The Facebook Unconscious Bias Course is Outstanding And You Should Watch It. Here’s Why.

A week or so ago, Facebook put their unconscious bias course online (announcement blog post here).

The course is terrific.  Here are a few reasons why (and, no, I’ve never worked at Facebook, or have any particular view about the FB culture):

  • “One important thing… is that we all have bias.  It’s just part of the human condition”.  Lori Goler in the introduction.

This is a tremendously important, and fairly courageous, statement.  It cuts the foundation out from one of the biggest reasons humans get themselves into trouble: the notion that “I am right”.

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Emotional Bias: Your Brain Is Not In Control (And What To Do About It)

A (Short) Story

A long time ago, I had a meeting with my boss and the chief architect of the project we were working on.  I was the project manager, and the subject of the meeting was how to finalize some decisions that had been up in the air for a while (too long, in my opinion, of course).

The meeting did not go well.  I was furious with my colleague and showed it (and said it).  Decisions weren’t made.  The architect stormed out.

As I got up to leave, my boss said: “I knew you were going to do that.  I could tell, the moment you sat down”.

At the time, I was shocked.  What had he seen?   Was I that obvious?   I thought I had gone into the meeting with the simple notion that we should make some decisions quickly.   Apparently, things were a bit more complicated.

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Ignoring Reality Whilst Using Lean Startup: Four Scenes You Will Recognize

Fear, Uncertainty, Attachment and Mindfulness

(notes partly inspired by a talk by Dan Millstein at the Lean Startup Conference 2014, and thoughts on mindfulness and the Lean Startup).

It is in our nature to be fearful of uncertainty and loss (of status, money, plans). It is in our nature to be attached to things we have created, even if they are only ideas and prototypes.

The Lean Startup provides us with techniques to test our assumptions against reality at an early stage, when our attachment to them is relatively young and before we have invested time, energy and money into realizing them.

Since we are so fearful of loss, the longer we allow an idea to develop without being challenged, the more difficult it becomes to face up to testing them — the potential loss has grown massively with the investments we have made.

This is the central failing of countless doomed projects: having proceeded without testing the core assumptions, there is now too much invested to take the risk of facing reality in the present. If we look, it might all be lost! So there is only work, moving forward to ultimate failure.

Confronting reality is much more of an emotional challenge than a rational one. We hate loss, and we hate uncertainty, and our reactions to fear come from our emotional mind, not our rational one. Our emotions overwhelm our ability think clearly.

The practice of mindfulness is a tool which lets us detach, even a little, from our fears. It allows us to see fear and uncertainty without becoming overwhelmed by them. It gives our rational mind space to work.

These are some places where a practice of mindfulness may help you and your team, work with reality to build something that fits, that works, that meshes with the world as it is.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Frank Herbert, Dune. (yeah, I know. but it’s helped me over the years).

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The Fatal Flaw in the Lean Startup Model. And How to Fix It.

The Problem With Reality

Human beings don’t like reality much.   It’s awkward.   It’s messy.   It gets in the way of our plans.  It’s unpredictable, organic and dense in ways we’d rather not acknowledge.  We know we live in it, but we really like to pretend that we don’t.

We avoid difficult facts, we shade our thinking, and we use language to obscure what’s going on (“we’re looking forward to right-sizing our organization”).  We listen to music, watch TV, make up stories, and put a huge amount of effort into creating technologies that take us as far away from the irritating rub of the real as we can: drugs, screens, headphones, streaming, wireless and the Oculus Rift. 

This problem hasn’t escaped the notice of thinkers through the ages, who have left us their advice:

Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.

  — Lao Tzu


Startups and Reality – A Troubled Relationship

From the very beginning of my work in startups I have been fascinated by the relationship between startup organizations and reality.  It is, I would say, troubled.

A startup needs reality.  In the end, somebody has to buy the product for more money than it takes to produce (obvious?   you’d be surprised).   Reality has to accommodate the changes that a startup is banking (literally) on making.   So you would think that people running startups with have some respect for reality, listen to what she was saying, take her into account.

But very often, reality is deeply disrespected.   Startup leaders make assumptions, take her for granted and believe that she is on their side.   Indeed, they believe that reality has a side to take, rather than just being.

Startup leaders make statements about reality, like:

  • “it’s going to ship in October!” (independent of number of engineers, technical feasibility, rate of progress)
  • “we’re guaranteeing $2M in the first year!” (independent of market size, pricing variability, customer acceptance)
  • customers love the new version” (based on a couple of chats with customers in a social setting)

If you’ve spent any time in startups, you can provide your own.


Reality Always Wins.

Isn’t it wonderful that reality always wins?  

 — Deb Burkmann, Yoga Teacher

If you don’t have enough engineers, or the technical work is too daunting, you won’t ship in October.   If there is no addressable market, you won’t make $2M in the first year.  If performance is limited by some fundamental constant, well, then it’s a problem.

But before completely give up our agency, and decide there’s nothing we can do,  let’s consider the other, opposing force.  To begin a startup, you must have, to some degree, the idea that reality is malleable – after all, your goal is to build something that didn’t exist before, and have many (hopefully) millions of people change their lives by using it.  So you must start with the notion that you can, in fact, change reality.   Or at least add to it.

And that’s a large part of the buzz of doing a startup!   We can shrug off the irritating framework we’re stuck with and make something better, different – alter the world around us a bit.  Given how troublesome reality is, it’s no wonder that changing it can seem so exciting.

Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.

 — Tupac Shakur

So a startup needs a healthy relationship with reality.  After all, we are trying to change her, nudge her along a little bit, make her a little less chaotic, lean a little more in our favor.

In which case, it might be a good idea to have a little respect.  Listen to what she’s saying. 

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