Approaching a roundabout one early morning last week, I was riding to work on my bike, crossing through Richmond Park. It was relatively quiet with a few cars and bikes and the deer were happily munching on grass in the fresh morning air.
I sailed through the roundabout without slowing down. Almost at the same time but not quite, another bike came through from another direction. And a few moments after that a car flew through. None of us slowed down, we didn't need to. It was all fluid, smooth and unintentionally synchronised.
At that time there was no need for a roundabout. We could have all managed without one. Later in the day however, with more traffic, a roundabout would become very beneficial. Someone had wisely built one.
A roundabout is both a physical technology and a social technology. Physical because it requires certain techniques and materials to build, social because it requires rules and behaviours to have benefit. We developed roundabouts to solve a volume and interaction problem.
Growing companies have the same challenges as the road traffic network. As volume and traffic builds, more processes and organisational structure (social technologies) are needed. Plus, more servers and work space are needed (physical technologies).
The CEO sets the direction. He/she says, "this the horizon we're headed towards and here's why". It's a "what" and a "why" focus. The COO however takes responsibility for how we reach that horizon, getting the right team together at the right time, building enough (but not too much process), find the best way to make the team perform together. It's a "who, when, how much" focus.
As a COO therefore I need to figure out if give way signs, roundabouts or traffic lights are needed. I need to build junctions and roads and I need to do so with a sharp eye on making sure the costs and revenues are supporting that investment.
With a tech start up, the COO role is particularly relevant. How many people to hire, in what order, how many servers to pay for, building systems for organisational effectiveness...these things are always important in any business, but in a tech start up the impact is amplified many times over. Some companies grow at 10 to 20 percent a year in revenue, people and infrastructure. For start ups, add a zero to any number. 10 times as fast. Traffic can hit your junctions pretty quickly and you need to know whether to put in place a give way sign, stop sign, roundabout, traffic lights or flyover.
That challenge of building a team and product to make possible a vision is one I love. I guess that's why I'm a COO. I love roundabouts.