What Colour is Your Startup?

It’s a project manager’s trick as old as time to tell the boss that they can have the new product fast, cheap, good — but that they can only pick two of the three.

A version of this concept can also provide strategic direction for the culture of startup companies, where the whole “project” of the company itself is to respond to the market appropriately in terms of cost, features, and quality of product.

That is, markets that care about cheap, feature-rich products have come to expect lower quality; those that expect high quality feature-rich products must be prepared to pay, and those that want cheap high-quality products usually want products that “do one thing and do it well”. The same market, of course, can have room for different combinations of these two constraints depending on who is buying.

A more nuanced view of these constraints can be viewed as a colour wheel:

So, now the big the question is: what colour represents your current company culture?

Many companies start out yellow in the early stages and drift toward blue. Ironically, this isn’t always appropriate, as it can lead to a lack of agility and an ossification, making incumbents vulnerable to disruption. Some companies play perpetually in the green zone, betting on quantity and risking a race to the bottom. Still others compete in an ever-evolving space, prioritising red behaviours overall. Few admit to being cyan or magenta.

Follow-up question: where should your company actually be to align with its market?

Now, if there is a discrepancy between the colour of your current culture and the colour of your market, sacrifices must be made. In addition to identifying what you must give up, however, it is equally important to keep sight of what you are moving toward. Leaders must continually tell the story of where we are going and why.

Many senior leaders fall into the trap of believing in a mythical land where low cost, high quality, and high speed coexist. I call this “no man’s land”. It is equally true that this space could represent high cost, low quality, and low speed. Aiming for this space will drive your employees crazy as you continually shift the goal post on them. Know who you are, who you need to be, and stay away from no man’s land at all costs in the process of transitioning your culture to meet market fit.

Don’t get me wrong. Changing culture is hard. But it is frankly impossible if you don’t first identify where you are, and where you need to go. So many milquetoast “let’s just be better at everything” culture change initiatives fail because they lack clear direction backed up by business strategy. They end up being a muddled shade of grey (or fifty).

You can bring vibrancy back to your company culture, and point it toward success. But first you must know what colour you are.