because they operate on two equally stupid principles: (a) the design which is least objectionable to the most people on the committee will be the best design; and (b) if each committee member gets something incorporated into the design that is near and dear to his or her heart, then everyone on the committee will be happy and that's all that really matters. The quality of the design is subordinated to the comfort and convenience of the committee.
4) Democracy in dollars is demotivating and destructive
People aren't stupid, and trying to paint them all with the same brush or compensate them all in roughly the same way is the quickest way to lose your best people and demotivate even the good ones, who stay while they're looking for their next job. (See the very unhappy experiences of Dan Price, the founder of Gravity Payments, who tried to scale up the pay of everyone in his company to at least $70k a year, for a very cautionary tale.) We used to call the folks who stuck around, but stopped caring "people who quit without leaving" and they are super-bad for your business. You've got to pay people what each of them is really worth in terms of both their value and their contributions (as well as their judgment and experience) and you've got to make it clear to the rest of the team that this is exactly how the world should work. The people who contribute the most (not necessarily those who simply work the most) are the ones who will earn the most. And even more to the point--people with highly-specialized and valuable skills are often worth a multiple of what you might be paying other team members--especially in our highly-competitive talent market. If people don't think that's fair, they're free to go work elsewhere.
There's a reason that democracy rhymes with mediocrity. Compromise and consensus are at the core of democracy, but they have almost nothing to do with creativity or with supporting and promoting the kinds of singular visions and ideas that are most likely to change the world.