Don’t Ignore the Obvious

My partner Larry Lenihan recently passed me a great article in Wired on the neurocognitive basis on which people absorb and discard information.  The author used the famous case of two scientists who built very sensitive radios to map the emptiness of space, and kept hearing a persistent noise.  They spent years tuning their radio telescope, clearning pigeon poop off the dish, blamed it on nuclear fallout.  Eventually and reluctantly, they accepted their equipment could be right and sought an explanation from more diverse sources.  They wound up winning the Nobel prize in physics in 1978 for discovering the cosmic “noise” associated with the Big Bang. 

 There were lots of lessons to be taken away for all participants of a startup.  Much of it involves overcoming one’s own personal biases to get to real insight.  Some examples: 

  • Seek diverse opinions early on an idea, rather than hoarding it for fear of being stolen.  The constructive dialogue process generally sharpens, not dulls.
  • When hiring, focus on the references (particularly ones not provided by the candidate) and listen to what they have to say.  Don’t fall in love with a candidate in advance and use that bias to filter out the lukewarm language.  It usually means there’s more behind it they are not saying. 
  • Continually test and seek feedback.  Try to ask for the check as early as possible, because that is when you learn whether the market truly values what you implicitly believe is valuable and are spending resources building. 
  • In fundraising, don’t ignore the “nos”.  Many may not get it, but there could be good lessons learned in other situations that one should be mindful of and avoid.
  • When stuck on solving an issue, try to bring in completely fresh perspectives that aren’t stuck in the weeds.  They can look from the outside, borrowing concepts from other disciplines even in the technology space.

 Overcoming mental blind spots has become a hot new area around improving “Executive Function”.   The more we are aware of the bias, open to hearing issues, and resolving in light of them, the better the businesses we build will be.

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