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The Startup is A Dialectic

Thought Leader

By Mark DeSantis, CEO of RoadBotics

A startup is a dialectic, and dangerously so.

Eighteenth-century philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel lived for ideas and ideals. He believed truth is the outcome of opposing views coming into conflict (e.g., perfect the product vs. release now, raise a little or a lot of money now, etc.). And that “truth” is not so much a compromise as a synthesis of the opposing views (e.g., do a “soft” minimum viable product release, etc.) where a new, collective understanding is ultimately (hopefully) reached. Dialectical argument is the foundation of legal systems, the political process and education. Yet the startup-as-dialectic concept, where arguments become the preferred means of building a company, is something Hegel would have called a bad idea.

Dialectical arguments play out daily in startups: techies vs. “suits,” software engineers vs. mathematicians, funders vs. founders, founders vs. founders and on and on. However, Hegel also knew argument – not of the angry pound-the-table sort, but thoughtful, rational, fact-based dialectics – rarely results in the great leaps that are an essential part of a startup’s evolution. The problem with argument is not the fact that arguments happen, in startups or anywhere else. They’re natural, expected and often useful. The problem with arguments is when they repeat again and again as nothing more than different versions of the same argument.

During World War II, the U.S. Army Air Corps hoped to armor U.S. bombers, both to protect the pilot and to extend the plane’s performance. An argument ensued in the Air Corps between some wanting more armor and others wanting less. The argument continued until a synthesis was reached where some bombers would receive some armor. With this argument resolved, the Air Corps needed to figure out how and where to put the armor.

“I force myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.” —Marcel Duchamp

Fortunately, the Air Corps kept detailed records on damage to returning aircraft, which showed that shrapnel and bullet holes tended to accumulate along the wings, around the tail gunner and down the center of the plane’s body. As a result, the Air Corps needed to choose how much and where to apply the armor, given this data, and do so without compromising the plane’s performance. Again, another dialectic back-and-forth commenced, but this time the Air Corps turned to an outside party: something called the Applied Mathematics Panel and, in particular, an extraordinary statistician named Abraham Wald.

The Army expected Wald to do a detailed technical analysis. But Wald quickly concluded that the arguments to armor or not to armor, let alone where and how much were pointless. He pointed out that the Air Corps was using data from aircraft that survived. The planes that didn’t survive missions were the only planes that could tell how, where and why planes were most vulnerable but that data was obviously not available to the Air Corps or anyone else. In fact, the data the Air Corps was using about where and how much to armor showed the parts of the plane that were the least vulnerable. In short, the Air Corps had fallen  prey to something called survivor bias, where we look for lessons in winning from only those that “won” or survived but not from those that did not survive. The Air Corps would not be the first nor the last to fall prey to this all too common fallacy.

Wald’s presence in the dialectic speaks to Hegel’s warning about relying on the dialectic to advance the cause of a startup. However well-intentioned and thoughtful the arguments for or against a given choice, strategy, hire or spend, the desire to win that argument can so narrow the scope of discussion about alternatives and ideas that the argument itself becomes not only irrelevant, but dangerously so. To paraphrase a common expression, “It’s like arguing about the quantity of deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Our passions are highest when the lives, reputations and dignity of those we care most about are at stake. And passions beget strongly held views. Startups, often fueled mainly by passion – and not much more – are fertile soil for strongly held views. But it is in the argument’s resolution where startups can go wrong. All of us can, at different times and for different reasons, be so caught up in winning an argument that consideration of ideas, notions and possibilities outside of the argument get lost or never even considered. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Our lives are defined by opportunities, even the ones we missed.”