SOS Shiny Object Syndrome

“Everyone is always chasing after the next shiny object”

-Founders

This is a line I hear often from founders about their teams or themselves in early stage companies. While partly to blame, CEOs have gotten to where they are by trying, testing, iterating, and experimenting. However to me this is a call for help that they are adrift calling out S.O.S. – Shiny Object Syndrome. 

Below is how I identified the behavior and some things I have seen leaders do to avoid the behavior with teams as they scale.

The “world domination” moment of a founding team that has yet to launch, yet to have revenue, and really yet to have any semblance of product market fit is likely to chase the next shiny object. This experimentation and hypothesis testing time they hopefully figure out revenue or usage, which solves most problems, and just need to focus. One issue with this pattern is that is causes teams to experiment too broadly. A few ways I have seen this happen;

A few ways I have seen this happen;

  • Changing the narrative of what you are building to fit the thesis needs of investors.
  • Adjusting the GTM plan to grow the total addressable market.
  • Grandiose planning or vision statements for recruiting team members, which leads to operational debt that has to be paid back later (e.g. “yeah we are not doing that for years”)
  • Delaying shipping in favor of a competitor move, other company funding, or narrative shift in the market

Another example I recently learned about from a founding team building a consumer mobile app with the aim of connecting users and businesses together. Unfortunately they changed their pitch and product after a VC meeting gone awry. The VC valiantly stated all the things they “could” do and the founders took it as gospel. Much like the advice of Dr. Ian Malcom from Jurassic Park, the team didn’t ask the question of whether or not they “should” do it. Since this company was already on the venture treadmill, they adjusted their plans to fit the narrative they thought the investor wanted. They added a few major efforts to their launch plan, drifting from their initial focus. Since the app was pre-launch, pre-revenue, pre-everything – anything was possible. However, since it was so early it also did nothing. Unfortunately they lost their focus and spun too many cycles to keep going. 

VCs often give terrible product advice. I try to caveat all of my product thoughts with this and to discard it if they (the founders) feel that is right. If someone asks me to brainstorm I am happy to do it, but this caveat helps. Unfortunately, as was the case in the last example, this brainstorming and bad advice has a high cost.

So what can you do to combat this behavior?

Recognize it and embrace it. Shiny-object-syndrome is hard to fight because most likely it directly contributed to some of the success you have found today. In the beginning it’s about testing and iterating. It’s about throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks. I love working with spaghetti throwers! I’d like to think I work with some of the best throwers out there. However there comes a time shortly after the brainstorming, experimenting, and trials to get to the flywheels spinning smoothly. As Navy SEAL training and philosophy says, slow is smooth and smooth is fast.

My hope is that teams can recognize how much faster they can go by figuring out what is working and going deeper. Doing a retro or post-mortem is great when someone goes wrong, but rarely are we looking at the things that are going well. Doing more analysis of what is working, why, and repeating it is a simple but effective technique I have seen to stop the chase. Recognizing you can go faster with focus is a muscle worth strengthening. One of my favorite expressions is that startups die of indigestion not starvation. Shiny objects can be very hard for teams to digest.

One issue is that those who excel at chasing what’s working or “hot” and discard everything else are great in “zero to one” startup phase.But when you bring in systems builders and repeat executors it can be met with dismay and attrition of the early team. Nobody is right or wrong, it’s just different principles at work. It’s completely okay to embrace chaos early on and then structure later. In fact, one of the best ways to get the early team energized about structure is to explain that mechanisms and systems will actually allow them to go faster.

If you want to hire more, build more, and launch more you have to balance the things that allow you to scale.

While I have no silver bullets, I do like to call out S.O.S. When it gets in the way of focusing on the problem at hand. A great takeaway here is the balance from High Output Management:

“Let chaos reign, then rein in chaos.”

Andy Grove

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