April 4, 2020

State of Colorado COVID-19 Innovation Response Team, Part VI – How This Compared to Running a Company

(This is the sixth post in a series documenting the work I did in Colorado on the Governor’s COVID-19 Innovation Response Team – IRT.  Other posts in order are 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.)

As these posts have been running, a few people have asked me to quickly compare this experience to the experience of being a Startup CEO.  And that’s an interesting way to think about it. In a lot of ways, the couple of weeks of getting the IRT up and running felt like starting up a new business, only a lot more intense.  Following the outline of sections in Startup CEO:  a field guide to scaling up your business

Part One: Storytelling.  The whole timeframe was super compressed.  It took us 2 days to be able to spend 4 hours writing our initial pitch deck defining scope, structure, and staffing request – and that was while we were working hard on our first two workstreams.  In a startup environment, that process would have taken much longer, involved more customer discovery and product/market fit research and spending 100% of our time on that. But then we got our “approval and funding” in about 45 minutes – that would have taken weeks and involved dozens of pitch meetings.  In terms of creating the organization’s Mission, Vision, and Values, we didn’t even bother, although I think it helped that the three of us were generally on the same page with how to work and that urgency was the essence of our job. The larger emergency operations team that we were more or less embedded in also had a very clear set of values and operating principles on display…although we didn’t actually go read them, I think they were in sync with our view of our team’s mission and principles.  In terms of “bringing our story to life,” that was wholly unnecessary!

Part Two: Building The Company’s Human Capital.  Like a startup, getting it right with the first handful of employees means everything.  In this case, the first two deputies on the team, handpicked by the Governor’s staff, were awesome and critical.  Bringing someone in from the private sector to run a public sector team only works when the rest of the team is incredibly knowledgeable about how the machinery of state government works.  And in the end, I think Sarah will be a better leader for the team than I was because she had a combination of private and public sector experience (and within her public sector experience, she had a lot of emergency response experience).  In general, the recruiting process was soooo different than private sector and public sector normally are. The first two team members handpicked the best people they knew in other relevant parts of the government. People were brought onto the team after one short phone call.  Other state departments heads loaned their people willingly. No such thing as a comp negotiation or a reference check. There were a bunch of other things under the “Human Capital” heading that are interesting notes/comparables as well. First, feedback in a compressed-timeframe emergency is something that you absolutely can’t skip – and you can’t wait for a formal process either.  Our team was pretty good about giving feedback at least daily in a semi-structured way as well as in the moment. We didn’t really have time to get into things like career pathing and compensation and firing. We did, after about 6 days at the suggestion of Kacey, our Chief of Staff, move the team to almost entirely remote (other than leadership and occasional critical meetings). This worked surprisingly well for a workforce probably unaccustomed to remote work.  The rest of the world is also learning how to do a lot of that now, too.

Part Three: Execution.  This whole experience was 97% execution.  In fact, we had a hard time finding time for things like strategy and planning because there was a crushing amount of work to do (welcome to emergency response), and a small team to do it.  We didn’t have to worry about raising money, budgeting, forecasting, reporting, and some of the other major execution steps in the private sector. We did do a good job of creating goals and milestones for our workstreams, but even that took a couple of weeks, and in retrospect, I wish we’d been able to do some of those sooner.  In terms of how our work got done, we were very conscious of creating daily meeting routines to structure our day and work – but there was no such thing as even a weekly meeting (let alone monthly strategics or quarterly offsites!), only daily meetings, multiple times per day. One thing that was interesting – I talk in the book about being deliberate and consistent with your platforms, especially around communication.  Channel proliferation is a real issue today (much more so than when I wrote the book), but we had an interesting mismatch at the beginning. The public sector team was used to email, text, and Google hangouts for comms. Nothing else. The private sector team used those things but was a lot more comfortable with Trello, Zoom, and Slack. Thank goodness both teams used G-Suite and not a mix of that and LiveOffice. But getting everyone on the team to converge on a couple systems is a work in progress and was messy, as evidenced in this great moment where Kacey was holding a laptop up to an actual whiteboard to show one of our private sector teams how she was thinking about something. 

Part Four: Building and Leading a Board of Directors.  This is kind of N/A, although the proxy for it in our case on the IRT was the leadership structure of the Emergency Operations Center and then the Governor and the part of his cabinet that was keyed into the emergency response.  In this regard, the main differences between the private sector and public sector were speed/formality (no room for formality when you’re meeting daily or at a moment’s notice!), and, interesting, the need for integration. A company reports to its board on how it’s doing.  This team had to use its “board” to make sure it was integrating with other state agencies and initiatives. In this way, the team functioned more like a business unit within a company than an actual company.

Part Five: Managing Yourself So You can Manage Others.  This was obviously critical…and obviously quite difficult.  And within the overall Emergency Operations Center (outside of our team, the real emergency professionals), there were people, including leaders, who were working 7 days/week for multiple weeks on end, and long days, too.  At one point, the EOC leader posted this note on the wall, and he frequently took time in daily briefings to encourage everyone to take a day or two off and take care of themselves physically.  He role-modeled that behavior as well. You can only run a sprint for so long. Once it becomes clear it’s a marathon, well, you know.

Stay tuned for the final post in the series tomorrow…