The Tragedy of Heroes

In times of crisis, everyone just gets stuff done to keep the boat afloat and ship that one, promised feature. Young startups are constantly in crisis: pivoting, shucking and jiving, all hands on deck, working all night to get the demo up. They need heroes who can do anything and everything. They don’t have time to explain or document, and everything is changing anyway — “what’s the point?”

Some people thrive in a chaotic environment. It engages their complete concentration and creativity. They are praised and rewarded for how much they can do and, often, how much effort they put into doing it. They know where things break, what they look like when they break, and how to fix them (at least in the short term). They like the environment; it fits them, it finds them, it breeds them. They are heroes

A startup entering adolescence has these heroic veterans of the early battles. As it expands, it adds inexperienced, eager, junior developers, and perhaps senior staff brought in to help the culture mature. The heroes might not see any point in changing the culture (it fits them, remember). They might assume that new hires should mould themselves to their heroic way of doing things (e.g. their programming style). They might not be interested in explaining their previous choices (“just look at the code”). They are less likely to learn new techniques, often because the systems they built and preserve are customized and idiomatic. They continue to be rewarded because their systems still break and needs fixing, albeit a little less often

Heroes probably intellectually understand that having a culture of sharing, procedures, and documentation allows everyone to learn, fix things, and even handle crises, but their experience and reflexes, perhaps even their inclination, encourage continued heroics. They have real and reasonable excuses for not doing anything except GSD, and for not following new procedures that “get in the way”

Some heroes simply refuse to teach or to learn how to do it well, perhaps because they are often “naturals”: they learned heuristically instead of didactically,. Some heroes are unaware of their ingrained, often subconscious, resistance to culture without frequent crises and without a hero-role for them. As startups mature, these heroes will learn to join a shield wall instead of being berserkers or they will find a new organization (e.g. a young startup) that benefits from crisis and heroic measures

One plants seed corn to grow more corn and uses one’s best to train the next generation. If one eats one’s seed-corn or puts instructors in the field, one can see huge performance gains in the short-term at the cost of not having a medium-term at all


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