Working With Your Co-Founder. How to Excel at Joint Decision-Making, Task Management, and Communications
Now, work can start. You picked a co-founder with shared values and goals, a complementary skill set and compatible psychology (see How to successfully pick a co-founder). Ahead of you are weeks, months, and years of work in scaling your charity from a small startup to an established organization. How you work with your co-founder will be decisive. This article outlines basic lessons for successful collaboration in day-to-day work, while another article sheds light on how to strengthen the relationship with your co-founder at a deeper level (see How to strengthen your co-founder relationship).
Successful communication is at the core of every task you tackle and decision you take. As outlined elsewhere, working in the same location is beneficial, especially as your organization starts out. Understanding the communication preferences of your co-founder is helpful too. One might be chatty while the other mostly prefers quiet time. Find arrangements that suit both styles, for instance, by defining deep work hours without interruption, semi-deep work hours, and normal work hours during which interactions are fine. The rules for these three distinct work modes could capture both personal communication and instant messaging (e.g. snoozed notifications during deep work). Consider that original work needs uninterrupted space on the calendar, as Paul Graham outlines in his classic essay Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.
Communications, of course, goes beyond such logistical factors. At its deepest level, communications affect the psychology of you as individuals and thereby influences your decision-making. A look at communications theory and research on couple’s therapy can be illuminating.
Dr. John Gottman is famous for predicting the longevity of romantic relationships by assessing videos of interpersonal arguments. He identifies Four Horsemen, inspired by the biblical image of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, that indicate the deterioration of a relationship. They include:
One key idea behind Gottman’s research is that negativity has a profound impact on a relationship. He thinks of it as an Emotional Bank Account to which every positive or negative action adds or subtracts. The challenge is that every negative action weighs more than several positive ones. Besides avoiding negative interactions, you, therefore, want to proactively work on adding positive interactions. This can include showing more appreciation with sincere compliments, which is especially important as we often take things for granted in daily life. Don’t wait for the eulogy to commend your co-founder! Planning fun stuff outside your work relationship can help strengthen your relationship too.
The theory of non-violent communications developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s offers a few valuable principles on staying away from the Four Horsemen. The core idea is that we all have universal human needs that we can express in a positive way unless we feel threatened. This two-minute video provides an overview of how the theory applies in practice. Four elements make up a statement in a non-violent conversation.
As often in life, this is a simple concept that is not always easy to apply. But you don’t need to become an overnight master of this concept, and you will also likely never be able to adopt it in 100% of your social interactions. A gradual approach with increasing adoption by you and your co-founder can, however, go a long way.
You don’t need the latest sophisticated task management methodology or tool to succeed. At the same time, translating your vision into actions requires planning and prioritization.
Here are some minimum guidelines that you and your co-founder should follow:
Getting Things Done (GTD) is a popular method for time and task management. It might also work for you. Some good places to start are this 15-minute guide on GTD and this minimalist time-management system by the Operations Director of the EA Foundation.
In terms of specific tools for task management, it’s also a matter of taste. Some might go for a simple Google Sheet. This could include a GANTT-style template for planning over months and a list for short-term tasks. The advantage of this approach is that it integrates well with your other sheets and documents that you likely host within Google Drive. The downside is that it offers less task management specific features such as reminders. Asana and Trello are two popular options for task management software. Look out for non-profit discounts. As an EA charity, you might get a special discount for Asana through the EA Hub.
Prioritizing your tasks and time requires a multitude of decisions every day. In fact, one could rightly say your main job as co-founders is to take decisions. How to go about this, especially if you have different intuitions about the right path forward?
First of all, be aware of common issues in decision-making and basic methods of arriving at better decisions. As Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahnemann has shown in his work, we have consistent biases in decision-making. We are, for instance, generally loss-averse and therefore value what we could lose higher than what we could gain. The loss of $5 feels worse than the gain of $5. This cognitive bias cheat sheet provides a great visual overview. Good to consult occasionally to remind yourself. Kahnemann also points out that noise might even be worse for decision-making than biases. While biases are predictable and uniform, noise is random and therefore harder to spot. As one study suggests, radiologists give the same x-ray a different diagnosis in 20% of cases. This reflects the randomness of noise rather than the uniformity of a bias. One way to counter this is to set up strict processes, ideally algorithms, for your most important decisions. Sounds complex? A good start is to use spreadsheets as a powerful decision-making tool, for instance, by listing and weighing your most important criteria before you act.
Second, it helps if you have outlined a general framework for your decision-making. If you approach a decision with the same values such as cost-effectiveness you are off to a good start. You are already thinking along the same lines. It also helps if you have outlined some roles and responsibilities. Many decisions don’t necessarily need the approval of all co-founders, which makes for more rapid decision-making and clearer accountability.
Third, if you disagree despite all of this, you still have a variety of options at your disposal. Here are a few specific ways to resolve deadlock around a decision:
Communications, task management, and decision-making are key components of working with your co-founder. If you would like to strengthen your relationship further, you should also consider regular Happiness and Collaboration Check-ins and draft a Founders’ Agreement. Both tools are described in the chapter How to strengthen your co-founder relationship.
There are three essential components of working with your co-founder: