A little structure, a lot of freedom

My work with True Ventures’ portfolio companies often involves founder questions around how much ‘structure’ or ‘process’ is right at an early stage in a startup’s life when they are 3-7 people scaling to 15-25 in 12-18 months. My usual response is to query them further on what they think process/structure means to them and their core employees. A key piece of learning in these interactions for me is that most startups, unless exceptionally well-formed as a team with their own rule and cadence, need a little structure and a lot of freedom.

The closest analogy to think of exactly how much structure you need is Jazz or Indian classical music. The end product seems like much improvisation but sufficient structure is required to let the right improvisation happen. No structure at all leads to cacophony, too much structure leads to predictable melody with no delight. A little structure to serve as scaffolding for experimentation is the perfect middle. Like a basic 4/4 beat of rock is the right minimum before one experiments with backbeats or 3:2. For (North) Indian music, 4/4/4/4 teen taal is a great start before putting together keherwa or rupak taals or layakari.

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A little structure and a lot of freedom. This balance of structure and experimentation should occur at every level of a startup’s work. At the engineering/ iterative development level, ‘structure’ is required across dev-environment, tools, tests, dependencies while ‘freedom’ permits developers to push perf limits, latencies, adjacent features, new feature demos. At the product level, ‘structure’ is required to figure out which metrics confirm market-fit, user-testing, pre-proto testing, and ‘freedom’ applies to figuring out new segments, adjacent markets, and new user behaviors. At the managerial/company level,  ‘structure’ primarily applies to communications, conflict resolutions, and all matters financial & legal. And ‘freedom’ must reign for pivots, divots, new product discussions, ‘what-if’ hallway/coffee talks, offsites. [divots: a startup’s attempt at product development, early-market testing, and failures that leave a slight hole or rugburn in its resources].

At the margins lives creativity of all kinds and it is in the margins that you must permit near complete freedom of thought, action, and iteration. Between the margins is the required structure, as unglamorous and boring it may be, it is essential to permit freedom.