Bad Systems and Good People

We all know that any good organization worth its salt has powerful and intimate systems that regulate it, that help it move things forward, that allow it to perform optimally, and that help it maintain its course.

The challenge when you start a new venture is that you’re building most if not all of these systems on-the-fly; the common metaphor that is that of putting together an airplane mid-flight – this works because that’s exactly what it’s like.

Some would find the idea of this frightening while others, like myself, find this exhilarating and in many ways I live for this type of dynamic; there are few things more exciting than putting together something from scratch.

We’re building the rules (and breaking them) all at the same time and all of this somehow works together to push things forward. And if there’s an art to it then I’m still learning how to paint and if there’s a science to it then I’ve never been classically-trained – I’m just enjoying the ride and very grateful for the opportunity every single day.

But it doesn’t escape me that putting dedicated time every week to review the systems that I’ve instituted and to ask myself and the team whether they are working.

Why? Because if the systems are fundamentally bad then we’re in grave trouble. I’m reminded of W. Edwards Deming‘s quote regarding systems and people:

A bad system will beat a good person every single time.

What I think Deming forgot, though, is the fact that great people can build new systems that can eradicate a bad system – it just takes time and, sometimes, the “system” is actually related to certain people and not some abstract set of things that need to be done in specific steps.

In other words, sometimes you have to both add new people to the team and remove old people to continue moving the ship forward. I’ve had to do this with my previous organizations as it really is a matter of survival – if you’re going to sprint a marathon then you need the best people for the job at that specific leg of the race and you can’t except sub-standard substitutes.

Knowing all of this doesn’t make the job of hiring and firing any easier – I’ll admit that it’s the absolute worst part of my job and I’m still learning how to become a better manager (a better hiring manager, to be more specific) and a leader overall.

The most encouraging thing about company building and the work done so far with Eve is that I can literally see my own growth as a person and professional in real-time. I am still learning, every single day, on how to do my work better and as a result I’m surviving, my company is surviving.

To summon Deming once more:

Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival.

Amen to that.

The goal is to hire the very best that you can and, together, build systems that move the ball down the court. Bad systems with bad people is certain death while the opposite, good systems with good people is the obvious goal. Everything in between is merely an opportunity for improvement, for optimization, for growth.

And if you’re growing then you’re headed in the right direction. Keep going.