10 challenges facing IT leaders in a startup

As an IT leader appointed to manage in various contexts and environments, I had to face multiple concurrent challenges and address. From my perspective, challenges are opportunities to learn. Accordingly, I set my mind and devised my strategy and countermeasures tactics to defeat challenges in single or in groups.

Here is a roster of the key challenges I had to face throughout my leadership endeavours along with description and countermeasures:

1- In a startup context, building structure is by far the most outstanding challenge:

How will you handle the following challenges: There are no core offices/ functions such as finance, HR or supply chain. Also, there may be no policies, procedures, or guidelines. In addition, you are facing uncertain demand and ad hoc requests.

2- In a startup you will lead tens of concurrent, yet urgent open projects:

You might be asked to lead projects irrelevant to core IT services in addition to those important IT service work. From backend infrastructure projects, logical and physical access control to front end marketing, customer facing applications and services –you name it.

3- In a startup, it is really challenging if you don’t have a good grasp of critical soft skills such as assertiveness and presentation skills:

Being able to communicate with various stakeholders, defend your argument and present your ideas in a clear understandable format is very critical and challenging if you don’t have the required communication skills.

4- In a startup, team building and managing team dynamics add to your challenges, especially on a tight schedule where resources are not immediately available. You need to handle issues such as hiring suitable staff, manage prospects’ expectations, prepare training and development plans and set the proper conflict resolution mechanisms.

5- Finance and budget constraints, exchange rate changes, taxes:

Financing a startup is definately a challenge for the sponsor / developer who is desperately looking for the return on investment. After spending money to build up the business to a certain extent, the sponsor / developer can be reluctant to put in more money. This challenge limits and slows down further developments in the project. Add to this the changes in financial market illustrated in new taxes imposed or exchange rate changes.

6- Regulation, and official documents:

For startups, getting certificates from authorities might be challenging, especially if the inauguration is linked to a season or a business opportunity. A delay in the official documents or certificates means lost opportunities and unavoidable financial losses which in turn limits and slow down further developments in the project.

7- Managing stakeholders expectations:

In a startup stakeholders are many and diverse. For example: Suppliers are key stakeholders with high expectations when it come to expected business opportunities with startups. Internal team members are critical stakeholders with high expectations and aspiration for the new business. In addition, there’s the traditional management perception of IT as a cost center and not as a  key ingredient in the service portfolio of the business and a contributor in revenue generation..

8- Breaks and public holidays:

It goes without saying that startups run under tight schedule and limited resources and can’t afford delays caused by breaks and holidays. In addition to the financial implications, breaks sometimes affect stakeholders momentum and hinder progress.

9- Competition:

For startups, market penetration is a real challenge. Sustainability is another concern that needs proper planning. Having a sound differentiation strategy and a product mix is inevitable within a fierce competitive market.

10- Last but not least, centralization of decision making:

Most startups share this common challenge where chain of command is centralized which is considered a bottleneck that might hinder and impact the workflow.

Two key countermeasures that proved to be successful in this startup context are based on the art of possible and a phased approach. Both were my basis toward leading in such a challenging context. This will be elaborated in upcoming articles.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Tamer Marzouk
Tamer Marzouk
A management consultant, with 18 years of experience in diverse capacities, Tamer Marzouk began his career as an IT professional. Marzouk is an author, speaker, and lecturer. Marzouk holds MBA and M.COMP degrees with research focused on change management and human behavior in ERP implementations.

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