Startup general interest

The correlation between intellectual honesty and great companies

Intellectual honesty is tough, but a powerful enhancer of company performance and driver of personal growth. That’s the message of this post from Joanna Lord, and I couldn’t agree more.

Here’s how she puts it:

I think great companies appreciate intellectual honesty. I’ve seen this at Porch. The past few weeks I’ve pushed on some big things and asked some hard questions. I’ve actually blown up a few email threads…not because I want to. Or even because I had to. But because I believed an argument needed to be made for the greater good. Greater good can be the customer, the team or even the bottom line. There are lots of “greater goods” that demand that sort of risk.

Lesser companies punish people for those risks. They shut you down. They ignore your concern. They silence it with sentences like “we’ll get to that later” or “good point, but we’re just too far along to rethink that.” Great companies stop. They pause. Acknowledge the point made and give it at least a few minutes to breathe.

It doesn’t mean that the argument made wins out. In fact, I’d bet most times it doesn’t. But there is something really special about allowing it to breathe. This sort of respect for intellectual honesty breeds empowerment. It reminds everyone in the room that we all have voices and bring perspectives and experiences that are valuable. It kills bureaucracy and rewards gumption.

Startups have to make decisions based on imperfect information all the time. That means mistakes. Intellectual honesty is key to quick course correction when those mistakes happen. Heaven help the startup that says “we’re just too far along to rethink that”.

Similarly empowerment, rewarding gumption and avoiding bureaucracy are also things founders and CEOs should aspire to.

But intellectual honesty is tough too. It’s tough on individuals and teams who spend more time in uncertain and uncomfortable places (although that way lies personal growth) and it’s tough on startups who want to progress rapidly whilst hearing all voices.

As with so much in life the key is striking the right balance. Individuals should develop good judgement about when something is worth mentioning, worth fighting for, or should be kept on watch for a while. Companies should develop a culture that encourages speaking out, coaches individuals to help them develop judgement, requires that people get behind decisions that have been made, but have regular review points, and not allow intellectual honesty to be a cover for unconstructive criticism or snarking.