Over the past few years the word “clusterfuck” has become a touchstone for Henry and I as we’ve learned to run our business.
Clusterfuck is military slang for “a chaotic situation where everything seems to go wrong. It is often caused by incompetence, communication failure, or a complex environment”. We use it fairly specifically to mean communications failure caused by too many people in charge of, or weighing in on, a particular thing.
When the two of us started the company in 2008 the chances of a Charlie Foxtrot happening were small, between us we managed to communicate well, there was very little complexity. As our number of employees, partners, suppliers, advisors has grown we’ve learned to avoid chaos by strictly limiting the ownership of a given problem to one person and explicitly giving up the chance to stick our oars in.
How does this manifest? We manage our backlog of tasks in Trello, we make sure only one person is assigned ownership of a card, if your face is on the card you own it. There’s nobody else’s face on the card, nobody else makes decisions about it. We assign responsibilities to specific areas to staff, if something is your responsibility you have authority to make decisions, other people’s opinions are fine but there’s only one person who decides a course of action. As co-founders we also try very hard to make sure we don’t tread on one another’s turf, again, opinions are fine but business decisions are Henry’s and technical decisions are mine. With staff it’s particularly easy for founders to cause confusion by offering HiPPOs and we regularly remind people that “this is just my opinion, I trust you to make the right decision based on the data”.
Email threads and the ability to CC everyone on Earth are a particularly fine source of clusterfucks. It’s not uncommon for either of us to respond with something like “This is your bag, I don’t want this to turn into a Charlie Foxtrot”.
The discipline to assign authority and responsibility to individuals and leave them to make decisions is vital to the smooth running of any organisation. By having a colourful and memorable phrase to highlight the potential for problems we, mostly, manage to avoid them.