Posts Tagged ‘decision making’

Peripateia and the value of getting it wrong

March 9, 2009

One of my kids favorite TV shows is “Dirty Jobs”, and I have to say that what I’ve seen of it, I have liked, because the host Mike Rowe comes across as genuine and inquisitive.  He’s there to understand, not to judge.  That alone is a wonderful set of values for children to see and explore, regardless of medium.

So, when a friend forwarded a link to Mike Rowe’s TED talk  (embedded below) on the merits of hard work, my intellectual curiosity was high.  His job is to question assumptions and to get all of us to understand the real, human aspects of jobs that other people are unaware of or assume just get done. 

He talks about how he’s “gotten it wrong” a lot, but that getting it wrong informs the essence of what he does and how he does it.  He shares the meaningful failure he encounters as an apprentice on a sheep ranch where it’s his job to castrate the lambs. 

He does his research ahead of time and determines the “humane” way to perform said castrations (with a rubber band).  Then he gets to the ranch, and finds the castration performed there is quite different (with a knife, and more); on the surface a more grisly method than he or we could have imagined.  Let’s just say that this would make killing an actual chicken seem simple and an easy choice.

But in the process of telling the story he introduces the concept of peripateia - the sudden or unexpected reversal of circumstances or situation (remembering it from his days studying Greek classics).  What a wonderful way of describing meaningful failure. 

Mike’s castration dilemma is so clearly framed, his assumptions apparent (“the ‘humane’ way is the right way”) and then, through first-hand experience, not only questions that assumption, he casts it aside when he realizes the definition of “humane” needs to be questioned. 

He describes in twenty minutes what some entrepreneurs I know have taken years to internalize, and he draws on some key themes I’ve explored:

  • Getting it wrong is something you need to embrace, it’s what enables you to both perform better and to comprehend your purpose and goals more insightfully.  It’s meaningful failure from another point of view.
  • You need to know when to stop what you’re doing, and question your core assumptions.  This is hard, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts.  When he stops what he’s doing, he demonstrates incredible integrity and purposefulness.
  • Facing up to the unfamiliar, the unpleasant, is precisely what presents you with the opportunity for discovery and learning, and improving the quality of your results.  This is a benefit of chicken-killing I hadn’t thought about.

But the impact of Mike Rowe’s honesty doesn’t stop there. 

He has a transparent methodology (no takes, no scripts, it’s all real) that underpins the credibility of his “product”.  What I loved about this anecdote is that he even had to question that foundational element of his show; he had to stop the filming because his core assumptions about the subject matter were so precarious.   That takes experience and a confidence in your process and values.  He didn’t rationalize, he didn’t talk about the cost of stopping production, he just did it because he knew he needed to.

Back to peripateia.  That doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but what an elegant term to describe how you bring meaning to failure, from getting it wrong. and finding meaning from the doing.  I want Mike Rowe on the board of the next company I fund too.

More Series B musings

March 8, 2009

In talking to a few folks since my post Thursday on the nuances of Series B financings another analogy for Series A, B, and C financings came to mind.

You can look at investing in startups like selecting who among a classroom of kids will get into Harvard; if you don’t take this (completely dangerous) analogy too seriously, there are some interesting relevant analogies.  So just for a moment, enter a playful state of mind and let’s look at the landscape.

Series A investments are like evaluating a kindergarten class and trying to select the child you think would make it into Harvard.  You could look at a whole lot of characteristics about their classroom participation and capabilities and then try and figure out who would be likely to get be accepted twelve years down the road.  But it’s very much about taking a bunch of early, early data and trying to make a long range prediction. 

[If any of you have had kids in kindergarten, the sad thing is in real life there seem to be parents doing this math for their own children.]

But to play this out, with whoever you picked you’d have enough time and resources so that if circumstances develop along the way that take the kid you’ve “funded” off-track, you’d be able to help address these. 

Series C investments are like evaluating a high school junior or senior class and trying to select the child destined for Harvard.  Now you’ve got substantive and relevant historical data about performance, capabilities, and aspirations.  You have a much richer data set, and a much shorter time horizon – one to two years. 

With Series A, anything seems to be possible when you make the investment, and you have plenty of time to deal with surprises along the way.  With Series C, you can see and evaluate a lot of the substantive date, and have a reasonably clear sense of the prospects and risks.

Series B are like evaluating a middle school seventh grader’s class, and trying to pick who’s going to be Harvard-bound.  There is a trajectory that’s been established, but you don’t have the SAT scores, the high school GPA, or the extra-curricular activities that are going to factor so heavily in the outcome.  And, it’s hard to know who will blossom in high school and who won’t.  That the sullen introspective kid in the corner may deceive you as he or she may develop the confidence and leadership to become the head of the class in two to three years.  That popular kid  vying for attention may end up having more social skills than discipline, and could flame out academically in 10th grade.

This is an entertaining thought exercise precisely because it is so ridiculous. 

By the way, I have nothing against middle schoolers (I have two myself, and think the world of them, and their friends), but it’s an awkward stage.  Taking this back to our investment stage analogy, Series B is hard because you are between the “anything is possible” world and the “we have some relevant historical data and a shorter horizon”.

I’m not saying Series B investments are bad, it’s just that they’re their own unique animal that are particularly vulnerable in the current economic climate.  Fortunately, middle schoolers, regardless of the economic climate, will be just fine.

Heartbreak and principles

February 7, 2009

Sometimes what we work so hard to accomplish and produce, even in the face of relevant experience and exquisite talent, just doesn’t materialize. How sad to view that as failure. Or rather, how sad to view the outcome as the only measure of success, when you have the opportunity to measure success by examining how you are working along the way.

One of my favorite short stories is “Ball of Fat” by Guy de Maupassant. It concerns a group of six citizens fleeing the oncoming Prussian army by stagecoach, attempting to find safety in a town far away. One of the characters is a plump prostitute nicknamed “Ball of Fat”. The others in the carriage are a range of upstanding citizens who view her with equal parts contempt and curiosity.

As they make their way the group gets hungry. The other five become irritated and cranky, hoarding what little food each has brought. Eventually Ball of Fat produces a veritable travelling feast, and generously shares the food she’s thought ahead to pack. A change in her status takes place, that day’s journey ends with the group treating her almost as an equal.

They don’t make the progress they expected, and have to stay the night in a town that they discover is occupied by the very army they’re fleeing. Circumstances are dire. Will they be held for ransom? Imprisoned? It turns out Ball of Fat is well known to the commander, and when he indicates he will set them free in exchange for an evening with her, the group takes a principled stand protecting her. But time wears on, and it becomes clear there is only one way out of this town. So Ball of Fat, against the protests of her carriage-mates, agrees to this bargain for the good of the group.

In the morning, all is well, the carriage is provisioned, and the group boards, but unlike the sense of shared destiny of the day before, the group shuns Ball of Fat, passing severe judgment on a woman who would “sell” herself. The atmosphere is cold and harsh in the carriage. They make their way along, and members of the group get hungry.

This time the others have planned ahead, and produce a wonderful array of food. Except Ball of Fat, she had no time to think about food (she was busy securing their freedom).  But no one offers food to her, in fact, food is shared liberally to everyone else, but her. The scorn heaped upon her is overwhelming. She slowly begins sobbing. The story ends.

Well, one reaction is “jeez, how bleak and sad”.  But is it really?  Ball of Fat acted generously and bravely, with a clear sense of herself and her values. She made her way through uncertain and ambiguous circumstances making clear decisions and tradeoffs based on principles that were transparent and honest.

My former assistant thought it was “the worst blog idea she’d ever heard”. And she’s partly correct. The message – it’s not about the destination it’s about the journey – is obvious and well trodden. Except because it’s so familiar, I think we spend a lot less time examining this than we would like to admit.

It’s easy to focus on the journey when the terrain is familiar, with familiar unpleasant junctures.  But when truly severe shocks occur, it can be hard to hold onto those principles to guide you. 

This is why I love working with people who have experienced spectacular failures.  You learn a lot about yourself and those around you when the product you’ve been developing and counting on doesn’t work and you miss your revenue plan, strain or destroy customer relationships, and all you know is only time and more hard work will solve the problem.  How you respond then matters a great deal.

Because Ball of Fat is so heartbreaking, it’s too easy to focus just on the heartbreak, and not on how she navigated the heartbreak.  Those principles produced honest and generous responses in the face of stingy and uncomfortable circumstances.  There’s no heartbreak in that.


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