Sharpen the contradictions

Conflict management done right. Bring out the conflicts and don’t bury them under feelings or the fear of being called out for messing something up. In a startup, that could be a killer.

Taking an idea from just an idea stage to application requires time and an incredible effort. Startup founders with their amazing vision to change the world draw to them a team of equally amazing domain experts who can help make that dream come true. When it’s just a founder and a co-founder, the process of communication is easy, there’s no formal process and no need for anything like that either. But as the team grows, there exists a greater chance to screw things up. Also because we have more people, communication becomes more challenging. Maintaining a clear line of communication and command are absolutely necessary so that your startup’s operations can be as streamlined as possible.

The revolutionary thinker Karl Marx said in relation to labor and means of production:

We must sharpen the contradictions. (An excerpt from Ben Horowitz’s interview)

I think the last three words: Sharpen the contradictions is probably the most useful three-word advice I can give to anyone, ever. The idea behind this is not in the same context as labor and capital but instead in terms of conflict management. As any team approaches a problem, it is natural to think about different possible solutions. Some of these might conflict with each other. Picking a solution, it doesn’t matter if it’s the right one or not, must be a careful choice because of the message it sends the individual who came up with the alternative. They might act in a defensive manner and that’s natural. Conflicts over just about an issue can come up in a startup but what’s critical is how you as a founder handles them.

Photo credit: Rick Schupp

The absolute worst thing you can do is try to soften the blow, or sugar-coat the issues that have come up or accumulated in a team as a result of problems such as picking one solution vs another. Similarly, the next worst response is to promise one of the parties that you will favor them the next time. This will only lead to more politics emerging in the long-run as your startup scales. Trying to go for a short-term resolution of the problem will only cause more trouble in the long-term.

When a conflict arises, sharpen the contradictions. Sharpen the underlying causes of it and bring them to surface to resolve them. Don’t sugar-coat them. Don’t hide behind the, “Oh they will naturally resolve themselves over the time” because they won’t and what you will be left with an unmotivated and dysfunctional team looking for silver bullets.

In The Hard Thing About Hard Things Ben (@bhorowitz) mentions that startups should stop looking for a silver bullet. So what’s a silver bullet? From a team-member standpoint, a silver-bullet is a personal opinion that would fix all their problems. Often silver bullets are external solutions to internal problems. Let me explain, Ben talks about his time at Netscape when they were making money selling server products and Microsoft had just announced that they would launch their server product for free with the windows operating system. The employees came up with all sorts of solutions like let’s acquire a company that has X features which will save us. The solution here was not to acquire another company but just buckle down and build a better product.

The team starts to look for silver bullets and fantasy solutions when they are not working towards a clear vision. Eric Reis (@ericries) said in one of this talks that when people get confused about what to do, they look at their business card. Oh my business card says Senior Architect, so let me go write some code. Without really understand why they are doing that. These are results of not sharpening the contradictions, each one of them absolutely lethal, so get to sharpening them.