Life is about loops.
Sometimes it is easy to make the assumption that life is a series of discrete events and choices. We believe that life is like a stone skipping crisply across the surface of a lake. There is a singular point of contact and then we are just along for the ride until the next point of contact.
This assumption is incorrect.
Life is about loops. The iterative processes and actions that define our life, behavior, and businesses.
Things are rarely as simple as action and reaction. This may occur in science experiments that take place in a closed system. Life is more often a series of interconnected systems where the outcomes have some level of impact upon the next impact.
Think about driving. An action that seems like second nature to most of us is actually a complex loop involving multiple neural and physical systems. You are only able to drive because of the short feedback loops between these systems. Moving the steering wheel causes the car to change direction. This feedback is relatively quick and direct which allows your brain to either A) keep turning or B) stop turning.
A key lesson to be learned from driving and applied widely across our personal and professional lives is that a key to operating a system successfully is to keep feedback loops short and direct.
Shoulda, woulda, OODA
A lot of the modern thinking around loops and systems started Air Force Colonel John Boyd. Boyd developed a concept called the OODA loop that is still widely utilized in military and business strategy today. It is a decision-making framework whereby decisions are made by constantly cycling through the loop of Observe Orient Decide Act. In aerial dogfighting between fighter jets, the fastest or most heavily armored plane is not who wins, it is the pilot who can react most quickly to changes in circumstances. Utilizing the OODA loop methodology, pilots can cycle through decision trees extremely quickly. Less focus is placed on making the correct decision as is focused on making decisions quickly, examining the results, re-orientating accordingly, and then taking action again.
OODA loops and the underlying theory that agility overcomes superior resources serve as the bedrock for modern business strategy and technological development. (For a great podcast and loops in business, check out this episode of Invest Like The Best)
Why startups win
Agile software development and the lean startup movement are two examples of this kind of thinking. In both cases, the lengths of feedback loops are minimized and decision making is pushed as close to the customer as possible. Resources are front-loaded and experiments are run and re-run so that teams can get feedback quickly and make adjustments as necessary.
This is why startups can go toe to toe against massive incumbents and win. Usually, success isn't a case of simply throwing resources at a problem. Startups beat incumbents because they can act and react so much quicker. By the time that a large incumbent has gotten the ship turned in the right direction, the startup already has such a large headstart that it has captured the hearts and minds of the consumer.
Issues occur when feedback loops are too long. A prime example of this is diet and exercise. We all know eating healthy and exercising is good for us. So why don’t more of us do it? The answer is that the feedback loops are long with these activities. You may not see results from your effort for weeks or months. It is easy to get discouraged while the immediate gratification of Grandma’s chocolate cake is immediately available.
Now, this is a massive issue for my industry.
Why the long pace?
Venture Capital is notorious for having extremely long feedback loops. Those startups that are successful enough to have a positive outcome will often spend 5 to 10 years getting there. And this trend is only elongating as companies are staying private for longer. As such, it will take an EXTREMELY long time to figure out whether your decision to invest in one company or another was the right one. Because the feedback loops are so long, it makes it almost impossible to alter your strategy and adjust.
So how do you deal with these long feedback loops? That is the challenge. Here are some ideas I have come up with.
1) Focus on building a repeatable process
Ahh the classic Erik Berg Process suggestion. You knew it was coming. I’m a big process guy. What can I say? When feedback loops are long, the importance of having a good, repeatable process is magnified. Notice what I said. Simply having a process isn’t enough. First, it has to be a good process. Having a bad process is worse than having no process at all because it will likely either reinforce poor decisions or give you false-confidence about your decisions. Second, it has to be a repeatable process. Your perfect process will do you know good unless it is flexible enough to be applied across different opportunities. It also will do you no good if the process is so cumbersome and painful that you struggle to get other stakeholders, entrepreneurs in my case, to get through it. Having a bad process in venture opens you up for MASSIVE issues. You may find yourself with a due diligence process that is so painfully slow and cumbersome, you aren’t flexible enough to be opportunistic on good deals and, even worse, you may experience adverse selection bias as the best entrepreneurs are unwilling to put up with jumping through your hoops.
What does that good process look like in Venture? Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. What works with one segment or geography may not work for another. But it is something that you should spend significant time and energy being thoughtful about. Don’t do things just to tick a box on your checklist, be purposeful and make sure every step in your process drives tangible value for either you or the entrepreneur (ideally both).
2) Document your decisions
With long feedback loops, it is almost impossible to remember the set of facts or thoughts around a decision months or years later. This makes documentation of the utmost importance. If you won’t know whether a decision was successful or not until years later, you need to have enough documentation to be able to come back to it and review what was going through your mind at the time and how that mapped against how things eventually would play out. Were your assumptions correct? Did you anticipate all the exogenous threats? Was your understanding of internal dynamics accurate in hindsight?
You won’t be able to ask yourself the right questions, much less answer them, unless you are documenting decisions effectively. Note that this does NOT mean that you need to write a novel recounting the most minute aspects of every decision. Remember what I said about having an efficient process? This is definitely a case where more does not equal better. How does the saying go? “It was too hard to write you a letter on one page so I wrote it on four.” As in all other aspects of communication, decision documentation should strive for clarity and conciseness. It is better to write one accurate and poignant page than it is to write twelve that are not. (This is also true in blogging and something that I am desperately trying to get better at.)
3) Audit yourself
Hey, remember when I said that it was important to document your decisions? Believe it or not, that is very much predicated on your willingness to go back and actually look back at your decisions. It is amazing how few people and firms do this. More often the self-analysis only goes as far as: “Decision right = skill. Decision wrong = bad luck”.
Have the courage to look in the mirror at all your mistakes. Go back and try to understand where your head was at the time. Use your clear and concise documentation to figure out where you went wrong and how you can react better in the future. The reasons people don’t do this are two-fold. One, people are lazy and this takes time. Sorry, you are just going to have to suck this one up if you ever want to improve. Two, people don’t like admitting they were at fault for their errors. This intellectual humility is what sets the best from the rest.
4) Measure using an intermittent proxy
If you won’t know if something is successful for a long time, try to find indicators with which to orientate yourself even before something is fully baked. Look at the exercise example I used previously. If you focus on how you look in the mirror, it will be extremely hard to stay motivated. If you instead focus on the energy you feel after a workout or the weights/reps you were able to lift, you will have a much easier time staying motivated. You will see progress all along the way instead of only once you reach your destination.
William at Frontline Ventures has an excellent article detailing how he and the Frontline team utilized the intermittent proxy measure of future financings to measure a company’s success. It isn’t a perfect measure (just ask WeWork), but it was good enough to give a directional indication of whether they were on the same track or not. Based on the data they gathered, they realized that they were missing out on deals because their process was too slow. Accordingly, they adjusted their process to be more nimble so they wouldn’t continue to fall into this pitfall.
Staying in the Loop
Life is about loops.
Move nimbly and purposefully. Make sure to pick your head up often enough to adjust your direction as necessary. Design good processes that you can repeat scalably and effectively.
Remember: David beat Goliath.
Speed wins and to be fast you need to be able to design tight feedback loops.