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Work to create a predisposition to innovate in the social dimension

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I saw this post by one of the founders of AngelList, and I thought it was illustrative of some of the challenges of the lean social approach that I have been advocating.

Babak Nivi, Ask forgiveness, not permission

AngelList “corporate policy” is that team members should ask forgiveness, not permission.

We would rather have someone do something wrong than ask permission to do it.

Or better, we would rather have someone do something right and not need permission to do it. This is the most common outcome.

We would rather have people ship to production whenever they want, than go through an internal review process. We can fix it on production. We prefer the customer’s review process. And it isn’t too hard to reveal a new feature to a small portion of our users and iterate on it as we expand it to more users.

Eliminating permission increases the speed and diversity of our decision-making. Our incubator applications are a good example of diverse decision-making: one of our team members built it even though I was telling him, “This is fine, but I don’t think it is that important. Why don’t you work on something else.” It ended up being very important to our users and mission.

There are some sensitive parts of our product that are walled off from this “ask forgiveness” policy. There are some things we want reviewed by the people who “know better”. But it’s really rare.

This policy only works if you hire insanely smart and capable people, and let go of the ones who are not. We also filter for people who are mission-oriented, care about our customer and want to learn more.

Leaving aside the ‘letting go of the ones who are not’ line, I unreservedly applaud this management dogma. The equivalent in the lean social realm is that individuals should be free to innovate in the way that their own work gets done, or a group should be able to redefine their flow of work, without some huge review process.

Certainly, the feedback of others is still relevant, and you are going to have to take responsibility for the results of your innovation — and clean up any messes that are caused — but the inclination should be toward innovation, and the attempt to improve customer satisfaction, product quality, response times, whatever. And this comes with the need to measure what you are seeking to improve. But the predisposition should be to act, to innovate as understood by the people closest to the work being done.

Now, back to the hiring ‘insanely smart and capable people, and letting go the one who are not’. We have a throwaway culture, and that manifests itself in business — in part — by a lack of real depth in hiring. Too little time is spent to find out if people fit in advance, if they have the skills and mindset needed for a job, or for a long-term role at a company. Especially in the high velocity startup landscape, the credo as laid out by Navi seems to hold. I have heard other West Coast tech CEOs advocate firing the bottom third of workers every year.

Personally, I find myself leaning more and more to the ‘no fire’ policy (see What does a ‘No Fire’ policy change? Everything.), which leads to very different approaches to hiring, and the significant burden of mentoring and stewardship for managers and leaders in a company. But even in a company that hasn’t gone that far, I think there should be a greater commitment to the staff that a cavalier, libertarian attitude of firing everyone who doesn’t match up to some unclear guidelines about being insanely great. It becomes all too easy to say that you want people to innovate, to make mistakes, and learn from them, but then to decide to fire someone because they didn’t learn fast enough, or they didn’t lean exactly the lessons they were supposed to. I think the business has to commit to a deeper investment in people than that.