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In 1957, a group of eight Silicon Valley executives lead by Robert Noyce resigned from famed Shockley Semiconductor to start a rival in Fairchild Semiconductor. This sort of thing happens all the time in Silicon Valley today, but at the time, it was a watershed moment that sent reverberations throughout the industry. The Traitorous Eight, as they became known, changed the course of innovation forever by injecting the region with an entrepreneurial ethos that continues to this day, and has made Silicon Valley the envy of the world.
Around the same time, nearly 6,000 miles (~10,000 kilometers) away, a very different type of revolution was taking place in Communist China. In 1958, Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward—a wide-sweeping series of economic and political reforms aimed at transitioning China from an agricultural economy to an industrialized one, and at consolidating power behind the socialist regime.
One of the first initiatives was the Four Pests Campaign, an effort to eradicate insect, rodent, and avian populations that were thought to be threatening the health and well-being of the Chinese people. Birds, in particular the tree sparrow, were the most aggressively targeted because they fed on human grain and fruit supplies. The sparrow, it was feared, would cause starvation of the Chinese people.
And, the campaign was successful—pushing the tree sparrow nearly to extinction in less than two years. The result? The disruption of a delicate ecological system that contributed to the Great Chinese Famine of 1959-1961, killing an estimated 15 to 30 million people. What went wrong?
By eradicating the tree sparrow, the government exacerbated the very problem they were trying to solve.
It turns out that not only did tree sparrows eat grains targeted for human consumption, they also fed on insects that were an even bigger drain on grain supplies. With a key predator out of the way, the insect population swelled and grain supplies collapsed, which is how the eradication of the tree sparrow contributed to widespread famine. The policy was terminated in 1960 when it became clear what a disaster it was.
So, why on earth am I linking the Great Chinese Famine with the essence of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial spirit and with startup communities today? Because these are important lessons in the law of unintended consequences, which are common in complex adaptive systems like startup communities.
The Chinese government took a heavy-handed, top-down approach to preserve food supplies and created a much bigger problem by not thinking systemically—unleashing a destructive feedback loop. At the same time, the Traitorous Eight took the seemingly isolated and relatively inconsequential decision of escaping a misguided (and reportedly tyrannical) William Shockley with the aim of creating something better for themselves. And yet, what it helped spark was a new way of doing business in an new technological era. It’s hard to believe their immediate plan was to transform the regional business culture—one that is now emulated globally to promote innovation-driven entrepreneurship. But that’s what happened anyway.
The lesson for startup communities is that you might not know if a proposed course of action will produce famine or feast—this can only be determined through trial and error, an informed intuition, some humility, and a desire to learn from mistakes. This is also why big ticket initiatives or programs should be considered carefully. Take a more measured approach first and see what works and what doesn’t, learn, adapt, and change course as needed. The biggest successes are often not the result of efforts at the level of “species eradication”, but rather, at the level of “let’s try doing something we’re already doing, but better.”
A major tip of the hat to Nicolas Colin, who during a conversation on complex systems and startup communities, alerted me to the Four Pests Campaign, which I had previously been unaware of.
In The Startup Community Way, my upcoming book with Brad Feld, we explain that startup communities must be viewed through the lens of complex adaptive systems. Such systems are characterized as having many elements (people and things), interdependencies (connections between them), feedback loops (actions lead to reactions), and as being in a constant state of evolution (never at rest).
We make the effort to explain the complex systems framework and tie it to startup communities because the nature of these systems requires a very different type of engagement than we are used to in most of our professional and civic lives. Complex systems require different skills (diversity v. expertise), mental processes (synthesis v. analysis), tactical approaches (experimentation v. planning), and goals (right conditions v. right outcome), among other factors we discuss in the book.
One prominent condition in complex adaptive systems that I want to talk about today is Basins of Attraction. In neoclassical economics, it is assumed that the economy (also a complex adaptive system) is moving towards a point of stability—an equilibrium. This is done for reasons of simplifying mathematics, but it also has the impact of making many economic predictions unreliable.
Instead of a single point of stability, Basins of Attraction takes the view that there are many such potential “resting places” and that a complex evolutionary process will determine which of these wins out. Basins of Attraction in complex systems—like startup communities—can be thought of as a sort of center of gravity where things can get stuck. Critically, they can get stuck in “good” or “bad” outcomes.
A critical job of startup communities, then, is to apply maximum pressure over a sustained period of time to “push” the system out of a bad outcome—freeing it from the powerful gravitational forces holding it back and allowing it to move to a better state of being. This means that in order to move a startup community forward, you need to introduce a lot of instability—to “shock” the system out of its slumber.
To visualize this, I’ve produced what I’m calling The J-Curve of Startup Community Transition. I adopted it from the political scientist Ian Bremmer, whose 2007 book The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall, plots a similar J-curve relationship between stability and openness for nation-states. Here, I show a relationship between stability and vibrancy or sustainability of startup communities.
The J-Curve of Startup Community Transition demonstrates that communities can become locked-in to a state of low vibrancy, which is hard to break free. This state is unsustainable, and if it persists, the startup community will die off. In order to get to a more vibrant and lasting condition, low performing startup communities will have to go through a transition period where things become less stable—this can be a painful experience, but a necessary one.
What I think of as introducing instability is trying big bold ideas—initiatives that may result in repeated or even spectacular failures, that mix things up, and that push the boundaries of people, forcing them to improve. This transition will be uncomfortable for many, because it directly challenges powerful incumbents, entrenched interests, controlling powerbrokers, and stale yet comfortable ways of thinking and behaving.
Nobody knows which ideas will ultimately be the right ones, but it has to be done. That is why we focus on taking an empathetic, open mind into a process of trial and error—trying many things until you figure out what works and what doesn’t. That is also why we promote a radical embrace of inclusion, because the best ideas often come from unexpected places. Many approaches will fail, but it only takes one or two good ones to fundamentally alter a startup community’s trajectory forever. Find those. Be bold. Mix things up. Get unstuck.
I’ve often heard people say “building startup communities (or startup ecosystems) is not about the ingredients, it’s about the recipe.” What they mean is that a focus on the individual people, institutions, and resources will provide only limited insight or success, and that what matters most is how these things all come together. Integration is the right concept, but a recipe is the wrong analogy.
Recipes, like chicken noodle soup or chocolate chip cookies, are simple systems. These recipes require some understanding of techniques and tools, but once learned, they are replicable with a high degree of certainty. The process of creating these “systems” can easily be broken down into constituent parts, such as chopping vegetables or sifting flour, and their integration (mixing) requires little precision.
Recipes become complicated when they involve a twenty-course tasting menu at a restaurant with three Michelin stars. Producing and serving these meals is surely a challenging problem, requiring highly specialized expertise, coordination of many factors, and consistency at scale. But these systems are also ultimately solvable, and when mastered and carried out with care, they can be replicated with relative precision. Restaurants do this repeatedly every night in cities around the world.
Startup communities and startup ecosystems are nothing like this. They are complex systems, meaning they have many “agents” (people and things), interdependencies, and are in a constant state of evolution, which makes fully wrapping your arms around them a challenging task. Most importantly, no one is in control. Such systems cannot be fully understood, predicted, controlled, or replicated; they can at best be guided and influenced. And yet, many strategies used in startup community building today still attempt to impose a complicated systems worldview onto what is an inherently complex system. This is the central problem facing startup community building in practice today and why so many well-intentioned efforts fail.
A better approach for building startup communities is not one steeped in a fixed set of ingredients, a rigid prescription of rules, and where engineered, linear processes are carefully calibrated through tight control. Instead, dealing with complex systems is best done with an informed intuition, trial and error, humility, and a desire to learn. It is more about getting the conditions right than aiming for a specific outcome. This is why you can learn more about startup community building from raising a child than you can by flawlessly executing even a complicated recipe (or system).
To drive this point home, I’m going to pull a passage from Complexity and the Art of Public Policy: Solving Society’s Problems from the Bottom Up, by the economist David Colander and physicist Roland Kupers, which I think captures this idea perfectly. (this quote has been slightly modified to improve readability where text was streamlined):
One approach to parenting is to set out a set of explicit rules for the child—”this is what you are to do; this is what is best for you, and these are the consequences of your not following the rules.” That is the idealized “control approach” to parenting.
There are two problems with this—the first is that most parents are not sure which rules are the correct ones. If they pick the wrong ones, then the child’s welfare won’t be maximized. The second problem is that the child may not follow the rules—do you then give in or not?
The true alternative to top-down control parenting is the parenting equivalent of the complexity approach we are advocating; a laissez-faire activist approach. In a laissez-faire activist approach you have as few direct rigorously specified rules as possible. Instead, you have general guidelines, and you consciously attempt to influence the child’s development so he or she becomes the best human being possible.
Instead of focusing on the rules, the focus of complexity parenting is more on creating voluntary guidelines, and providing a positive role model. (emphasis added).
This is why, in my upcoming book with Brad Feld, The Startup Community Way, we’ll be talking a lot about the behaviors, attitudes, and leadership qualities that promote healthy startup communities, and not about ingredients or recipes. We understand that startup communities require a different set of guidance, tools, and techniques than most of us are used to applying in our professional lives (which occurs because most workplaces are structured in a top-down, hierarchical way).
But the reality is, we all deal with complex systems everyday—from cities to our bodies to any situation that involves interacting with other people. Complexity is all around us. Our hope is that we’ll do our part to help you uncover how to apply what you already know to a different type of problem: that of building a vibrant startup communities in the city where you live. We can’t wait to share our ideas with you.
Great ideas come from unexpected places.
I recently had the opportunity to meet a fascinating group of young pastors who are applying a complex systems approach to a new congregation they founded. Dissatisfied with the top-down, command-and-control structure of the churches they had previously been a part of, these young innovators created something better—a system based on a decentralized network, on communal governance, and on trust, reciprocity, and fulfilling commitments.
This should sound familiar to you members of the church of startup communities, which in my view, can be best understood through the prism of the complex systems framework. In such systems, we focus on cultivating the right environment, on improving the interactions between the individual elements (ie, people) rather than focusing on the elements themselves, a governance structure that adheres to non-control, and a set of virtuous informal norms and rules.
As we were discussing various approaches and challenges to organizing a modern religious community and a startup community through this belief system—which have a lot in common, by the way—I brought up the notion of social capital, and how that in order for “transactions” to take place in a startup community, one must agree to a broad-based informal “contract” that everyone adheres to. Critically, this takes place between each individual and the community as a whole.
That’s when one of my new friends turned to me and said: “I think about that as the difference between contracts and covenants.” This is a powerful distinction that is important for participants in startup communities to embrace.
Contracts, in their purest form, are specified agreements for two parties to fulfill a particular set of promises. If one party breaks that agreement, the contract is broken—freeing the other party of their obligations. Contracts establish a give-and-take relationship that is institutionalized and conditional.
Covenants, on the other hand, appeal to a cause that is greater than any mutual exchange. In a covenant, if one party breaks his or her obligations, it does not permit the other to do the same. Why? Because an oath is not really about the other person anyway—it is an appeal to our higher nature and a commitment to serving the greater good.
Contracts are transactional. Covenants are committal.
As I was kicking around this idea in my head, I stumbled upon an interesting blog post that was discussing the concept of covenants and contracts, and drew the link between the notion of covenants and a sacred document in the founding of the United States—the Declaration of Independence. Rather than summarize that analogy, I’ll just copy and paste some of that text here.
The Declaration of Independence was signed by 56 men who all understood they were committing high treason against the British government when they signed the document. Benjamin Franklin famously highlighted that reality at the time, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
The concluding sentence of the Declaration states “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
To the signers it didn’t matter if any one of their confederates broke or switched sides. They were still committed to their course of action regardless, even if it cost them their lives.
I am not a religious person, nor a scholar of laws nor American history, so I am probably way out over my skis here. But the point I want to make is an important one for startup community participants to embrace—make covenants, not contracts. Don’t be conditional in your actions of service. Do what is right because it is right. Make a commitment to your community regardless of what it gives you in return. In the end, you will gain more anyway.