Anti Pattern – The Head Of problem.

The anti-pattern I’d like to explore today is what I affectionally call the head of problem aka senior’itis. In my experience, this is the factor in org design that increases burn and bureaucracy. This anti-pattern is lethal for companies.

It starts off quite innocently. Let’s assume you are the CEO at the early stages of a company and you have identified a problem to solve, say in the general area of customer support. Customer support as a function doesn’t exist yet. You ask around your peer group, you look at successful companies and then you make the common mistake – you get afflicted by senior’itis. You decide that you need somebody senior to run that function, you need somebody who has done it before somebody with pedigree. You need a Head of customer support. You then spend a lot of time trying to woo the right candidate, the one that checks all the boxes. You hire him after a long drawn out courtship. You are happy, your customer support problem will be solved, you have found the right person. You have hired a person who will take accountability to solve the problem.

This is where things start to fall apart. Your head of customer support now starts thinking, hey I’m a head of, I should have heads to do the work, let me go hire some heads. If I don’t have people reporting to me, what am I head of? So he spends a few more months making a case to justify the heads he needs and spends a few more months after that to hire his heads. Now he is happy, you are happy. But if you step back, you’ve spent almost a year before you’ve actually started making any progress on solving the actual problem. More importantly, you have introduced unintended side effects that are going to kill your company. You’ve added more people than you know you actually need before even starting solving the problem – you’ve prematurely scaled. You’ve also added bureaucracy and overhead to the system as now you have more people to coordinate without really getting the benefits of the coordination. You’ve prematurely bureaucratized your company.

Head of problem

This example is not only applicable to the CEO, but this can also happen at every level of the organization all the way down to an individual team manager. Generally stated, this is the –  I got problem X to solve, I need a head of X to solve. Its the belief that I can solve this problem by outsourcing the problem wholesale to a senior person to solve.

So how should you approach this problem? There is a better way. I call it – “doers first”. 

First and foremost you need to articulate the problem very clearly. Then think from first principles, ideally talk to your peers and really understand or at least have a few concrete ideas on how to solve the problem. You have to do the legwork, you cannot outsource this. Once you have the basic contours of what you need to do next then it’s just a resourcing issue. Ideally, you can solve this yourself and move on to the next problem, but as a company scales, this may not be possible anymore. At this stage, hire more people to actually do the work. Do not go and hire that senior person now, hire the actual do’ers who can do the work. Using our previous example if you have customer support as a problem area, hire a good customer support rep first, rather than a VP of customer success [1]. Then work on solving this problem, together, you and that first rep as a team.  This is the right way to scale. You’ve only added people when you actually need them and you are making actual progress on solving the problem. As the problem scope grows, hire more customer support reps. Further down the line, when you are in a state where you just can’t manage the people anymore, or manage the org complexity anymore, then hire the Head Of/VP person. You know how the nuts and bolts work, so you are in a better position to hire the Head of person. You know exactly what you are looking for – what skills to test for.

Doers first

Would love to hear your experiences with this anti-pattern in the comments!

[1] If you are a very small company, sometimes you have to give titles out – ideally, fight that (see trapdoor decisions). In the case that you have to give out the title, be extremely clear that they are the only one you are going to hire for a while, they have to do the work.

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