Are You Adding Value?

I think Peter Thiel (and Blake Masters through his essay notes of Stanford’s CS 183 Class: Startup) really makes a poignant point:  Just because something is hard, doesn’t mean it adds value to the world.

I can press the Z key on my keyboard for 15 hours straight a day and it will be tiring and yes, I did work, and yeah, it may get hard (after hour 10), but does that necessarily mean I added value to anything going on around me? This is, of course, a facetious example, but hopefully you get the point.

We confuse the two because it’s harder to judge for ourselves what actually adds value to the world, and what doesn’t.  So we use “hard work” and “difficulty” as a proxy.  (Again stealing from CS 183 Essay notes). Tim Ferriss also points this out in his book, 4 Hour Workweek.  The point he is trying to make is not that we should only work 4 hours a week, but that in most corporate jobs, we only add 4 hours of real value a week.  And if we can figure out which 4 hours of work will provide us that value, we can get away with it.  Essentially, most workplaces have low expectations and don’t maximize human potential.

But I think that’s what differentiates a startup from a normal job.  At a startup, you have to be able to deliver 40-50 hours of actual value a week, in order to just…survive.  So really, the best startup teams consist of people who not only understand what is “valuable” to the company, but they also know how to create their own work to deliver that value.

It’s really the difference between being able to follow directions on a map, and being able to create the entire map from scratch.

So really, I think when we say we want to maintain the “startup feel”, we’re not talking about the number of ping pong tables per square foot of office space.  We’re really talking about human capital utilization: Imagine every single employee was trained to discern “value”, and not only that, knew how to transform that to actual work? Imagine how employee satisfaction would skyrocket- knowing they were contributing to something greater than themselves.  It would be the end of busy work as we know it.   

Which begs the question, would we even need management anymore?  Is flat management, which Valve Corporation is most famous for promoting, the future of business as we know it?   In this era of rapid technological progress (and subsequently, the era of the knowledge worker), do we need decentralized management structures in order to promote innovation and progress?  To put it a different way, are our traditional systems and processes of “management” outdated?  Are they made for an industrial, Henry Ford assembly line-esque culture which, as the past decade of outsourcing has proved, not the American competitive advantage?  Do we need systems and place to help the knowledge worker thrive?  Is startup culture the answer?    

I don’t have a good answer, but these are the things I think about.  


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