Reading notes (2021, week 25): On first systems as explicit norms and the moral imperative of what we do

First systems as important as first hires

Important, yet often forgotten:

So much startup advice comes down to one common element: Hiring the best people. Whether it’s Twitter threads about how the first 50 hires set the cultural tone, or blog posts recommending that a founder interview the first 100 employees, most pointers are about keeping an unwavering focus on the people who power startups.

“While I definitely agree that people are your most important asset, I’ve noticed that most content doesn’t talk as much about the systems. What I don’t come across as often is a read about how the systems that those first hires build are the manifestation of the culture,” says Fishner.

In his view, it’s not an either or — it’s both. “While early employees are of course a driving factor for the company culture, they’re only half the equation. The other half is the foundational systems,” he says. “The comparison I like to draw is the nature versus nurture debate. Both your genes and your memes are highly influential on your outcomes. Likewise, both your people and your systems are highly influential on your company’s outcomes — but the system side doesn’t get as much attention as it should.”

Fishner expands on why he thinks systems deserve equal footing. “While early employees help set implicit norms, building systems early in a company’s lifecycle sets explicit norms. How do decisions get made? How are meetings structured? How are goals set? These systems are much easier to build when the company is small, and very challenging to put into place as the company grows,” he says.

Fishner’s conviction here surprisingly comes from his college days. “I studied philosophy. My thesis was on the impacts of subconscious advertising techniques. Theories of economics are built on the foundational belief that individuals are rational, well-informed and autonomous. But in practice, none of those things are true. For example, we’re far from autonomous — each person influences other people,” he says.

“In my reading and research for the thesis, I came to more of a determinist worldview that free will is overrated and our willpower is overstated. We’re actually much more influenced by the environments that we’re put in.

source:  “Focus on Your First 10 Systems, Not Just Your First 10 Hires — This Chief of Staff Shares His Playbook” in First Round Review  (accessed 210601)

The moral imperative of what we do in tech

I reconnected to Om Malik’s observation on tech and emotions via L.M. Sacasas’ newsletter “The convivial society“:

Having watched technology go from a curio to curiosity to a daily necessity, I can safely say that we in tech don’t understand the emotional aspect of our work, just as we don’t understand the moral imperative of what we do. It is not that all players are bad; it is just not part of the thinking process the way, say, “minimum viable product” or “growth hacking” are.

But it is time to add an emotional and moral dimension to products. Companies need to combine data with emotion and empathy or find themselves in conflict with those they deem to serve. 

This comes up quite often in my coaching conversations. For now, I’ll say this: the choice to ignore the emotional and moral dimensions of one’s work, services, or products is itself an emotional and moral stance.

Both Malik and Sacasas’ newsletters/blogs are well worth following.