Team building

Growth should be playful, not painful


A few years ago, we worked with a group of founders to help them accelerate their company's growth. These founders were brilliant and good people. But two of them were in a deep state of conflict which evolved into toxicity. Fundamentally, this happened because they had different preferences for how to work:

  • One founder wanted to focus time on developing new ideas and never enjoyed team meetings.
  • The other founder wanted to focus time on bringing people together to improve their organizational systems.

This alone would cause extreme frustration between the two.

As with these two founders, not everyone enjoys working in the same way. Our own data shows that people differ quite significantly in how they prefer to work:

If you want to build an organization where everyone is focused on driving growth, it helps to either align people to the problems they will enjoy solving OR coach them deeply when they are misaligned.

The VEGA model

Another amazing tech company we worked closely with was hitting a growth plateau. They were so successful at winning with their original customer segment that their growth engine ran out of fuel. They were a victim of their own success. While they knew they had hit their plateau, they were stuck. They didn't know how to progress forward, nor did they know how to assess where they were stuck. To help them, we used the VEGA model to diagnose why they weren't growing.

There are many frameworks to try to explain the process of growth, but often, they don't focus on the human being and the type of work that needs to be done. The VEGA model reconciles the drivers of growth and the drivers of play.

As you may have inferred from the chart above, there are two types of work:

  • Creation-oriented work - this kind of work is messy. It often results in lots of wasted effort.
  • Execution-oriented work - this kind of work is faster paced and often involves overcoming a continuous stream of challenges.

Next, there are two modes of working:

  • Group-oriented work - this is work that involves other people. It often needs collaboration.
  • Individual-oriented work - this is work that can be done alone. It often needs quiet focus.

When you combine these two dimensions, you not only get the four critical steps to drive growth, but you also get your team's play preferences.

Driving growth

Neel once had the opportunity to work with the great John Reed, CEO of Citi. Reed was one of the most successful CEOs of his generation, leading this hundreds-year-old company from the brink of bankruptcy to become the most profitable company in the world. Near his final years, he established a goal for the company: to have one billion customers within fifteen years. This goal, which seems very possible today, was well ahead of its time. Because the organization didn't know how to even move forward from this goal, it didn't stick.

Like Citi, many organizations have lofty ambitions to grow. But to do so, they need to follow a four-step process.

  1. First is explorer mode. In this step, teams need to generate as many ideas as possible. The goal of this step is to find ideas and enhance them to be the best version of themselves. In today's modern, technology-centered company, this often entails finding ways to make ideas drivers of non-linear growth.
  2. Second is visionary mode. In this step, teams need to prioritize and integrate those ideas into a strategy that feels cohesive, practical, and ideally, capital efficient.
  3. Third is galvanizer mode. In this step, teams need to make sure they have the right structures and systems to pursue their vision with the highest levels of tactical AND adaptive performance.
  4. Fourth is achiever mode. In this step, teams have to give their people the focus and coaching to execute. This still involves a considerable amount of day-to-day problem solving to avoid waste.

For an organization to pursue its ambitions, it not only needs to run through all four steps, but it will often need to run through this cycle many times continuously and in parallel.

What can you do about it?

Understand Each Other's Play Profiles

A very simple next step is to make sure all team members know each other's play profiles - the work they find fun, interesting, or intellectually stimulating. With this knowledge, help your colleagues find work that will be playful, and provide them with additional support when they must work in a different box. For example:

  • Neel happens to strongly prefer the Explorer box, but often must be in Achiever mode. We often pair Neel with colleagues that create supportive accountability for that work.
  • Yahor, one of our amazing engineers, also prefers the Explorer box, but often his work is in the Achiever box. As a result, we often include him in more of the exploratory work of product development.

You can easily build this understanding with your team by using the Factor platform to manage their work. Factor not only allows people to safely express their current preference, but it also makes that preference visible to help teams remember to be mindful of each other.

Manage Explorer Mode, Visionary Mode, and Galvanizer Mode as Tightly as you Manage Achiever-Mode

Many organizations have operating systems that aggressively manage Achiever mode, and oftentimes with the wrong motivations in mind. You can see these organizations when they are obsessed with managing tasks, but don't manage ideas.

Ideas are like seeds. You often have to plant many. They need to be nurtured. They take time to sprout. Organizations need to manage their garden of ideas.

For example, in our own organization, every team has strategy board where they build their garden of ideas. Every idea is captured, even if it might be years before that idea is implemented. Colleagues refine those ideas over time. And when they are ready, they are considered for implementation.

When You're Developing Strategy to Drive Growth, Don't Skip Steps

When organizations are driving growth aggressively, we very often see dysfunction when there need not be any. For example, in one unicorn tech company, an Explorer CEO was often at odds with operational leaders who were in Achiever mode.

As you lead an organization or team to drive growth, don't skip any of the four steps, and name the step you're in. When you're in explorer mode, say so. For example, one organization starts their problem solving materials with this visual:

Next steps

Driving growth should be an act of problem solving and experimentation - which means, if done well, it should be fun. To summarize:

  1. Teach your organization the VEGA model (Visionary, Explorer, Galvanizer, Achiever)
  2. Understand each other's play preferences - which you can do using Factor
  3. Signpost your problem solving for which step you're in

Start with the above, and you'll be on your way to driving growth with play.

Originally published at:

Neel Doshi

Neel is the co-founder of Vega Factor and co-author of bestselling book, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. Previously, Neel was a Partner at McKinsey & Company, CTO and founding member of an award-winning tech startup, and employee of several mega-institutions. He studied engineering at MIT and received his MBA from Wharton. In his spare time, he’s an avid yet mediocre woodworker and photographer.

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Lindsay McGregor

Lindsay is the co-founder of Vega Factor and co-author of bestselling book, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. Previously, Lindsay led projects at McKinsey & Company, working with large fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, universities and school systems. She received her B.A. from Princeton and an MBA from Harvard. In her spare time she loves investigating and sharing great stories.

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