Culture and Opportunity

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I’m kind of a radical.  I say “kind of” because I’m fairly sure that at 32 my days of living in treesits and getting teargassed at endless pointless protests that don’t change anything are pretty much over.  But I learned a lot along the way and these days I tend to see those lessons or principles as the most valuable part of the ethos.  The old lefty idea of a messianic revolution that will solve all our problems is pretty much completely discredited.   The good news is that there hundreds of mini revolution happening around us all the time.   And the more experience I get in the business world the more strongly I believe that horizontally organized peer groups are more efficient and productive then the standard top-down management structure that typifies governments and most businesses.

Here’s the thing – traditional management structures are very effective at passing the buck downhill and very poor at facilitating meaningful collaboration between competent professionals.   Leadership has to be leadership by example or it’s not leadership at all, it’s coercion.  And when you lead by example, rank is irrelevant.  In career terms this has led me to avoid large companies – when my last company got bought by Oracle they offered me a job but I turned them down and fled.  It’s also fundamentally impacted the way I relate to managers and co-workers.  I like to think for the better.

I’ve made a habit of ignoring hierarchy.  If I see something that can be improved I come up with a plan to improve it and pitch it to the person responsible.  In corporate america that would get me fired but in the startup world, that sort of ethos is an asset – at any company worth working for the ideas will speak for themselves and I’ll either get constructive feedback or a chance to make a difference.   And to my mind that goes a very long way towards explaining why tech startups are the biggest drivers of economic growth in America today.

The old corporate top-down culture is dead weight.  The companies that are growing and innovating are the ones that leave room for creativity, ingenuity, and a distributed decision making structure* that typically takes a decidedly informal approach to power.  Results are the thing.  And nobody much cares whether the person driving those results is a former political scientist in his 30’s or a 19 year old college dropout.  If you can make the impossible possible, there’s room at the table.

At the end of the day the people who power the startup world are here because we believe in the ideas and the products; and we’re working insanely hard to make them succeed. So anything that can increase the odds of that success is likely to be received well, no matter who it’s from.  It’s an informal sort of democracy, but it works. Partly because most startups are dealing with a constant labor shortage and so the relative power of labor is significantly greater then any other part of the economy and partly because if you’re going to go out of your way to get the best and the brightest minds the world has to offer in a room together it’d be a phenomenally stupid manager who didn’t listen to what they have to say.   It’s that culture of relentless and disruptive inovation that’s enabled the world-changing technologies that have come out of Silicon Valley since the 1950’s.  The companies that get big and lose that culture die, the ones that can maintain it succeed.

It’s not utopia by any means and if /  when I learn enough to be able to start my own company there are some things I plan on doing differently (maybe in a future post I’ll lay out some of those ideas); but I can’t help thinking there’s still a tremendous amount that the rest of the business world could learn from the startup world.

Here’s the thing – 70 years ago when the founders of Silicon Valley decided to branch out and do their own thing it was a daring move – the business culture of the day dictated that you joined a company and you stayed for life.  In the years since, that culture has been turned completely inside out.  Young people today understand that big businesses will lay them off without hesitation whenever it becomes convinient, with or without cause.  Joining an established business doesn’t offer any real job security.  And if there’s no reason to go to an established company, why not start your own?  

Every bloated inefficient process bound top-down oligarchy is an opportunity for someone leaner, hungrier, and more open to new ideas to innovate and carve out a new space.  And from that perspective the world is absolutely overflowing with opportunities.

*The same organization principles are just as useful in the natural world – just look at the way beehives use distributed decision-making to manage risk and avoid getting big and unwieldy by splitting their populations and spinning off new hives whenever they pass their optimal size threshold