OD in Startups (Pt. 2)

I'm sitting across from 69 year old Allon Shevat outside a cafe in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. I know very little about Allon at the time of our meeting:

  1. He authors a blog article on the subject of Organization Development (OD) in startups. 
  2. He has a brown poodle named Georgie, whom he loves dearly.
  3. He is French.

Allon is Israeli, not French. Where did I make that jump?

I refocus my attention on recording Allon’s fast-flowing stream of consciousness.

Allon has been an OD consultant for 40 years. He retired in 2010 but it didn't stick. He's consulted for Fortune 500 companies, the Israeli military and - unusually for the profession - many startups. Allon projects perfect English with passion and conviction, though he frequently pauses to say, “how do you say this in English?” immediately before arriving at exactly what he means to say.

“I’m the person to talk to about doing OD in startups,” he says as he stares me in the eyes, brow raised for dramatic effect. He then pauses for a brief moment to formulate his first and last caveat in our conversation. “I’m not politically correct. I want to be correct but I’m not politically correct. I’m going to tell you something...OD in startups is a fucking nightmare.”

In his youth Allon was naive; he thought that startups were the perfect match for the OD consultant. He proceeds to spell out for me the numerous challenges which he discovered the hard way. I worry whether this is going to turn into one long gripe session. Refreshingly, it does not.

Direct quotes from Allon below:

OD in Startups - The Challenges

1. Intelligence Differences

“OD isn’t creative. It’s not fucking creative, I’m sorry. It’s difficult to be good at OD. You have to know a lot of subjects in breadth. You have to be sharp. But you don’t find really brilliant people in OD. It’s not a very complex profession on the whole. It’s not rocket science. Some of these entrepreneurs are really, really smart people.”

2. The Entrepreneurial Condition

“You’re dealing often [in entrepreneurial organizations] with delusional people or delusional ideas. OD often uses reality checks. These guys don’t want reality checks! If I needed a reality check I would avoid anyone who would give it to me. It’s a self-maintenance mechanism [for the entrepreneur] to not talk about how hard this is.

When you have a startup, you’re ignoring risks. That’s the mindset. What we’re talking about with OD is chickenshit in organizations. It’s nonsense to them! It’s not real! How can you expect a person who’s ignoring risks to look at something like what we’re talking about? There’s no room [in the entrepreneur] for naysaying, but OD deals with naysaying in many senses. We say, ‘This is here, this needs to be fixed, this is lacking.’”

3. OD Values

“OD people don’t want to dictate; they want input from the troops. OD people don’t like being prescriptive. But entrepreneurs sometimes need to be told what to do, to be confronted. They’re argumentative; they challenge everything that you bring them. ‘What can you do to make me look better?’ is what they want to know.

It’s an inexact science, OD. You’re going to make mistakes. I think I’m really good at what I do, and I make mistakes all the time. You’re not selling products, you’re selling wisdom. I often don’t know often what I’m selling - I swear to god! Every time i’ve sold something it’s been different.”

4. Special Politics

“You have to think, going into a startup, were you brought in through force? Is somebody being forced to work with you? You’ll probably be undermining a very senior secretary or a totally incompetent HR manager. There may be family members on the board.

They’re raising a lot of money, or trying to, often trying to sell something that doesn’t even exist yet! Often, they’re not only over-committing, they’re flat out lying. The CEO may have made a commitment to the board for something that isn’t doable. How’re you going to OD that?”

OD in Startups - The Opportunities

1. Dare to Intervene

“You have to be able to take risks. You don’t need to be right all the time. You do need to put something on the table and discuss it; you need to be actively prescriptive. The faster business moves, the more confrontative you have to be.”

2. Forget Formality

“I submit my proposals a month after we’ve started. Hire me by the hour for a month or two! Then let’s see what emerges. I say, ‘At the beginning, I’m in fog. If you want me to delusion you I can give you a plan. You can ask for a plan, but the plan will change. This whole thing is going to be built on trust. You may say that’s very hard to do! You’re damn right. But it’s the only real way.’

3. Talk In Terms of Development

“OD is generally sold as process, people, etc. Intangible. Systemic. Hard to define. No. That’s not going to work. In startups, It’s development. You’re developing! There’s no place for diagnosis...

Redesigning the linguistics that we use is an example of development. Adjusting organizational language is development.

People come together to create a plan of record, make a commitment, but they walk out uncommitted. They’re just saving face. What happened? Talk to them about time tables bottom up. Ask, ‘If we didn’t have client pressure, how long would it take?’ Say, ‘Let’s talk about how client pressure may make us work faster, and how it may make us work slower. Let’s develop a new vocabulary here...what does ‘challenging’ mean?’ What does ‘we’ll need to examine how we’re doing in 2 weeks’ mean?

You’re not hiding the OD, but you’re positioning it more functionally so people can understand it. You’re not a generalist, see? You need domain expertise. It’s not about credentials, though. It’s just makeup. You use it and then you take it off later.”

4. Money Matters

“Aim high for one reason: There’s a placebo effect in OD as in medicine. People value what they pay for. Oh, and refuse to go through procurement or purchasing.”

5. Use Words Wisely

You use the terms of the organization. You need to THINK like the owner thinks. None of my terms should be foreign to you. Speak their language. It’s linguistic mindfulness. Less tools than mindset.

In software you can say, ‘You guys debug software, I debug organizations.’ In banking, ‘capital management.’ In the army, ‘leadership audits.’ In the restaurant industry ask, ‘How happy can your clients be if your staff isn’t happy? What do you invest in your client’s satisfaction? [pause] What do you invest in your staff? You can’t make the clients happy - they make the clients happy!’”

6. Consider Your Client's Needs

“Position yourself as with the client, looking at the organization together, not as some neutral intermediary.

Align your OD work cycle to meet with the fluidity of the startup product life-cycle. In startups there’s three stages: seed money, second level investment, and third level investment. What’s your value proposition in each stage? What does the client need? 1st stage is feasibility. 2nd stage you’ve survived feasibility, now you’ve got to form an organization around it. The third stage is scaling. That’s where OD can more easily work.”

7. Client Humility

“If they have failed once before...that’s a very very important thing. They’re all hard to work with but someone who’s failed is much easier.”

And Lastly, Miscellaneous Advice for the New Consultant:

  1. “Don’t do one thing, do ten things. Experiment. Start speaking to a lot of different people. Shoot a lot of arrows, and when you get a response, start working there. Don’t be overly planning.
  2. Learn how people are thinking about you. That’s useful information.
  3. Forget about what you need to know. Focus on how fast you learn.
  4. All you need is 3 wins and you’re set. Fall down 9 times and stand up ten times and you’ll have your first win. It keeps getting easier from there.”

For more refreshing straight straight talk and hard-hitting insights, follow Allon on his blog GR2010.