A length of chain

Do you live in the world of Jack Bauer or Mare of Easttown?

founder experience management risk Feb 01, 2022

Over the weekend there was an insightful comment about political life within the Palace of Westminster: ‘Everyone outside parliament thinks everything that goes on is like House of Cards. Everyone inside thinks that it is like The West Wing. But, to be honest, it’s more like the comedy drama Skins.’ We should be grateful it’s not A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or one of the Carry On films. Our lives are played out on stages that can resemble popular drama. Which got us thinking, what are the best dramatic analogies for founders?

There won’t be a founder on the planet who does not feel some sort of affinity to Jack Bauer. He is the hero of 24, a series now twenty years old, in which a counter-terrorist unit has to save the world from a succession of increasingly nasty villains. The series rarely makes people’s lists of favourite TV dramas, but it was a watershed in long-form TV storytelling. A single story is told in real-time over twenty four episodes, with production quality values and kinetic action only ever seen at the cinema. Jack Bauer was the equivalent of a small screen Bond, overcoming with every conceivable obstacle.

24 follows the classic dramatic paradigm of stimulus and response, or action and reaction. Once the story begins with an inciting incident, such as the revelation of a plot, then Bauer is forced to act. He chases the one lead that is open to him. This triggers a new lead, which in turn he must follow. And so on. Over the course of each series, the leads, events and perils escalate steadily in a carefully crafted chain of events. It is like a controlled chemical reaction releasing energy to propel the hero along a set path. The causal conditions between events in the sequence is clear. We know the plot will unfold in a predictable, linear way. We don’t mind because it’s not a mystery. It is a thrilling drama. Our pleasure comes from the anticipation of the next challenge and suspense of seeing how (rather than if) Jack will solve it.

This feels very much like the dramatic world of start-ups. One where the path ahead has been mapped out by the thousands of start-ups that have gone before. Where the world can be systemised and codified into playbooks, roadmaps, and even start-up life stages. Just like Jack Bauer, founders have a single path to follow which leads them to the next link in the chain of success. Idea leads to customer discovery, which leads to MVP, which leads to PMF, which leads to scaling, which leads to global expansion, which leads to a Hawaiian estate and weekend BBQs with Mark Zuckerberg. The cash countdown clock is ticking and founders must get to the finish line before it runs out.

Having looked to the outside world for initial inspiration, the founder’s focus is often business-centric. This is driven by the belief that if they do the right thing they can force the market to respond. If they design the solution and the business well they have a great chance of succeeding. Founders of start-ups are the originators, disrupters and change agents. Don’t worry about the competition. Instead, make them worry about you, by finding new and better ways of doing things. The unexpected can, and does, happen. There is a long sequence of obstacles and setbacks to overcome. But just like Jack Bauer, founders have a high degree of agency. They can’t control events, but they can use their entrepreneurial skills to overcome them. All they need to do is to survive to the season finale, and whatever emotional and physical wounds they have suffered will be healed by the knowledge that they prevailed (or exited).

There is much truth in this dramatic world view. But founders should be aware that there are others. Take for instance, the recent smash hit, Mare of Easttown.  At first glance there are similarities between the heroine, Mare Sheehan, and Jack Bauer. They are both law enforcement officials. They have broken families and carry the resulting emotional baggage. They are loners who struggle to share the burden with colleagues. They are willing to sacrifice all. But Mare does not live in the world of 24. It is a completely different dramatic universe. One where there is no obvious next step. No linear path. Whereas Jack has unlimited freedom to act, Mare is restrained not so much by the law, but by the community relationships in which she is enmeshed. If Jack Bauer has to follow a chain, Mare must escape from a web. Her world is infinitely more complex, and her mode of operating relies more on knowing and working the overall network.

This requires an entirely different skill-set. One where decisions are based on their second- and perhaps even third-order effects. These effects are the consequences of any action. They may be unforeseen and unintentional. But they are still there and very powerful. Let’s look at the moment when an angry father throws a carton of milk through Mare’s window. If that had happened in 24, Jack would have had only one choice: to rush outside to confront (i.e. kill) or chase the assailant. That’s the dominant logic of his dramatic universe. Mare has also that option, but she makes a different decision. She does nothing. She knows if she tries to arrest him, she will needlessly punish an over-emotional father and alienate the community, thereby undermining her investigation, which is dependent upon public support.

Many founders will recognise this more complex, inter-connected world of systems and networks. That’s because the world is a very connected place. We can see second- and third-order effects wherever we choose to look. Take for example, the policy of expanding the university sector because degrees were seen to be a valuable passport to better jobs. The policy has on paper been a success, with a massive uptake in graduates. But it had the unintended consequences of devaluing degrees and making graduates less employable. It also had third-order effects, of creating massive student debt and generating billions of Government loans that will never be repaid, placing strain on the public purse. Could none of this have been foreseen?    

As Isaac Newton said, ‘for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction’. This is similar for business. When you act, you also force others to react and respond. It’s like throwing a stone into a pond: ripples will result. They may not be visible to the naked eye, but they will be there. Competitor firms will be learning more about you and the market, and adjusting their own plans, budgets and solutions. It makes sense to look for those reactions and to anticipate what they might be. Because ultimately, the effectiveness of any decision or course of action must be judged on its final consequence. What happens at the every end of the chain, or in the last circle or ripple of consequences? This is what needs to be positive and in your favour. And what if the best long-term outcome is triggered by the lesser or worst immediate option you have to decide on? Jack Bauer could never not take an optimal short-term decision, because he would be dead or the terrorists would prevail. But as a founder, you may have to.

If, like Jack Bauer, you can win every battle, you can focus on your actions and following the chain. But if you can’t be sure, then try thinking more like Mare Sheehan. Consider the second- and third-order consequences of your actions. Practice what Ron Adler called The Wider Lens, the ability to factor in the future possible responses of both competitors and the ecosystem beyond. Only a broader, system-wide view explains the success of most innovations.

It is not easy, but it is a skill worth having. As Ray Dalio, the billionaire investor says, ‘never seize on the first available option, no matter how good it seems, before you’ve asked questions and explored.’ Imagine how ineffective Jack Bauer would be in Easttown. If you find yourself too busily engaged in the intense action of daily operational decision-making, delegate it to someone in your leadership team, or at CTU, who can do this for you. Because one lesson common to all dramatic worlds is that the hero or heroine can’t win alone.


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