What’s one of the most valuable skills an entrepreneur can posses?
I think it’s the ability to see clearly by creating parallax.
How accurately do you perceive what’s going on in your business or the impact that any given decision will make on it? Can you reconcile conflicting inputs in order to think about a problem in all its dimensions?
There’s a term from optics that helps me think about how to process different points of view. You have two eyes, with two separate cones of vision, but your brain merges these into one unified field of sight, so that you can navigate your surroundings effortlessly, instead of running into that brick wall. Scientists call this phenomenon ‘parallax’ and you should be grateful for it, because without it, you wouldn’t be going anywhere fast.
In business, I feel like there’s a similar trick to be played by those who wish to see clearly so they can move quickly. Every day, we make lots of decisions, and occasionally, we come across one that is very important. How do we decide what to do? Sometimes we know exactly what to do. But not always. We have blind spots. We can’t see around turns.
To prevent myself from running my business into a brick wall, I have come to rely on input from other people: my co-founders and team, our formal and informal advisors, friends and family. Do you know what I’ve found? It’s not easy to reconcile conflicting inputs. Advice will often be inconsistent. Perspectives will clash. Inputs will need to be discarded or discounted. You’ll stress out.
Imagine how your brain would cope with input not just from your eyes, but from the eyes of everyone looking at you. Organisms are not equipped to do that, but organizations not only can, but must, do that to survive. Except an organization, by itself, is blind. It needs you to create parallax.
It takes practice. In the last year, I’ve spent countless hours radar-ing out: explaining our situation and framing a decision, to the best of my abilities, for an advisor, and then asking him or her for an informed opinion. The more time you spend doing this, the better you both get at it.
Over time, you create an algorithm. By some miracle of the subconscious mind, you start evaluating the advice you get in various situations and weighting it in different ways. For example, if you’re making a decision on an engineering hire, you’re going to get opinions from lots of people, but you’re going to weight input from technical advisors and teammates more heavily. Then you make the decision. Afterwards, at various checkpoints, you will reflect on the outcome of that decision and recalibrate your algorithm. Maybe someone you didn’t expect had given you a perspective that you discounted at the time, but which proved to be very prescient. Or maybe someone whose experience you relied on heavily completely misjudged the situation, and you’ll want to investigate why that happened.
For the leader of any organization, the goal should be to have a vast constellation of people orbiting to give input, but to rely very heavily on the few individuals whose perspective is most relevant to the situation and whose advice you’ve tested and come to trust. Always, always: seek better inputs and improve how you filter them.
Ultimately, it’s your call. Don’t lose control of a decision by democratizing it. Parallax protects you from the vices of decision-making by committee. This isn’t about consensus. This is about you, as an artist-leader, creating parallax by merging lots of perspectives into a unified field of vision for the organization, in order to understand where you really stand in relation to everything else, then using that awareness to inform decision-making. It’s important to remember that you have more data than any single input. You see all the inputs. Not only that, when you have conviction, you should weigh your own input more heavily than any other.
Here are three tips from insights I’ve gleaned from thinking about parallax, and I hope they’re useful to you.
First, don’t let just anyone bother you.
Who do you let **bother* you? On any given subject, there shouldn’t be many people whom you let to literally upset you enough to change your mood. Whose criticism will you take personally? Evaluate your emotional vulnerabilities and make sure that trust is well placed. Because the larger the scale at which you operate, the more people are going to be pissed off at any given moment. You’ve got to lead, so you can’t let that get to you, you can’t afford the distraction.
Who do you disagree with strongly but still respect intellectually and trust? Keep those people close enough and informed enough to give you a counterpoint to your thinking, but not so close that they interfere with action. Beware of signal jamming. You want tension, not disharmony. Encourage them enough so that they tell you what they really think when you need their feedback, but don’t let them get disruptive. Dissenters sometimes spread uncertainty that could create paralysis. So have a process for managing that, both inside and outside your organization. Better that they come to you with their concerns and feel that you’re listening, rather than get frustrate and start agitating. I think of these people as brakes. They help me turn and sometimes, stop.
Conversely, be careful of gaining false confidence from those who agree with a proposed course of action too easily, particularly if they don’t provide additional new perspective. I think of these people as the gas. Most of the time, you want to accelerate with confidence to move fast, but remember, you usually want at least a little friction for traction.
Learn to have thick skin. Surround yourself with BOTH ‘yes’ and ‘no’ men.
Secondly, define every relationship. Be clear in your mind what’s its really about. Maybe you ask for someone’s opinion on various topics, but remember what area of expertise you really need them for. That’s usually why you sought them out in the first place. If you don’t listen to them on that subject anymore, which sometimes happens, then maybe you should re-evaluate the entire relationship. Maybe they’re just draining your time and obscuring signal with noise.
Lastly, don’t wait to give advice. I’ll phrase this rather ironically: remember how easily we forget. When you’ve just conquered a problem, every nuance and detail remains fresh in your mind. You can recount them perfectly. If you can, write them down in a blog post. Don’t wait till you’re older, more credible, or wiser to share your advice. Teaching is part of the learning process. In some very important ways, we’re actually more objective and knowledge when we’re seeking than when we’re giving advice. Because when you’ve just left the trenches, that’s when you know exactly what to say to the person just entering them. Besides, it’s good karma: when you’re leading an organization, you get so much good advice, you should pay down some of that when you can. Find a younger version of yourself. Someone who is a year behind you on a similar path. Help them. You’ll be amazed at how much time you can save them when they encounter the same obstacles and roadblocks you faced. You’ll wish you had a guide like you. Conversely, you’ll stop looking just to grey-beards for help, and start balancing that with the advice of someone who is a year ahead of you on a similar path.
Creating parallax is hard work. The first step is being aware of it and having some sense for how it works. Then it’s up to you. Good luck!