Some thoughts on "organizational neutral"

April 3, 2021

Recently I had a shower-thought about the concept of "organizational neutral". "Organizational neutral" in my mind can be contrast with "Organizational fifth gear". You know you're in fifth gear when people are trying to pour gas on whatever thing you're working on. Users are flooding you with feature requests, your part of the org is getting as much headcount as you want, and people are generally very excited about what you have going on. The problem when you're in "fifth gear" is that you need to pick a generally correct set of things to work on and make sure that people are not stepping on each other's toes too much (there's probably a separate version of this for hypergrowth, where you just point a mass of people in the generally right direction and pray).

The other opposite to "organizational neutral" is "stopped" or even "reverse". This is what happens when you keep suggesting ideas and people go off and do the opposite. Your manager starts having very direct conversations with you saying "don't do that" and you aren't getting any traction. When you're in "stopped", the key is to recognize the signs, stop what you're doing, and re-orient to figure out how to do more correct things.

Organizational neutral is neither of these. It's a no-mans-land between "let's double down" and "stop doing what you're doing". No one is telling you to stop, and you're occasionally getting positive signals, but people aren't banging on your door to buy whatever it is you're selling. Getting out of neutral is hard, because there's friction in almost any direction. You need to apply focused energy to get out of neutral, but it's unclear where to apply that energy. You don't have anyone in the organization telling you where to go, and it feels like making anything real happen requires much more energy or staffing than you have available. These are often problems shaped like "cultural change", which can't happen just by flipping a switch in code.

I think the key to us getting out of neutral is to very publicly do cheap things that didn't require any additional permission. Some things that don't require anyone's permission include:

By contrast, things that do require permission include:

The name of the game is been to do things that don't require anyone's permission, show that they matter to decision makers, and then gain permission to make larger changes based on our successes. The other key part has been doing all of this very publicly. When you're trying to get out of neutral, one of the biggest challenges is to get other people to care. Taking an effort from 1 → 2 people gives you WAY MORE than a factor or 2 speed up, or at least it feels like it does. Being incredibly public with the work that we're doing + how to find us increases your luck surface area; it doesn't guarantee that you'll happen to stumble across a partner-in-crime, but it certainly makes it much more possible.

So, how do you get out of "organizational neutral". Place lots of very public small bets by doing things that don't require any permission. See where you get positive feedback and double-down on those areas to recruit allies.

Discussion, links, and tweets

Hey! Thanks for reading! If you like what you read and want more, you can follow me on Twitter.