When things go wrong

Things can go sideways in any company or organization, regardless of size or industry.

You don’t have to be evil or stupid for this to happen. Markets change constantly, and timing and luck have a lot to do with whether your product is successful over time.

Often, there are opportunities to course correct before the problem(s) become major. But seeing those opportunities (and acting on them) depends heavily on building good culture.

At a team level, if you are a manager, director, or executive cutting headcount or delivering a performance improvement plan (corporate lingo for “you’re not doing well and need to get it together”), it’s already too late.

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How pattern matching builds over time

It's been a while since I wrote about choosing your work in the midst of turmoil.

Some of that is because of the normal hustle of building a new thing from scratch (I'm currently working on ABQ Creates), and some of it is because I'm feeling the same political / structural extremes we're all being subjected to right now, and trying to figure out what type of value I need to deliver to help with the situation. 

One of the things that entrepreneurs of any sort struggle with (the good ones anyway), is not just the value of their own work and/or company, but what it means in a broader ecosystem.

If you're designing a matching platform, for example, you may be able to make money and grow a company, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're doing a good job. Uber's continued struggle with both their business model and (lack of) ethical structure internally illustrates how good things can look while simultaneously being a trash fire that threatens to overwhelm any value provided. 

The best founders that I've met care a lot about pattern matching - that is, making sure that the company's value is clear in both directions to audiences, customers, and employees.

If your value is aligned correctly, you can easily say "Cool idea! But we are working on something else" or "Let's run a test for the next 6 months growing this product area that our customers are consistently asking for." 

If your value is not aligned correctly, if someone gets to your landing page, product, event, etc. and it turns out you were telling them one thing but delivering another, there's almost nothing you can do to fix the situation. Even if you quickly pivot to provide what they expected, you've already created a pattern mismatch.

Mostly, pattern matching is about knowing what you are testing vs. what already works, and making sure that what you say or present matches what you actually do. Over time, pattern matching correctly builds audiences, customers, fans, and helps you grow individually and as an organization/company.

It's also a hedge against bad ethics, one-hit wonders, and non-sustainable business practices. 

The power of looking for patterns that don't match

Pattern matching at it's most basic is about finding things that seem to fit together. 

In venture capital that often means looking at startups and interpreting what works well, or what makes a good entrepreneur. There are plenty of problems with the method - Chris Dixon wrote about a few of them in 2012, and there is significant research that suggests that pattern matching through things like gender and race may unconsciously lead to much narrower ideas of what works, and poorer outcomes for picking winners.

But one of the things that's not dug out as often is that looking for patterns that don't match is a valuable skill. Another way of thinking about it is: everyone wants to know what makes a winner, but not enough people want to know why something doesn't work, why a pattern you expected to fit, simply doesn't. As it turns out, those tend to be the underpinning to finding patterns that create growth in a company (and probably as an individual, too). 

For example, one of the most complex questions in an early stage business is: we've found something that works, but how do we know it will last? You can pattern match your way to more users or customers ("hey this works let's do more of it"), but unless you're paying attention to which patterns don't match, you'll likely get hit hard when a tactic doesn't work. There's a very small peek at that struggle in a recent update from Mike Wilner at Compass, which matches designers/developers to small business owners & entrepreneurs who need a smart, basic website.

Both sides of the coin are important. You have to be willing to seek things that don't make sense, because they can help you hedge against your own unconscious bias. And it increases your ability to see things at a much larger scale, instead of simply chasing things that fit what you've already run into.