2016: Don’t Look Back in Anger
The one area of agreement across today’s hyper-polarized society I’ve seen is around the sentiment that 2016 was / is an annus horribilis. Given what I witnessed politically, economically, socially (and personally) in both Turkey and the United States, just know that the angst surrounding this year is not isolated to one country, one company, or one individual. Today I want to look back on 2016, in an effort to find lessons from the pain.
Remember, you are not the ‘average’ person. Usually I say this in reference to product users, when doing testing: always remember that you are not the ‘average’ user. People from different geographies, age groups, interest areas, socioeconomic strata bring wildly disparate use cases, motivations, and capabilities to a product. This is certainly true of people outside of our Silicon Valley (or ITU Teknokent, or Bilkent IEEE, etc…) bubbles - i.e., in terms of how people behave with their money, their time, their vote - anything. Whether shipping a new product version, or simply being an informed citizen of your own country, we must not forget that even if (or, especially when) empathy between different groups is stretched thin because of a yawning gap distancing them, the ability to identify the need states of people different than yourself - and to identify a solution - is critical for long-term success.
Balance quantitative predictions with qualitative reasoning. In my rose-tinted glasses I truly did think that scientific prediction and high-tech survey algorithms, sliced and diced a thousand different ways, meant the death of drama in the political sphere. But from the UK “Brexit” to the US Presidential votes, I (and much of the poll-following world) was shocked at outcomes that veered so far away from pundits’ predictions. While overnight everyone seemed to become an expert on polls and conservative-this and liberal-that, the one certainty in my mind is that you can’t trust ‘just’ numbers. What were the exact reasons in these (and other cases) that Minority Report-like models and technology were incorrect, it’s not my place to say. But I can say that numbers are not enough - that understanding people’s motivations (for changing their minds, for not answering, for not voting) and the trends that may impact them is crucial. The robots still need the humans, at least for a little while longer.
Plan for chaos. Whether negotiating fundraising in the middle of a coup, or being sabotaged by a former business partner, or solving for a key hire’s abrupt departure, the most unpredictable forces tend to make the biggest impact on our companies - especially in startups. Being resilient, never sacrificing your integrity, having a support network of trusted advisors / partners / clients, and empowering your team to be nimble in its operations gives greater flexibility in finding solutions - or at least options - when at times it feels like you have none. Planning for chaos is not having a guidebook or practicing drills - it means building a team over an extended period of time that has not only operational excellence but also an inordinate amount of trust and respect for one another, so that when circumstances take a turn for the bizarre, you are already set up to work together to make the best of it.
The impact of a mentor, or a hero, is exponentially bigger than the person him/herself. We lost so many people who were loved and admired this year - celebrities, victims of war and terrorism, friends and more. But what gives me hope is that the reflection on each of those people shows a halo, a bright light that they have each extended through their impact on so many others that they either worked with or influenced from a distance. Being a mentor to someone, or a leader to a team, or a hero to a group, is not one-to-one, or even one-to-many; it’s truly exponential in its impact, because each person that they have apprenticed will likely carry and pass along the salient traits from that person to the next, and the next. Loss is permanent, but legacy is infinite.
Your “life KPI’s” should be different than your business KPI (Key Performance Indicator)s.... Many of us are armed with personal cell phones that access our work emails, and laptops we tote home to finish emails after dinner - increasingly blurring the line between business and personal life. But there is a stark need to keep that line intact. A clear focus on revenue, or customer retention, or cycle time, or whatever your business’s KPI’s are, is absolutely critical. However, bringing the activities home that contribute to those business KPIs often threatens the time and attention needed for your “life KPIs” - your health, your family’s happiness, your personal well-being. The relentless zeal with which you pursue the success of your business endeavor should not be your only pursuit.
… and remember that the Life goals matter more. Businesses come and go. They say 90% of startups fail, and that’s probably right. Even in large enterprises, companies fail or pivot or reorg and the job you signed up for might not be as expected. Your company will be the industry darling one day, and toxic the next (see exhibit: Theranos). People you trusted may try to steal your strategy, your team, your money - or perhaps most loathsome, may try to assassinate your character. At the end of the day, it’s all noise. Fantastic, exhilarating, challenging, heartbreaking, life-affirming noise, but noise nonetheless. It is a moment, it passes, it is transient. There are very few elements in life that are not transient - health, family, maybe your homeland, maybe your beliefs - that you are born with and spend the rest of your life fighting to protect, because there is no alternative. Remember to make sure you pick the right battles - for inner peace, for the health of your loved ones, for safety in your home - because those are the only battles you simply cannot afford to lose.
I wish each of you a happy, healthy, and peaceful 2017 - and wish you the greatest success in fighting the battles that inspire you most.