Here’s a couple tests for you:
You’re a manager at a startup and deadlines are tight. One of your employees is suggesting a direction on a project that you’ve seen before and know doesn’t work. Would you ever approve that project knowing it will have to be done over again?
You hear this: “Let’s add this feature and improve the design one more time before launching.” If you’ve worked at a startup for even six months, this isn’t new to you. Would you ever give them the extra development time knowing it’s better to hit the market and iterate after?
A few years ago, I managed a game development company. We started a new project and my programmer, who was a Flash expert and new to HTML5, wanted to work in Flash and transfer it to HTML5. I knew it was a mistake, but he was confident and I decided to let him do it anyway.
Why? It took me a few years in the startup world and a lot of Aikido lessons to understand that sometimes the smartest thing to do as a manager is to let go. It’s not easy. Probably the toughest challenge in building a startup is understanding that failure has an upside. There’s no better way to harness an employee than to let them understand on their own what they need to do.
Akido: an intro
Aikido is a martial art that emphasizes awareness of the mind and body rather than strict power or speed. An Aikidoca’s goal is to achieve harmony, to find a win-win situation. The biggest lesson I learned from Aikido is the power of not immediately giving feedback. Rather than leaving practitioners in the dark, it empowers them to be reflective and self-aware.
Here’s an example. In Aikido, you always practice with a partner. One time you are the attacker (“Uke” in Japanese) and one time you are the defender, the one using the Aikido technique (“Nage” in Japanese). When you are the “Nage” you need to let your attacker (“Uke”) go in whichever direction he wants. It turns out this is the best way to lead him where YOU want.
When you are the “Uke” you are taught not to give feedback to your partner. At all! You would think to yourself, “but what if they are doing it wrong?” Well, they need to figure it out themselves. Otherwise they’ll never learn. Even our Aikido Master is not fixing people immediately. He lets them find the right move by themselves and intervenes only to sharpen it.
Back to my example
A week into the project, my programmer came back to me and said, “I think I’ll need to work in HTML5. I found it to be better for this project.” It was classic Aikido. We both won. I didn’t tell him how to work and, because he decided by himself that he was on the wrong path, he busted his ass to keep the project on deadline. It was one of the best projects we did.
As a COO of a startup studio I find myself involved in every aspect of building startups–marketing, design, development, hardware production, and business development. Even building formulas with math professors.
Sometimes I know that my team is making mistakes but, in order to help them improve, I must let them figure it out themselves. Experience has shown me it’s far better to make mistakes than to get stuck. In startups the most important thing is to believe in your team and let people do what they feel is right. Sounds backwards but I believe it will help your product see the light of day much faster.
“The true victory is the victory over yourself”
Morihei Ueshiba (Founder of Aikido)
About me: COO of sFBI, a startup studio, and Aikidoca for the last 4 years. In this blog I will be combining two of my loves: Aikido and startups, and transferring Aikido from the mattress to the startup life. I truly believe that the foundation of Aikido can help people in every aspect in life and especially in the high-stress environment of startups.