Startups are mostly hypergrowth experiments in a very unreal setup. With all the balls you need to keep in the air, prioritising is hard and staying sane is even harder.
To help workers in high-risk environments like ATC (air traffic control) keep up their game, the scientists Endsley, Bolte & Jones looked at sources of risk for situation awareness (Endsley, Bolté & Jones, 2003). These so-called „Demons of Situation Awareness“ can provide you with a framework for staying in control, even if you don’t have to maintain a nuclear power plant.
1. Attentional Tunneling
What sounds like a fancy way of saying „focus“ is actually referring to keeping up a selective focus for too long and neglecting other important events. In business, building a long-term strategy can take too much of your focus away from keeping you team culture intact in the short-term, driving your colleagues to leave before you can announce your awesome plan.
Keep your commitments in check.
In your role in the company, you have a set of responsibilities you must never neglect. As a founder, you are also the source of your team’s spirit and have to be in sync with them. Something as simple as a weekly routine can remind you to snap out of the tunnel from time to time.
2. Requisite Memory Trap
Our short term memory is pretty bad. Since the 50s, psychologists have proven that it’s basically 7 +- 2 entities long, meaning that your short term memory can only hold this many things at once (Miller, 1956). Have you ever thought „I’ll think of that after the meeting“, went out of it and never did? Exactly.
Write it down.
For your and your team’s sanity, it’s good to have written commitments after decisions have been made. Avoid future meetings for the exact same topic and let your computer do the memory work.
3. Workload, Anxiety, Fatigue & other Factors
People often misjudge how much they can cope with environmental stressors. An early stage startup environment will have all of these things and still appear normal, but be aware that there will be considerable strain from these factors that increases with their intensity.
Reduce unnecessary strain as much as possible.
You probably can’t change most factors of workplace insecurity in a startup, but clear communication or transparent goals and strategies are a big part of team leadership and can take a lot of weight off your colleagues’ shoulders.
4. Data Overload
In any startup, data points come in in real-time. Customer feedback, financial data, product requirements, all there for you to see. Due to limited bandwidth, humans are unable to process all of them, so under high pressure, it may be tempting to just trust your gut.
Structure your data flow.
You don’t have the capacity to process raw data in any area, so define rules to chunk and process data with your goal in mind. Try transparently defined KPIs that are much easier to make sense of. For many fields, there are already recommendations for useful KPIs, so rely on others’ expertise.
5. Misplaced Salience
Salience describes the strength with which something draws your attention. Think of the red blinking ad on a website that nags you until closed. Placing your attention on the wrong markers and KPIs can be dangerous for judging a situation, especially when turning the effect around: A missing alarm doesn’t necessarily mean everything is fine. There could also be a problem with the alarm mechanism.
Awareness and open communication.
If you know your goals, choosing the right KPIs to measure progress and having reliable, even redundant warning systems in place will bring you a long way. But remember that a good system always improves, so talking about impending problems before they can get on the radar will help everyone.
6. Complexity Creep
In most areas with disruption potential, historically grown systems have created an irrational amount of complexity. Your colleagues will have to deal with this complexity and in making decisions and so will you. How do you sift through the mess and develop a suitable solution for your company?
Don’t oversimplify, be elegant.
Pretending things are simple is not useful for problem-solving and hurts your team spirit. Instead, remember that good design is an elegant solution of a complex problem in alignment with your goals. Help your team to make clever decisions while keeping company priorities in mind.
7. Wrong Mental Models
Different interpretations of external factors can always occur and most probably, no two people perceive a situation in the exact same way. Not having a balanced understanding of a situation affects decisions, team communication and your company.
Get in control of balancing your understanding.
Your colleagues will be able to clear up confusion and add their informed opinion to the mix. Get critical feedback as much and as honestly as you can to escape your bubble.
8. Out-of-the-loop Syndrome
As a startup founder, you have to be resilient to big changes. If for example one of your few colleagues leaves unexpectedly, his or her work will have to be picked up without a delays. When being out of the loop, how do you get back into the game and save the day?
Keep transparent documentation.
Even without catastrophe, developing a culture of documentation and transparency help your team development in many way. Onboarding, vision alignment, a good meeting culture, they all need a strong documentation that supports your team process.
Scientific research provides us with models and perspectives on our work that we can use to our advantage. Changing a point of view by showing a different one can help in finding a new middle ground that combines pros from all areas.
- Endsley, M. R., Bolte, B., & Jones, D. G. Designing for situation awareness: an approach to user-centered design. 2003.
- Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological review, 63(2), 81.