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  • Yoel Frischoff

Fake it till... Convicted?

A tale of overzealous audacity and a vision turned sour

Elisabeth Holmes in 2016 (Wikimedia Commons)

How far can "fake it till you make it" culture go, and when must it stop? Some thoughts about ambitious founders and aggressive business leaders.


 

Shooting for the moon

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.”

Norman Vincent Peale


Visionaries. Whole industries hinge on their capability to portray un hitherto unimaginable reality, draw an actionable roadmap, and rally their legions of engineers and marketeers to make that magic into technology, these fantasies into everyday products.


Apple's famous 1997 "Think different" campaign lauded "the crazy ones", not only because such visionaries were a large audience - they weren't - but because it echoed Apple's own prodigal founder and reinstated CEO, Steve Jobs. His vision of personal computing democratization into the creative professions was initially regarded with scorn, to say the least - and quite some time passed before his point was proven, and a whole new industry emerged.


Or take Elon Musk, if we're to talk about shooting for the moon, and his crazy idea about reusable rockets, or battery powered cars.


Or Adam Neumann, that for all his notoriety did build WeWork to what it has become, and its eventual success, should it materialize, will be credited to him almost entirely.


These visionaries and their investors are playing a dangerous and lucrative game: The higher the reward, the higher the risk they are willing to undertake.

 

Guesses, hunches, working assumptions

Trailblazers cannot, by definition, tread a beaten path. The road to their interim and long term goals is not only winding. It is rife with unknowns, that must be managed to obtain progress.


Technical goals, for example, must evolve from laboratory proof of concept, backed by theory, to fully fledge production grade mass production. Every stage in this journey is risky: Failures to obtain capabilities, adhering to quality standards, or keeping costs, while scaling up, are known to have delayed or hamper many products.


Management's role is then to mitigate those risks, find alternatives, compensate for missed goals, and drag the technology implementation through all these inevitable setbacks.


The same goes for marketing and sales plan that may, more often than not, succumb to the harsh realities of indifferent users, unwilling decision makers, and stiff competition.


Harsh reality in mind, entrepreneurs still must be ambitious, lest a lackluster vision fails to attract partners, employees, investors, and eventually the market.


It is their fervor by itself that plays a role: Their sheer power of will that may stand a chance to push through all the obstacles, of which we only hinted at few.


 

Suspension of disbelief and vision impairment


It is said about visionaries, that they emanate a field of reality distortion, necessary for ordinary people around them to become oblivious to the risks they undertake, until something gives, and the vision becomes true (or evolves).


Compelling as it may, this optimistic (and let's admit, elitist) view of visionaries' unique role in the world, has limits to it. The reality, eventually, has an ugly habit of showing when a venture is vulnerable, strapped with cash, or failing a crucial milestone. Visionaries, therefore, cannot shake off their responsibility to comply with it.


Reality checks must be planned as critical mile stones. OKRs (Objectives & Key Results) must be constantly monitored, and strategic cut-offs must be instated: What-ifs that cover the bad and the worst.


Visionaries cannot turn a blind eye when things go south, and when critical OKRs are missed. Self harming as it is, it is not only themselves they are jeopardizing. It is customers, patients, employees and investors - all hanging on leadership's integrity: When must you call it quits.


 

When visionaries go rogue


Theranos demise and Elisabeth Holmes' personal legal woes serve as a saddening warning of what may happen to visionaries and leaders, should they turn blind eye from the ugly realities in the lab (or in the sales department).


It's easy to mock Holmes' vision, now that it has failed so specularly.

It is possible to condemn Theranos' resorting to the "Mechanical turk" approach, faking blood testing at the tip of the finger while actually taking blood the regular way and using standard equipment.

In my view, had medical standards been observed, no harm would have been done to patients.


What is not acceptable, is the bending of medical procedures, putting patients at risk.

Unacceptable, too, was the stifling of authentic internal discussion within the company, and the resulting disregard to the obvious signs that Holmes' original vision must adapt.


I believe her conviction, a few weeks back, as well as her partner and alleged accomplice, Sunny Balwany's on going trial, hinge on there failure to look into the harsh realities, admit failure, and try and adapt.



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