Reflecting on my practice – innovation calls for gentleness

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

The placenta is a unique adaptive organ among mammals. Its role is to keep peace between the mother’s immune system and the foetus by dampening the mother’s immune response.

This description of the placenta, which I read in David Quanmen’s The tangled tree, made me reflect on this aspect of innovation. That every new idea begins its life as non-self, in the mind of its originator, and in any circle where it spreads.

For innovation to take, therefore, you must reduce immune response from the ego. You must temper the knee-jerk reaction that says ‘this is not for me and I will get rid of it’. You must create conditions calm enough, peaceful enough, that an idea can enter and modify you. 

Innovation requires blurring the barriers of the self. With this comes a sense of vulnerability. Any threat of aggression, therefore, or whatever prompts a lifting of the shield, will reduce the likelihood of new ideas emerging.

As a facilitator, my primary goal is calm. I reduce energy, because innovation threatens the self, and therefore demands gentleness. The same applies to my editorial work. Soften the message, reduce the sense of threat, keep egos asleep.

Reflecting on my practice – what to ask a start-up founder

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

Start-ups typically fail. That’s entrepreneurship 101. Yet founders are typically deluded about the chances of their start-up failing. Worse, success may well depend in part on their delusion, their capacity to convince others, and to keep going against the odds.

When a founder presents their project, particularly when they want something from you, they will probably tread a fine line between honesty, and distortion of reality. Never believe that ‘90% done’ means what it sounds like – it’s often a polite expression for ‘we’ve kind of spoken about it once’.

I’m trusting by nature, and by choice. Working around innovation circles, I often hung out with founders – and learned some wisdom through naivety. From first and second-hand experience, I identified four areas where early stage start-ups are likely to fail, and founders to present a distorted image. I’m sharing those few notes here, in hope that they will be useful for others intending to join an emerging project.

Funding. Building a new venture requires competent people devoting long periods of concentrated time to a project. Those people will probably want some income to pay their bills – not to mention, pay for co-working space, materials, or other business expenses. Start-ups are typically money-poor, yet founders usually confident that the money will come. So, make sure you check how dependent progress is on funding, how much is in the bank right now, and how advanced discussions are with potential backers.   

Technology. Founders often have a distorted relationship to time. Present and future are not clearly distinct. Ideas are presented as complete plans; blueprints as tested prototypes. This confidence extends beyond the realm of the venture. Experimental prototypes from other companies are often identified and presented as available technology. So, whenever someone tells you they’re building a complex AI system, or whatever new piece of hardware or software – check the details of where exactly they’re at, especially if you’re not a tech person. Is there a prototype? Has it been tested? In what setting exactly? And what are the results?

Team. Start-ups attract exceptional talent, high achievers and award winners. You see those names and titles on pitch decks and investment documents. If they believe in the project, then surely, so should I? Except those names on file are likely not full-time workers, or even working at all. ‘Advisory board member’ might mean ‘pops a message once every six months‘. And all credentials are, most likely, inflated – or at least presented from the best angle. So, use the same wisdom you would on a dating app. Are those people actually in? Do they have other commitments? How accurate are their profiles? 

Culture. Start-up life promises a certain form of freedom and excitement. There is often much talk about culture, working to your strengths, and supporting a great team to do their best. This, however, is likely to clash with the founders’ narcissism, quirks, or simple human limitations. So, check in very carefully before committing. How exactly will you be valued? Will you be listened to? Will your needs actually be met? Importantly – try raising the question of power. When push comes to shove, who makes final decisions, and if there is conflict, how will it be solved?

If the founder refuses to give you details on any of those matters – take it as a warning. Yet, remember – they’re more invested than you are, and their delusion is a condition of success, so don’t be too harsh. Risky as it may be – betting on founders may still be the best option we have. Hey – did I mention I’ve been a founder myself?

Writing as entrepreneurship

A first book has two potential sources: boldness or boredom.

From an economic perspective at least, writing is bold. It is about putting a lot of effort into a venture that is most likely to fail. Writing a book is risk taking, driven by a vision, in the hope of an uncertain, but disproportionate reward.

Writing, in short, is best compared with entrepreneurship (hence my irritation with ‘pay the writer’ discourses, which I believe used an incorrect category) .

An alternative, of course, if that people write because they have nothing better to do, the cost is low, and they might as well try. And maybe, that is also true for entrepreneurs.

Career paths

I never believed in career; now my belief is put to the test.

Until the end of June, I had a great part-time job with the Victorian government. I worked in evaluation and strategy, a stimulating role, and a chance to learn about governance and management. Working for the government aligned with my commitment to the common good. And the conditions of the job – three days a week, with flexible working hours, and a very short commute home – gave me the necessary free time to set up Marco Polo Project in the first place.

This job has now ended. The government decided to cut down 10% of their staff. I was on a fixed-term contract – usual status for recent arrivals. And although I was part of a winning team for last year’s innovation challenge, got in an Asia-leadership program, and can speak Chinese, my contract was not renewed. It seems either the Baillieu government does not actually consider Asian engagement a priority, or there’s a flaw somewhere in their HR system.

In the short term, this leaves me with a problem to solve. I need income. I can’t work full-time and run the Marco Polo Project. And I don’t have much time to filter and apply for jobs.

I therefore started wondering, is there any support group, or official policy, for people like me, to help them find suitable jobs? Melbourne is a creative, innovative city. This is because it has large numbers of artists and social entrepreneurs – many of which work part-time at various jobs. Our activities, although they do not have a direct dollar value, contribute to the general well-being, are a serious argument for tourism, and contribute to talented executives, academics and professionals choosing to settle in Melbourne. We’re contributing significantly to the community, we’ve got skills and we’re happy to work. But we don’t have time to look, and we need flexibility. Would any firm develop an ‘easy job’ sponsorship – where instead of giving a novelist a grant, you give them a front-desk reception job, and access to the building’s rooms after hours? Or is there any business out there who would like to support dialogue and understanding with China, and help the goal by giving me some part-time position?