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Monday, July 27, 2015

Is running a startup (like Uber) comparable to running a country (like Georgia)?

I used to work for a head of state: Mikheil "Misha" Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia.

I had done a fellowship over there in 2001 and I had "worked" (with no idea what i was doing, but loving it) in the Ministry of justice under Misha, who later resigned, led the opposition to the Eduard Shevardnadze government, and became president.

My former boss, Giorgi Arveladze, invited me back as a consultant, and most of what I did was organize international conferences that involved bringing in people from several different ministries to cooperate in conducting and chaperoning the whole event. (There had been some pretty disastrous organizational and security failures at previous conferences.)

I tried to do a little policy advising by writing policy memos but I got zero response. I also tried to get them to take up an American company up on their offer to build wimax towers throughout the country for free, and charge subscribers for service month-to-month, but couldn't get it through the bureaucracy.

The experience made me realize how many different kinds of difficulty there are in running organizations. There is the difficulty of making the results be good. There is the difficulty of exerting your will as a leader. There is the difficulty of bringing people together by forging unity instead of disjointed efforts at cross purposes. There is the difficulty of staying in power. There is the difficulty of growing healthy decision making within the organization. And there is the difficulty of getting people to shut up and get on board with the project.

The president was good at some things and bad at others. From a liberal American perspective, he was alarmingly braggadocious, power-hungry and heavy-handed, but from a Georgian perspective those qualities were just fine and the bigger problem was that he got satisfied with his reforms too quickly, chose loyalty over competence and let his ruling party enjoy the spoils of power when there weren't enough wins to justify the largesse.

Georgians really expected that any leader worth his salt would muster the army and march into the separatist regions that are very much controlled by Russia and kick the Russians out. It turned out that the Georgian Army, even equipped and trained for the United States, was completely ineffective. The citizenry also picked up, correctly, that all of the talk of rule of law didn't really apply to the political and economic elite, and they were really disgusted by the mildly thuggish violence that the government used to suppress dissent (which rarely registers here in the US, for reasons I don't understand). Perhaps if the president had been more talented and crafty and in tune with the culture, like Putin, and perhaps if he had been able to achieve military victories, he would still be in power and popular. It's hard to know.

(That last 'if' is a big one... but it's interesting to think about what might have been. Early on it wasn't clear Russia would be such a total opponents; Putin invited them to visit Kremlin, eg. And through diplomacy/strategy/military presence, Georgia did wrest control back of one of the three Russia-aligned separatist regions, albeit the one of the three that was farthest from Russia in every sense. They never had a very effective Minister of Defense. There might have been room for better strategy that aligned politics, strategic diplomacy and military acumen. The current government has been taking a more conciliatory path vis. Russia, though that is unpopular.)

I think in many respects the job of being president seemed like running a unicorn startup like Uber, in that you have to figure out how to juggle a million balls, how to delegate and trust people very fast, how to articulate a vision, how to keep your organization driven and focused.

What was different was that you just have so many more kinds of audiences to please in different ways. And you're almost destined to fail eventually because almost no politicians on that scale are able to maintain a high approval rating for more than a few years; whereas a good startup CEO who grows the company quickly can become a long-term leader.

That is to say, if Apple and Amazon and Google were countries or states or whatever, I don't think the leaders who were in charge 15 years ago would still be in charge. At a company, when you fire a somewhat popular vice pres. who has followers and is embedded in complex ways, it might be messy but when they're gone, they're gone. They don't start appearing on TV and telling everyone what a joke you are on the inside and start an opposition party and campaign against you.

You're also not up against the deeply held moral beliefs of all of the people who do or don't support you in various ways. Maybe you want to adopt some controversial organizational structure or something, maybe sometimes what you're doing seems crazy, but you're basically always trying to grow the company and the business. Other people who agree with those goals are going to agree with you more often than they disagree.

But in politics you have people who have not just differing ideas but fundamentally contradictory values. No one would pick up a gun to defend Uber, but millions of people would pick up guns to defend various rights and principles that they might not even be able to articulate. We are still trying to figure out what motivated hundreds of thousands of Americans who slaughtered each other in the Civil War. Whereas we know the motivations of every single person who works for or uses Uber, and they're all basically rational.

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