“Huddling Up”: Improving Communication and Teamwork at an Entrepreneurial Startup With Workplace Huddles

Abstract

This case focuses on events that took place at Green Technologies, an entrepreneurial startup that was purchased by a larger conglomerate. The case provides a real-world account of an incoming CEO’s implementation of workplace huddles as a means for addressing challenges that the startup’s employees were facing. Specifically, this case describes the CEO’s efforts to introduce, leverage, and empirically assess huddles’ effectiveness in facilitating positive organizational change. This case posits that the benefits and logistics of huddles make them an effective tool for dealing with organizational challenges during periods of transition and change and charges students with evaluating the efficacy of this organization’s use of huddles as an intervention.

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Resources
Exhibit 1: Background Information
Detailed Description of Green Technologies Organizational Transition and Challenges

Since launching in 2014, Green Technologies benefited greatly from its nimble entrepreneurial platform. The company started by employing a small, yet talented, group of engineers and sales professionals and quickly developed a reputation for creating high-quality and environmentally sustainable manufacturing products. In addition to its innovative product line, Green Technologies also demonstrated shrewd salesmanship: the startup exceeded its first-year profit projections in 2014 and reported an impressive year-over-year sales increase the following fiscal year.

By early 2016, Green Technologies’ stellar performance attracted the attention of an east coast conglomerate, Northeastern Business Solutions (NBS), which was keen on investing in, and capitalizing on, the startup’s nascent success. For those with knowledge of NBS’s interest in Green Technologies, it came as little surprise when the conglomerate officially announced that it had acquired the startup.

During the final acquisition negotiations, it was mutually agreed upon that Ricky Johnson, a long-term executive at NBS, would serve as both President and Chief Executive Officer of Green Technologies. In his new role, Ricky would be responsible for overseeing the transition and articulating a clear strategic vision for the company. Members of the board, at both organizations, were confident in Ricky’s capacity for successfully growing the business—particularly with regards to expanding Green Technologies’ commercial pipeline, nurturing bigger deals, and helping to ensure consistent quarterly revenue growth as the startup matured.

Emerging Challenges

In one of his first acts as President and CEO, Ricky did not disappoint. He strongly advocated for the importance of more rapid revenue generation, a goal he believed Green Technologies could achieve through a more unified focus on growing the firm’s client base, landing more lucrative contracts, and closing a greater number of overall sales. To this end, Ricky was also adamant about the necessity for strong collaboration across the commercial aspects of the business. If the startup was to grow and mature successfully, he believed that effective coordination—particularly among members of the commercial sales team—would be essential.

While Ricky was passionate about these goals and priorities, he also quickly noted a critical barrier to their execution.

Green Technologies’ headquarters were located in the Pacific Northwest, with many of its employees also working remotely and geographically distributed across the west coast. NBS’s home office, on the other hand, was in the Northeast. In the few short months since the acquisition had been finalized, having parts of the business located on opposite sides of the country had already led to clunky operations, rockier internal communication, and less effective coordination and teamwork. The communication channels between the sales team and Green Technologies leadership appeared to be the most significantly affected—raising crucial questions about the future effectiveness of the commercial aspects of the business.

In order to curtail these challenges, and avoid negatively affecting the company’s bottom-line, Ricky believed that Green Technologies’ employees needed to be working out of a central site—one that, while still largely independent, could be located closer to NBS’s home office. He felt strongly that having employees co-located in the Northeast would help facilitate more effective internal communication, and enhance coordination and teamwork, while still preserving the strong entrepreneurial platform that had contributed to the startup’s early success.

On the other hand, relocating employees to a new brick-and-mortar location also required that NBS make an additional, and particularly sizeable, financial investment. Green Technologies was still a young company, and naturally there was uncertainty regarding whether the startup would continue to perform well financially. Moreover, if the move was not effective in curtailing the company’s current challenges, Ricky would likely bear the bulk of responsibility for the misused resources—in addition to being held accountable for any future financial fallouts associated with a lack of strong communication, coordination, and teamwork.

Despite the risks, Ricky pressed forward. With the likelihood of positive gains still appearing to outweigh the potential negatives, he worked hard to quickly establish buy-in from key stakeholders and soon secured approval for the move.

An Uncertain Future

As the move neared completion, Ricky purposefully set aside time to reflect on the success of the transition to Green Technologies’ newly-opened Northeastern headquarters. As he mulled over the current state of the company, and the outcomes associated with the recent relocation, he felt a growing sense of unease.

The transition naturally brought with it increasing degrees of uncertainty and change, with employees now simultaneously navigating the complexities of relocation and the still-recent acquisition. In addition, while many employees were now working at the new location, there were also a number of people, including leaders and members of the commercial sales team, who had yet to relocate to the Northeast due to personal constraints.

To further complicate matters, when the move was announced, Martin Vance—a Green Technologies’ top sales executive—revealed that he would not be staying with the company. This created a gap in commercial leadership and was further disrupting the communication channels between members of the sales team and Green Technologies’ leadership.

Perhaps most importantly, despite co-locating the majority of employees closer to Green Technologies’ new parent company, communication, coordination, and teamwork—both within the commercial sales team and between sales team members and company leadership—was not significantly improving. The company’s operational efficiency also appeared to be waning: Green Technologies’ most recent quarterly sales fell shy of both the preceding quarter and of its quarter’s sales from the previous year.

Recently, rumors had also started to surface regarding top sales talent weighing their options and considering whether they should stay with the company. There were concerns that the startup would not continue to be as healthy as it had been, prior to the acquisition, and as a result, there were a number of talented employees who were questioning whether it was time for them to “jump ship.”

Taken together, it was difficult to characterize the move as a success—particularly in terms of its ability to attenuate ongoing communication challenges, facilitate teamwork, and ultimately drive sales and revenue generation. Ricky still believed in Green Technologies’ scalability. However, he was also keenly aware that, while good communication was always essential, it was even more important during times of change, transition, and ambiguity. It was vital for the company’s employees to feel well-informed and have a conduit for both voicing their concerns and discussing solutions to current roadblocks. Unfortunately, these needs were not being met. If the company was going to succeed, communication at Green Technologies had to improve.

Charting a Path Forward

To actively address these challenges, Ricky spoke with members of the sales team about their needs and concerns. He met with Green Technologies’ leadership to discuss the issues the sales team had raised and also sought out the advice of an experienced executive coach for unbiased feedback and additional suggestions. These conversations revealed, unequivocally, that the commercial sales team was not effectively overcoming barriers as they arose.

For example, when roadblocks emerged, members of the commercial sales team felt alone in their efforts to address them. While sales people tend to work independently, this specific issue appeared to be less about these employees operating as “lone rangers” and more about the sales team feeling a greater sense of disconnection and isolation. Information sharing and organizational support were perceived to be low. The sales team was also expressing increasing dissatisfaction with what they viewed as mounting inefficiencies. For example, there was a strong desire to close sales, and close them more quickly, yet many were feeling a lack of communication was leading sales people to start down paths that had already been pursued. These factors were leading to more unreached sales goals and further decreases in morale.

After these discussions, Ricky had a better understanding of the barriers the commercial sales team was facing; however, a clear path forward had yet to be determined. While brainstorming ways to address these challenges with his executive coach, Ricky was asked whether he had considered implementing huddles, a type of “micro-meeting”, as a means for facilitating greater communication, coordination, and teamwork.

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