An Experimental Exercise In Managing Professional Bias

My dear friend Betsy Aoki shared a great article this afternoon that everyone in tech should read (and probably every other industry too, but I can’t speak as definitively there). The assumptive and presumptive behavior of the suitably-embarrassed and chastised folks in the article got me to thinking about how we fail as professionals on a constant basis in judging people too fast. There are logical arguments to be made as to why we insist on jumping to conclusions fast (too many meetings in a day, not enough bandwidth right now, etc.) but that doesn’t justify the behavior pattern – especially if it’s (all too often) wrong, discriminative, offensive, and worse.

For the avoidance of doubt, I have no problem with people judging each other. It’s part of human nature, and at a professional level we do have to prioritize, bucketize, and order other human beings, as cold as that may sound.

But you can judge people in two radically-different ways that I refer to as “top-down” and “assumptions-up”.

Most folks (and we all – each and every one of us – have been guilty of it at some time) work in the “assumptions-up” world – just like the unfortunate, embarrassed folks in the above article. Whether you want them or not, you DO have preconceived professional notions that you have learned about people based on irrelevant data like age, gender, race, religion, and even on things as random as height, weight, speech patterns, and hair color! If you think you’re exempt from these behaviors for some magical reason, YOU ARE WRONG. Do yourself a favor and check out Dr. Mazharin Banaji’s implicit-association research, book – or even take an IAT test yourself (warning: I was disturbed by my results).

Even though we have  learned these unfortunate biases, and they may be exceptionally difficult to unlearn, we can try to get around them in judging each other in professional* situations by working “top-down”.

Spend a week trying to work top-down. I guarantee it’ll have an impact on you. Whoever walks into your office, or into a conference room, or sits down in front of you at that cafe for a meeting, or walks up to you at some networking event – treat them identically: ASSUME THEY ARE A ROCK STAR! Yes this is counter-intuitive to how most folks manage their time and interactions – so what. Start at the top, assuming they are amazing, and figure out as you go along where they have deficits. Yes, you will be building someone ‘down’ in your mind instead of ‘up’, but you’ll find that you will be “building them down” with a ton more rationality than your preconceived, irrelevant assumptions may permit you to “build them up.”

Regardless of whether you come to the conclusion that someone is great, mediocre, or useless in the end; I guarantee your conclusion will not be majority-based on the color of their skin, the presence (or not) of a Y chromosome, whether they’ve got a skullcap on their head, or anything else generally irrelevant. As an added bonus, you’ll have a better interaction and fewer people will walk away thinking you’re an asshole 😉 .

Give it a try!

* I’m afraid I have no experimental prescription as to solving these biases outside of professional workspaces, where they are, sadly, probably 100x more destructive.

The Fantastic Scent of Decay

Fall is upon us here in the Northeast. Sitting outside on the deck this evening, the first wafts of herbaceous decay hit my nose. It is such a fantastic scent – even as it conjures some melancholy thoughts.

One of the scents I wear now and then is a combination of two CB I Hate Perfume accords, that together, more than casually, imply all that is good about the smell of “fall decay”:

Wild Hunt is the scent of an ancient forest in the heat of a summer afternoon. It is a blend of Torn Leaves, Crushed Twigs, Flowing Sap, Fallen Branches, Old Leaves, Green Moss, Fir, Pine and Tiny Mushrooms.


Burning Leaves is the smoke of burning maple leaves – pure & simple.

Informed Stakeholders FTW

Keep your stakeholders informed! Many early-stage entrepreneurs lose sight of the importance of keeping their investors, shareholders, advisors, and even directors (really – I’ve seen it happen!) updated on the state of the business on a regular basis.

One of the companies I am a stakeholder in is Baydin, and Baydin’s CEO is the inimitable Alex Moore. I first met Alex when Baydin applied to the inaugural class of TechStars Boston in 2009. He was easy to be impressed with, and as he progressed through TechStars – and now years beyond – his mad-skillz have continued to shine brighter and brighter. Hopefully he’s blushing now 🙂 . Because Alex does such a great job of it, and with his permission, I used his updates as a guide to build a template and to share advice on what sharp entrepreneurs might want to do vis-a-vis keeping their stakeholders clued-in.

Why should you keep stakeholders informed? 

You want to share information with your stakeholders so they can help you. Help is good! You always can leverage help! If your stakeholders know what’s going on, they can help you steer the ship, maybe help it move faster, or maybe keep you from ramming an iceberg!

Which stakeholders should you keep informed?

Well, that is of course entirely up to you, dear CEO. Some of your investors may have “information rights”, so they would likely be recipients of regular updates. Certainly your Board of Directors are candidates as well. Your co-founders and large-shareholder employees may also be on the list. Perhaps any advisors to your company you feel could be helpful reacting to the information. Your attorneys and bankers may be part of the distribution. Really, it’s up to you to sort this out. Be careful to include people who deserve to know this info (legally or ethically) and be careful not to share too arbitrarily (“loose lips sink ships” and all that jazz).

Note that this article uses the word “stakeholder” rather than “shareholder” on purpose, as some stakeholders may not be shareholders, and some shareholders may not need the information we’re talking about.

How often should you update stakeholders?

In my experience, this is driven by (a) legal requirements and/or (b) company stage. If you have raised debt, you may have certain covenants on your note(s) that require sharing data regularly with your lender(s). As mentioned above, some or all of your investors may have varying legal “information rights” that require you to share data. For most folks though, your frequency of updates should be a function of your stage and/or stability. You probably don’t want to do full-bore updates every week, as it’s just too damn time consuming. Maybe you should share some automated daily or weekly reports about your KPIs, but nothing that you have to put together hyper-manually. If you measure your runway in years, updates every other month or quarterly should probably be adequate. If you measure your runway in months, every other month or monthly might be more proper. if you’re going through a big rough patch, err on the side of monthly. Like many things in business, there’s a potential win in under-promising and over-delivering. Whatever you do, don’t promise weekly updates and deliver quarterly updates, duh.

What should I share with my stakeholders?

Glad you asked! This was the proverbial piece of sand that incited this pearl of a missive. Here and below you can link to a Google Doc presentation that contains what I think is appropriate for a periodic update from an early stage company. There are NOTES on each slide that explain what is supposed to be in there and what things (hopefully) mean. I’ll leave you in the gdoc, as my work is done here (for now!).

Stakeholder Update Template

If you have any comments, questions, gripes, etc., please LMK! Happy to cycle on this thing in the interest of receiving and generating better updates!

Special thanks to Steve Kane and Chris Heidelberger who helped me through an uber-annoying brain fart I experienced while writing this, and to Leon Noel who provided feedback as I ‘genericized’ the template. Extra-special thanks, of course, to Alex Moore (roll tide!).