As my regular readers know, I am a student of military history for lessons on leadership and decision making. This week I read Steve Coll’s Directorate S, a lengthy book on the US involvement in the Afghan wars since 9/11. With multiple viewpoints in the Bush and Obama administrations in Washington, in the military nerve centers, and in the leadership in theatre, the US will ill equipped to outfox such a complex array of enemies. The danger came from the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Pakistan army, the Pakistan government, the Pakistan Intelligence Service, various warlike and ungoverned Pashtun tribes, and even fratricidal killings by Afghanis working within NATO teams.
An anonymous person at the U.S. embassy in Kabul dispatched this “Sensitive but Unclassified” cable to Washington titled “A KEY STRATEGIC TIPPING-POINT GAME-CHANGER.” It posited:
“The primary challenge in Afghanistan has become the ability to get fidelity on the problem set. Secondarily, we need to shape the battlefield and dial it in. Whether or not we can add this to a stairway to heaven remains to be seen, but the importance of double tapping it cannot be overlooked. After getting smart so that we do not lose the bubble, the long pole in the tent needs to be identified. Once we have pinned the rose on someone, then we must send them downrange. Then we must define the delta so it can be lashed up. This can be difficult, as there are a lot of moving parts; in the end, it is all about delivery.”
Yes, the thought processes behind the decision making became that wonky. Other than the dispatching of Osama Bin Laden, it’s hard to point to a singular achievement in that long and bloody conflict. Troop levels were often just negotiated in D.C., almost like bidding on art at an auction. There were too many civilian and military chiefs in the situation room operating on cloudy data and with limited understanding of the motivations of the Afghan populace and politicians.
Anyone who has engaged in a startup knows the value of data and of getting to know the mindset of potential customers. The Federal Government has grown too bureaucratic to follow those basics. Our warfighting worked great in the World Wars when it was obvious who were the enemies, but our structure hasn’t been so effective against subsequent insurgencies like Viet Nam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The cable above was written sardonically, but, sadly, it rings true.
Unless you are in the Valley and can raise one $Billion in seed money, you are likely to start very small. The organization begins rather flat, perhaps with everyone reporting to you as the founder or with reporting divided properly across multiple founders. It’s clear who is in charge of what. If you demand data and customer discovery, you can get it, even if you are doing most of it yourself. There are no memos in startups. Even emails have been largely replaced by terse Slack messages. There’s never a more efficient hierarchy than those blissful early days where you have no revenues, customers, or major investors and therefore no one really shooting back at you. You try to hire smartly, hone your culture, and create a team. You have a clear plan that you are constantly working toward, even as you are constantly refining it. You have a very short term priority of getting something into the market and achieving the proverbial “traction.”
Then comes the stage where you require some financing and have to convince cold-blooded outsiders that you have re-invented sliced bread. Out of your rather flat organization, a new chart evolves. Someone is now the point person for finance, or marketing, or hiring, or sales. You may be the supreme general who is setting the tone and hewing to the core mission, but investors deploy their money to functioning businesses and not to ideas bubbling forth from a group of hipsters (young or old!). Customers also like to see some semblance of depth and specialization; they want a primary contact in your shop. If you are planning to grow beyond your parent’s basement, you have to take on the trappings of a real business, including perhaps your first WeWork office. You need early on to learn about OKR’s– Objectives and Key Results. John Doerr famously carried this notion of collaborative planning from Intel to the infant moments of Google, and it’s the core of the Google management style today. As you grow from a happening to an organization, techniques like this keep your business on track and give your employees clear direction.
You make thousands of decisions every day. Perhaps you can simplify your life like Steve Jobs did by wearing the same outfit all the time so he did not have to make a decision about his dress for the day. Many others have emulated that, famously including Elizabeth Holmes at Theranos, who is now charged by the SEC with “massive fraud.” There’s a lesson in that: startup success is not a function of what clothes you pull out of the closet each morning. If you have a family, a pet, or friends, or if you drive every day, or if you don’t eat the same meals all the time, you can’t help but deal with a multitude of decisions from waking to bedtime. If you engage in recreation, particularly something like golf, which requires physical skill along with considerable mental discipline and multiple choices on every shot, your mind is working on something other than your startup. Frankly, I believe clearer thinking is often the result of feeding your brain some variety and not dwelling too constantly on the imminent pressures of your startup. I’ve written in my head many of these essays on long bike rides and committed them to the screen upon my return. Physical activity always begets mental progress. I’ve gotten insights on troubling business issues while watching sports, sitting in church, or listening to the Elvis channel in my car. Our minds are parallel processors, and often the background task gets solved while we are distracted by the foreground.
This essay is written on Memorial Day, when we remember with reverence all those who fell as the result of life and death decisions by their leaders. Startup founders are not putting their charges in harm’s way, and not every decision is all that important. However, there are many decisions that can put your company in peril, and many that can result in victories. The message of this essay is twofold: (1) allow your own mind to function clearly and (2) create a process that enables clarity in your team’s collective decision making.