If you’ve never seen 30 Rock (shame on you!) it’s a TV show that depicts what takes place behind the scenes of a fictional comedy series called TGS, that airs on NBC. And I believe its characters hold the answer to a crucial problem the startupsphere is facing: we’re sipping our own syrup, which is ultimately holding us all back. Bare with me here….
In the show, Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) is a decisive, controlling, suave and occasionally senseless network executive. In one episode he’s devastated that his corporate dining hall has been opened up to other lowly colleagues who are encouraged to bounce their ideas off of him (ultimately though he uses Kenneth the page’s idea which hits a home run). And in another episode, Jack attends a Six Sigma Corporate Retreat and brings along his subordinate colleague, Liz Lemon (the head writer of TGS played by Tina Fey). The problem is, she sticks out like a sore thumb. The other executives disapprove of Liz’s antics during the team building exercises and demand that Jack distance himself from her if he wants to succeed, so he does. However he later makes a fool of himself and Liz with her background in improv jumps in to save the day.
By continually surrounding himself with other wealthy white businessmen, Jack’s clearly exhibiting homophily– or “Birds of a feather flock together. Humans surround themselves with people they think are like them.” according to Deanna Zandt (who’s currently encouraging everyone to join in the one4one game.) The scary part is that we’re often blind to this kind of envelopment– it’s hard to break outside of it, if you don’t realize it’s happening; you’ve got built in natural biases which are hard to fight. Think about it, everyday your Facebook mini-feed is showing you more and more of what you like from people like you, and less of everything else out there.
The thing is, colleagues like Liz Lemon often bring new and important differences of perspective to Jack’s life. Liz provides a balance that is crucial in making things work for the company and really for his own good. While he worries about the numbers, she worries about the people. While he’s focused on the big picture, she works on the details, and so on.
I’m convinced that everyone needs a Liz Lemon or even more than one– and not just because she says ridiculous things like “High five-ing a million angels.” We need people with different experiences, perspectives, and educations, who solve problems in different ways (and who wear fanny packs) now more than ever. We need people who aren’t afraid to be authentically uncool.
I worry that we’re (everyone in the startupsphere) all drinking the same kool-aid. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read two separate times about how awesome the “discipline video” on Groupon’s unsubscribe page is. Its praises are sung in Make Something People Love by Alexis Ohanian, and Designing for Emotion by Aaron Walter.
I would hate to think that years from now my children will be reading about such a thing in their history e-textbooks. And if it’s not worthy of their time then, is it really worthy of my time now?
Groupon’s product, their core offering– their emailed deals are SO bad (mostly irrelevant to the demographic they’re reaching) that tons of people try to use their unsubscribe page, which happens to be funny. Does something like that really deserve to be the talk of the town? If you put wings on a wagon it still won’t fly. Why are we praising the bells and whistles when the product isn’t as good as it should be?
I think the “we” is to blame; like Jack we’ve surrounded ourselves with people like us and pay the most attention to the people at the top. Most of us startup folks live in cities, which have been proven to be hot-beds for innovation because of the forced interactions with others not like us. But I’d argue more and more those people are actually like us. Silicon Valley coffee shops are full of entrepreneurs grabbing lattes with other entrepreneurs- they moved there because of it. Hackers are cramming into hostels together, which were started when the creator “realized that “nerds” like herself want to be around their own kind.” We all generally read the same web publications which recommend each other and which all tout the same books offering the same examples of best practices. Many companies are being launched out of startup boxes and have the same backers and advisors offering the same advice. And when this “we” is dictating the standards of content and the future of our industry, and is pushing out ideas like the above, I think there’s cause for concern.
I hate to pull an Apple on you, but I believe we need to push ourselves to “think different” again. I think we could all benefit from adding some Liz Lemons to our pack- perhaps people who aren’t at the top of the industry or who come from a different background and have different interests than us, traveling, picking up books from lesser walked stacks in the library, and holding ourselves to a higher standard.