A letter to my people: I

During the years 2014–2017, I had the privilege of working at a non-profit organization called Slush, known as the worlds leading entrepreneurial event. Before the pandemic hit gathered 20 000+ to the cold capital of Helsinki that I call my home. When I was tasked with the responsibility to lead the organization next to then CEO Marianne, I formed a habit of writing emails to the whole organization now and then. There was always a particular timing involved as to why and what I wrote. I can’t recall for certain, but this one likely a reminder of how we do things because there were some conflicts between the regional teams as I had addressed it to everyone in Helsinki, China, Tokyo, and Singapore.

A photo of the banner above the entrance of Slush 2016

I think enough time has passed to share these letters, as boys & girls have become men & women, and what ones were, has turned into something new to reflect the needs of the business environment today. Additionally, I’ve found myself repeating these stories and thoughts lately for those who haven’t heard them, both old and new. Luckily like most of my self-expression, I’ve written them down so that I, or others, can return to them whenever they feel lost. However, my intent with this particular one is to pay homage to the individuals in this story and express my gratitude, as gratitude builds resilience. The world could use some more during these trialing times, and you should recognize the giants who have lent you their shoulders.

Before you get into this read, I’d like to remark that I recognize my sense of arrogance regarding what I believed to be true. When reflecting on what I wrote then, I feel I failed to recognized nuance. I think the world is not as black and white as I felt it was back then, it’s a million shades of gray, and sometimes we forget it is also full of colors as strongly as I still feel about the need for a new way of approaching organizational design, ways of working, and leadership. I realize I still have a lot to learn about the real-world challenges and how to bridge the gap from where we are today to where we should be in the future.

Nevertheless, after 4 years of experience and another 150+ books, most of what I have written here are things I still believe to be true. Enjoy the unedited but censored read!

TL: TR;

1. Got you Blinkist for three months, use this code to redeem yours: XXXXX. We barely got enough subscriptions (fifty) for each individual in our global organization. So don’t share this with others. Blinkist is basically an app that compiles the teachings of non-fictional books into 15 min “Blinks.”

2. We are regarded as the “future leaders” or “experts” of the startup world. This may or may not be true, but people look up to us, and thus we have the responsibility to set an example. Ignorance is a choice, but not an excuse, and we are far from being an effective organization. I hope you use Blinkist to find books that interest you, to share thoughts and ideas among the team. Try out new things, and above all, keep learning.

Through our shared learning, I hope that we can transform our organization for the better and create an even more rewarding environment to work in. I fear that if we don’t, we will eventually collapse.

The Why, What, and How are explained below.

Why?

“People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it” — Simon Sinek. This is my “why” to you.

As you may know, I’m trying to finish my studies, and I’m writing my master thesis. The subject is “Leadership and Management in self-organizing teams,” and I became interested in the subject because it was the only thing I found intriguing in my software studies. These are the first two paragraphs of my introduction:

There is a need for reorganizing organizations in today’s world [1]. The need has arisen from the rapid speed at our environment changes due to digitization and the disruptive innovations around information sharing [2, p. 6]. This has created environments that are no longer complicated but rather seen as complex [2, pp. 57–59]. An explanation of the difference between complicated and complex systems has multiple components that affect each other in seemingly predictive ways (complicated) versus disproportionate relationships between components where a critical amount of small change can make a big difference (complex), thus producing emergent outcomes [3]. In other words, the previous organizational models used have served a complicated environment, and now there is a need for new models that tackle the challenges the complex environment our society faces today, as Laloux explains in his book Reinventing Organizations [1]. Additionally, another way of describing this need is “Organizations need a new operating system,” as Bryan J. Robertson, the creator of Holacracy, puts it [4].

To deal with these new complex environments, Laloux explains the need to create self-managing teams, which is why he sought to find and study organizations employing self-managing ways of working [1, pp. 20–25]. McChrystal explained complexity as a need to push decision-making authority to the individuals and teams closest to the problem [2, p. 219]. Furthermore, complexity is something software development teams have been trying to solve by employing so-called agile working frameworks [5]. One such agile framework is Scrum, which describes teams to be self-organizing that consist of “individuals [that] manage their own workload, shift work among themselves based on need and best fit, and practice team decision making” [6] as explained by Highsmith, the co-writer of the Agile manifesto [7]. These examples indicate that this new way of organizing teams and organizations has to change the way we regard leadership and management when dealing with complex environments.

I believe quite simply that the new industrial revolution is the entrepreneurial one, which means we will have to change how organizations are structured, going from hierarchical to self-organized structures, structures in which “entrepreneurship” thrives. The outcome of this change is that societies become more sustainable, and we don’t overuse the resources we have. If we don’t make this change in society, we will, like many civilizations before our global one, eventually collapse.

We may or may not succeed in any form of even near-perfect outcome, but when it comes to trying, I want to look my son in the eye and say I did do my best to do something about the future everyone knew was coming. I might not have been able to change the world at large, but I played my part in a change of at least one organization.

What?

One of the rules of Amazon; “Disagree and commit”

When I first heard about Slush, I thought it was just a party, and that’s why I wanted to be involved. I asked for an intro and interviewed Riku Mäkelä, our former CEO, then COO, and now board member. He sat me down and gave a 40-minute monologue on how this thing called Slush apparently not a party, but a big event, with these side parties somebody needed to handle. While he was speaking, he was writing down what he said. He finished with a list of 12 events and finishing with a dialog:

Riku: “Do you want to handle this?”

Me: “Handle what?”

Riku: “Well, these events…”

Me: “What’s the plan?”

Riku: “I just wrote it down.”

After thinking for about 3 seconds, for some stupid reason, without knowing what I actually was getting into, if this was a paid job or not, and what the organization was about, I said, “Ok, I’ll do it.” So I got introduced to this guy called Atte, who was mostly busy with whatever he was busy with because he didn’t quite seem to care who I was or where I came from. I asked, “what’s the budget for these events?”. He timely replayed, “there is no budget,” and I’m like, “what the f*ck?” I’m not getting paid for a task that doesn’t even have a budget? Well, I was told this guy called Miki would whip up some money from somewhere, at some point. So I decided to see what else I could do to help, and everyone was eager to explain what they were up to. I quickly realized something different about all these people, a sense of purpose I haven’t encountered anywhere else, and the stories were just incredible. These guys were also not afraid of shouting at each other, and during the first week, a witnessed a case where Riku got so mad at Miki that he threw his phone against the wall screaming “F*ck you” while moving on to lock himself in the bathroom. 5 min later, he came back, and they were joking around as nothing had happened. I was amazed, and the only thing I wanted to do was prove my worth to these people.

This might not seem like the most organized environment or the most friendly one, but there were a few things that team had and what I feel is missing to some level:

Unconditional trust that you would still stick to the team no matter what kind of disagreements you had. Riku used to say, “Strategy is born just before a fistfight.”

- The default was always “there is no budget,” but if the plan was good enough, there was a strong belief that the team would pull it together.

- Everyone was eager to share what they were working with and tell what one could do to help.

Of course, we can’t have such random structuring of things now that we have grown and become global, but what if I told you some processes keep the same level of trust. That enforces accountability without hierarchy structures and promotes openness.

We could have (from Reinventing Organizations):

- Truly self-organizing teams, instead of any perceived hierarchy

- No job titles, just fluid granular roles

- Responsibility to speak up about issues outside one's scope of authority

- Decision making fully decentralized based on an advice process

- Clear rules for conducting meetings if any such are held, where ego is kept in check and everyone’s voice is heard.

- A safe, known process to deal with interpersonal conflicts

- All information is available, including compensation and company financials

- Peer-based challenge of budgets and anybody spending any amount as long advice process is honored

All of these and more, still being a fully functional organization. You might feel we have that, but I sense we can do much better. There are companies and organizations across the globe that implement these practices. These companies prevail in their respective markets. They are more resilient and are likely to make more environmentally sound choices.

However, it all starts with trust. Trust comes from revealing oneself fully to others. Your hopes, your fears, your weaknesses, and your strengths. Owning up to your mistakes and being able to ask for help when help is needed. Listening to others' advice, seeking feedback, giving honest feedback, and being able to sense one own ego. I’ve been a victim of my own ego many times, and I struggle daily to keep in check, but I try to mind it constantly.

The rest of how we want to organize ourselves and what practices to use? How to become better, what is better, and how do we get there?

I keep in mind that statements of “what” organizations should look like, one needs to remember that there is never one best way of dealing with organizational practices. I trust that choices that are not well suited for the organization but still implemented will in a fully functioning self-organizing organization let go of practices that are no longer needed nor well suited, even if they are implemented. Slush is a product of a lot of trial and error. We have not seen eye to eye through the years, but when a decision has been made, we should continue to commit.

How?

It is written on the door of the office fridge “The best way to predict the future is to create it” — Peter Drucker

2014 in December after Slush, Miki, and Atte took me to the Tamarin restaurant around the corner of our office. They sat me down and asked me, “Do you want to become the next executive producer of Slush?” I thought, holy f*ck, I don’t know how or what it takes, but I answered, “Yes.” At the time, I had the luxury of knowing with 100% certainty I had no clue what it would take, what the f*ck this startup thing actually was about or what I actually needed to do. I had the “luxury” because I knew I had to learn fast, and I could safely assume everyone else knew better than me. I set out to learn by doing. Many people could guide me, so I did learn fast and somehow even survived. In spring 2016, I again was faced with a situation was asked, “Do you want to become the vice CEO of Slush?” I thought, holy shit, I might not have what it takes, and I have no idea of how to lead. I answered, “Yes.”

Again I sought to learn, but all Atte and Miki kept doing were paraphrasing these god damn books. So I sought to find the answers, and I started reading these books. One being Hard things about hard things, by Ben Horowitz. From it derived something of my own you’ve heard me recite:

At Slush, we prioritize in the following order:

1. Family

2. People

3. Event

4. Finance

“If you don’t mind the finance and run out of money, you will do nothing, even as a non-profit. If the event is good, the finance will take care of itself. If the event is shit, the only ones who can make it better are the people. Hence, taking care of the people should come before taking care of the event's operations. Where you can’t help your colleagues, their family and friends can. Additionally, taking care of the relationships that are important to you means taking care of yourself, and if you can’t take care of yourself, how can you take care of others?”

Ignorance is a choice. Thus it is not an excuse.

Since then, I’ve probably devoured 20+ books on just leadership and management to find the answers I was seeking. Then I found Blinkist, an app that basically summarizes books into “Blinks,” compiling the essentials. Since then, I have been going through at least two books on Blinkist a day. If I find something that resonates, I buy it on Amazon Kindle and read the whole thing. I reflect on my readings by sharing them with others and writing down the teachings I want to remember. It has helped me a lot, and more importantly, it has helped me help you.

In my aspirations to multiply learning in our organization, I asked for an intro to Blinkist because I wanted to get some free Blinkist for everyone. (They happily complied, and their CEO is coming to speak as well.) I hope you use it to find teachings that resonate with you, that you start sharing your insights with others, much as I have tried to do with some of you. I know that if we do so, we can find more insight on how to become better contributors to our community, live up to the expectations society has about us, transform our organization into a fully self-organizing one to create more trust, and setting the example of how the future of organizations should operate regardless of what their purpose or mission statement might be.

These are some of the books I’ve read (gone beyond blinks).

Books that are must-read (the ones that define our generation):

  • Reinventing organizations — Frederic Laloux
  • Holacracy — Brian J. Robertson
  • Start with Why — Simon Sinek
  • Ego Is the Enemy — Ryan Holiday

Books on organizations I’ve found interesting and very valuable:

  • Team of Teams — Stanley McChrystal
  • Hard Things about Hard Things — Ben Horowitz
  • Creativity Inc. — Ed Catmull
  • The Open Organization — Jim Whitehurst
  • The Fifth Discipline — Peter M. Senge

Books on leadership and management I’ve found useful:

  • First, Break all the rules — Don Clifton
  • Leadership and the New Science — Margaret J Wheatley
  • High Output Management — Andrew S. Grove
  • The Effective Executive — Peter F. Drucker
  • The Coaching Habit — Micheal Bungay

Books on the startup world:

  • From Zero to One — Peter Thiel
  • The Lean Startup — Eric Ries
  • Hacking Growth — Sean Ellis
  • Growth Hacker Marketing — Ryan Holiday
  • Crossing the Chasm — Geoffrey Moore
  • The Thank you Economy — Gary Vaynerchuk
  • Talk like Ted — Carmine Gallo

Miscellaneous I’ve personally have had a value of, but might not interest everyone:

  • The Collapse of civilizations — Jared Diamond
  • Emotional Intelligence 2.0 — Travis Bradberry
  • Influence, the power of persuasion — Robert B. Cialdini
  • The power of Habit — Charles Duhigg
  • Tools of Titans — Tim Ferris
  • The untethered soul — Micheal Singer
  • Blinkcracy — Ben Hughes

Impossible for us to change not only us as an organization but spark a change in society at large? I humbly say, “The Impossible is our business.” Let’s get to work and know that I’ll be right here working as hard as you.

With a heart full of hope,

Niki

P.s. Mind you that “I do not have the time to read” or “I do not learn by reading” is no excuse, especially now that you have free Blinkist ;) and we all learn best by doing (includes failing), but how are you going to know what to do if you don’t try first to find out?

I want to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to:

Atte — Co-Founder of Slush and CEO & Co-founder of Singa for being my mentor and teaching the craft of event production. As much as I had the habit of disagreeing with you during the years, it was mostly because I knew you were right 90% of the time, and I was wrong.

Riku — Ex-COO & CEO of Slush, COO of Wolt for being a friend when I needed one and for showing me what a group of in-experienced individuals with rigorous work ethic combined with intelligence can do.

Miki — ex-CEO & Co-Founder of Slush, CEO & Co-founder of Wolt, for teaching me how to think big and showing me how to achieve the impossible. As well as telling me after my first year at Slush that “My first impression of you was that you’re an arrogant prick, but your work ethic and dedication to what you do prove my first impression to be wrong.” This is probably the single most useful feedback I had gotten at the time, I still actively work on how I interact with others, and I like to believe my work ethic is still intact.

The things I’ve learned since and the nuance I failed to see are a lack of perceptive in terms of what the must-read books I had on my list failed to address while trying to construct a case for the future ways of work. Namely, how to actually get there from where most individuals, teams & organizations are today and what is actually needed out of all the rules suggested. More of that in future articles, but I have shared at least one useful additional piece of learning in my previous article on thinking of the prioritization described in the “How” section of this one.

Finally, to all my people, both old and new: know that I’m still here working as hard as you trying to create a better future by helping the next generation of world-conquering founders forward and that you are never alone. I’m always here to help if I can, mainly by connecting with others that can help you on your quest better than I can, as in essence, that’s what Slush has always done.

I tend to say; Even if you leave Slush, Slush never leaves you. Even if I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I always hoped that anyone who interacted with the organization would feel, not just the people who worked for it. That is, whatever your quest might be in terms of a better future, you wouldn’t feel alone.

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