The 7 Hidden Advantages Of The Day Zero Organization (And How Not To Lose Them)

Think back to the birth of your startup. All the way back to the very beginning, when there were just a few of you.

Exciting times, right? It was all hands on deck, a whirlwind of ideas and activity fueled by pure creativity and adrenaline. Everything happened fast — new ideas were born, decisions got made, people got hired, problems got sorted, responsibilities got allocated and re-allocated as needed. Whatever needed to be done got done. And everyone got along! In fact, everyone soon formed deep and long-lasting friendships.

Whether that was two years or ten years ago, you wouldn’t be alone in wishing you could go back in time to that special period.

Apart from the fun, the adrenaline, and the speed, there are some other important and unique characteristics of what I call the Day Zero Organization — characteristics that make it easy to do great work, get sh*t done, collaborate with others, and enjoy it to the max. Thus, your Day Zero org holds important clues as to how you can create a high-performance organization even when you’re 10 or 100 times larger than you were back then.

Preserving what’s great about a small team even as it multiplies in size is tough… but not impossible. All it takes is an understanding of what makes the Day Zero Org so effective, what can cause those elements to fall apart, and how to maintain them as you scale. That can help you make the shift from Growing to Scaling.

What was so right…and where it goes wrong

In the typical Day Zero team — one that fits around a kitchen table — everyone is directly connected to everyone else. Everyone “gets” the mission and is fully bought into it. Everyone knows what’s going on and what today’s big challenge is. Everyone understands the culture around them (even as they are creating and shaping it). Everyone has plenty of opportunities to build strong relationships with each other. And everyone feels they have a voice in the future of the company.

The result? High productivity, high positivity, and seamless collaboration — characteristics that any scale-up CEO is desperately trying to create (or recreate) in their organizational cultures. So, what exactly is going on around that kitchen table, and how did we lose it?

1) They know and trust each other.

Your people spend lots of time together at work as well as outside of it, so they understand each other’s personalities, strengths, and ways of communicating. That familiarity breeds trust, so everyone feels safe sharing feedback, proposing ideas, and asking challenging questions. They communicate freely and constantly about everything. And the more they do, the deeper the trust.

As the team grows, it’s impossible to build this quality of relationship between everyone. Paradoxically, more people usually leads to fewer opportunities to interact, making it harder for new people to integrate themselves socially and professionally into the team. The human brain can only maintain something like 150 meaningful relationships, so growing startups simply can’t rely on ad hoc connections alone to drive trust and open communication.

2) They know what everyone does.

Because they communicate so much, there’s never any confusion about who is working on what or who is the right person for a task. Finding the right person to sort out an issue or make a decision is easy and quick.

Along with more people, growing startups take on more projects, more locations, and a whole lot of other complexities that make it hard to keep track of what’s going on. Everyone can’t know about everything, and thankfully, they really don’t need to. But you do need to develop other ways of maintaining this connectivity.

3) They surface challenging issues and sort them out quickly.

Because of their high trust, members of a Day Zero Org don’t hesitate to speak up when they see an issue. They see plenty of constructive conflict between the co-founders, so they learn that it’s not just okay, it’s important to raise issues and hash them out…even when that raises some uncomfortable emotions.

In a bigger team, it’s much easier for problems to stay hidden. If the people who notice them don’t feel responsible for them, or if they worry about being punished for calling attention to them, those problems will stay hidden and unresolved until they get too big to ignore.

4) They all feel part of the same team, so there’s no “us & them.”

When you join a tiny start-up, you don’t join a team — you join the company as a whole. But five years later, chances are your recruiting process is much more around the team or department you are joining than it is the company. It’s natural but deadly. Sadly, humans have a natural tendency to form tribes, especially as the larger group grows beyond a certain size.

5) They’re fresh and energized.

The first days of a startup are full of promise and excitement, and the team hasn’t yet dealt with the exhausting grind of actually running a business. A few years in, the sheen has worn off, and the relentless pace and growth have left many exhausted, possibly even burnt out. This inevitably makes it hard for us to bring our “best selves” to every interaction.

6) They’re driven by the company’s mission.

You don’t join a tiny start-up for the salary, the perks, or the prestige. You join for the opportunity, the upside, and because you believe in and resonate with the mission. In a Day Zero Org, everyone is invested in and aligned with the company’s mission (or they wouldn’t be there).

In a larger scale-up, people may have very different motivations for joining. They could be attracted to the money, the team leader, the opportunity to advance their skills, the company brand, or many other factors besides the company’s mission.

7) They know exactly where the company is headed and what its key priorities are.

As with the missions, the Day Zero team has no confusion or conflict about what they’ve set out to do. That shared vision is what brought them together in the first place.

Later, when each function is many times bigger than the founding group, most employees have much better visibility into their team’s priorities than the company’s. That’s why it’s so critical for functional leaders to coordinate their priorities and keep the whole company headed in the same direction.

I could keep going. There are so many positive attributes of a Day Zero org that we take for granted, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t even identified them all yet. I’m always on the search for new and better ways to maintain or recreate the dynamic and productive culture of a Day Zero startup.

A theoretical perspective

One way to think about the benefits of a Day Zero org (as well as the challenges that you may face with your org) is to frame it in terms of organizational complexity. Org complexity is a measure based on network theory. In effect, the people in your company are like nodes on a network. As the number of people (and departments, products, locations, teams, committees) expand, the number of nodes that need to ‘interconnect’ smoothly doesn’t just grow — it explodes exponentially.

The complexity of a Day Zero organisation is close to zero, so perfect connectedness is the natural result. But as companies grow, and org complexity skyrockets, all that connectedness starts turning into fragmentation and friction.

What to do? Practice your Rituals

If your goal is to grow, there’s no avoiding that complexity. Each of the seven positive attributes (and the others I have yet to discover) can be sustained, but only with conscious practices.

No big culture initiative or one-off training program is going to help you overcome the accumulated fragmentation. The only way to make these healthy practices stick is by turning them into Rituals. Even small behavior changes can make a huge difference, as long as they are practiced every day. It’s much like trying to get in shape or lose weight: a small change repeated reliably over time has a much bigger and more sustainable impact than a crash diet or a week at a boot camp.

The magic of these micro-changes is that they’re easy to learn and they create an immediate positive impact. There’s no need to wait for a training program or go through some big transformation project. Anyone in the company can get started right away, which kickstarts a virtuous cycle of improvement that adds up to profound impact.

With the consistent use of simple Rituals, your company can keep the high morale, high productivity, and seamless collaboration that are the hallmarks of a Day Zero organization.

Rob is an expert sleuth and guide in the murky world of ‘leadership.’ Three-time CEO, and a strategy and leadership advisor to more than 50 CEOs globally.