Unblock as a Habit

Leandro Cota Hevia
3 min readApr 6, 2021

A while ago -it may have been 2 months or 2 years, COVID has disrupted my perception of time- I read an article by Dave Girouard called Speed as a Habit. The beginning of the article reads “I’ve long believed that speed is the ultimate weapon in business. All else being equal, the fastest company in any market will win.”

The article is divided into Making Decisions and Executing Decisions, and it contains valuable insights related to the importance of speed in business. Included in the Executing Decisions section, it states something that most of us will agree on: “Startups are fast. Big companies are slow”.

But what is it about Startups that makes them fundamentally faster than large companies? Are there any first principles behind that agility? Or maybe there's just some kind of magic residing in the co-working spaces along with all of its perks?

While having express coffee and cucumber-water beverages available at your disposal is quite nice, I believe that’s not the reason. I think it’s about the people. And that Startups agility is affected by the way relationships work in small groups, and in particular the way in which small groups prioritize helping and unblocking each other.

There are few things more frustrating than being blocked, and when you are, it is very likely that you will dedicate time, thoughts and effort before asking for help. So as a first rule, when someone asks for help, you should trust that they really do need help. That there is something they just can’t figure out on their own. And you should know that if you can unblock someone, every minute you spend on that is worth more than just a minute, it has a multiplying effect, and the sooner that person gets unblocked the more time you are saving not only them but also their team and organization. Which leads to the second rule: to prioritize and provide that help.

I also believe that when people refer to the Startup Culture as a synonym of agility, it has much to do with colleagues having an unblocking each other mindset, and that this mindset is an emerging property of small companies with small teams where everyone knows and works with each other.

Back to when we were working together in offices, more often than not teams located nearby tended to have their interdependencies solved faster. To start the day by saying good morning, to have lunch, to have a break and know about your colleagues life are not trivial things, and when you work closely with a person and you see them stuck with something, you want to help them.

And if you don’t believe that relationships and interactions are that relevant, you can see it from an incentives perspective. Working in small companies, it is very likely that just as you help your colleagues, sooner rather than later you will also need their help, so being collaborative is a self-interest strategy. All of this creates an environment under which collaboration just happens, without having to encourage it or enforce it.

But as an organization grows, you start knowing less and less people. Dunbar’s number suggests that there is a limit to the number of people with whom you can maintain stable social relationships, and that large numbers require restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a cohesive group. I think that this very much applies to teams and organizations, and the rule to be considered here is that you need to set unblocking others as an explicit priority in order to build a cohesive and agile organization.

Needless to say that a team can not dedicate their entire time to unblocking others, as they will need to focus on their own tasks and get their work done. It is also very likely that, if a team is core to the functioning of an organization, they will be asked for help a lot. But this has to do with how to properly allocate resources, and not with the ideal mindset to be incentivized in people. When we consider the impact that teams helping and unblocking each other can have, we should consider it an explicit rule under which an agile large company is built.