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Timing, Expectations, and Elephant Hunts

March 16, 2011

Brad Svrluga

I spent 48 hours last weekend at the regional children’s hospital with my youngest son, who was battling a severe case of pneumonia. He’s home now and is going to be just fine, fortunately. Through this experience, I was confronted with a frustrating fact about hospitals – a reality that got me noodling on a lesson worth thinking about in more everyday contexts.

As most of us have experienced, hospitals work at a plodding pace that can be gut-wrenchingly frustrating while you’re sitting there worried about your or a loved one’s health. If a nurse says “The doctor will be right in to see you,” near as I can tell that means not much more than you’re on a to do list of unknown length that will take an unknown amount of time to work through. Stressful and infuriating.

But I shouldn’t let myself get so frustrated by this. At this point in life, I should understand that for reasons I will never understand, let alone be able to change, hospitals just operate that way. From there, I should then do two things – (1) adjust my macro-expectations to the framework I’m operating in and (2) think carefully about identifying those few places where I can influence that timeline and selectively work to have a little bit of impact (polite-but-squeaky wheels do get somewhat more grease in hospitals, I’ve learned).

It’s like my first month living as an expat in South Africa, when I had to learn that if someone said they were going to do something “Now,” they only meant it was going to be amongst the next dozen or two things they would do, and almost certainly a couple days off. Only if a South African says “now-now” can you trust that they’re getting to work immediately.  You can get frustrated when someone says “now” and it’s not done tomorrow morning (I sure did), but it’s far more productive to recognize that you’re speaking different languages, and learn to push for now-now when you need it (took me awhile).

The point is that too often in life we set ourselves up for at best frustration, and at worst potentially disastrous decisions about resource allocation, by failing to understand the differing perspectives on timing and urgency on two sides of an interaction.  I see this all the time with startup companies working on big, ‘elephant hunt’ sales or business development deals with large companies. Startups work at a pace that is exponentially faster than big companies. That’s not a judgment against the big guys, it’s just a reality of startups being so much smaller and nimbler. To do lists that would take a quarter to get worked through at a $1B company get worked through in a week at a startup.

Given that you can’t change that difference, as a startup you have to operate with an acceptance of it, not unrealistically expect to get a big company to drive at a speed it’s not built for. Fail to be realistic about this and you’re setting yourself up for disaster.

So you have two choices, and they’re like my choices at the hospital last weekend (only potentially more damaging if you choose poorly). You can get frustrated by how slowly the big guys move, keep banging your head against the wall, and waste your company’s precious resources trying to move something that just isn’t going to move any faster.  Or you can be realistic, have frank conversations with the other side, listen carefully to the signals they’re sending, and then adjust your organization’s resources accordingly.

At the hospital, with a child breathing through an oxygen mask, decisions are easy – that situation is your whole world and all that matters. That sort of focus will breed frustration, but it is what it is. Let a big deal become your whole world as a startup and you put your whole company at risk. If you don’t understand timelines and expectations appropriately, you will stay over-resourced in pursuit of the “company-making” deal that just isn’t going to move any faster.  Yes, you should listen closely and work to find the places you can influence their timing, but usually things just take time to percolate through those organizations. If you’re smart about this, you’ll separate the things you can influence from those you can’t and redeploy your resources to a collection of other, smaller opportunities where you can actually move the ball forward. When the big deal comes through, you’ll be thrilled that you’ve also achieved progress on a number of other fronts. And if it doesn’t (and they so often don’t!), you’ll have some other baskets with eggs in them, thus avoiding starvation.

It may be nerve wracking to not throw everything you’ve got at that one big deal, but orchestrated courageously, the whole experience will save you from immeasurable frustration, be more motivating for your team, put a number of wins on the board, and substantially reduce risk for your business.



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