Leaders have an insatiable appetite to make something that ACTUALLY helps. That drive towards an ideal and a higher purpose is much of what creates the resilience and the grit that leadership requires from us.
And then there is the new HBO Theranos documentary “The Inventor”. It is brutal from so many angles. The very fact that this happened and $900 million was thrown away ($300 million on legal fees) they also failed to answer the one question the interviewer asked right near the end. Does it work? In addition, there seems to be some sort of Silicon Valley underbelly which, at its worst, doesn’t just ignore the deep flaws of founders and inventors, but actually props up their pathology and supports their dysfunction.
On another level, the documentary likens the role of founder and CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, to that of Thomas Edison himself, who claimed he had invented the incandescent lightbulb and held off any accountability and demonstration of the product itself for four years while he kept the financial balls in the air. Like the early days of the Tour de France, with cocaine-laden riders competing against one another, there seems to be something in the deep, dark history of Silicon Valley that is entirely ok with the type of innovation that is devoid of the deliverable at the end. I get this isn’t true of many companies (most even) and this might be a small part of the whole. However, there comes a time when in life, business and leadership the system you’re in must be challenged if it appears to have institutionalised this kind of behaviour.
Theranos, once the blood testing darling of the tech/science/medical world is now defunct. With lawsuits following both the organisation and Holmes and the CEO and Sunny Balwani as the COO the mess promises to be, ‘getting cleaned up’ for some time coming.
As I watched this documentary I thought of one question that needed to have been asked and answered by the leadership, granted it was in the interests of Holmes and Balwani NOT to ask nor answer the question. That one question was simply ‘Does it work?”
By “it” I mean The Edison, the actual machine that claims to have miniaturised technology to the point where 250 blood tests were able to be completed from pinpricks worth of blood. Disruptive, revolutionary, and life-changing. But no, it didn’t work. The Edison Machine never worked. It was in fact, quite dangerous for its purpose and delivered less than acceptable results most of the time. It just didn’t work.
It’s not that failing is wrong either. It’s failing over and over again and that is why I succeed (Thank you Michel Jordan). When your organisations and you have a dream to create something from nothing you must take a three-stage approach to leading, and communicating what’s working and what isn’t.
This means asking the question “Does it work?” and leading of the following three frames of reference:
- Taking responsibility – refusing to blame.
- Accepting transparency – refusing to hide.
- Acting with integrity – refusing to compromise.
This triple filter test gives the leadership of your organisation a way to identify what is really going on, what the quality and status of the product are and what you should do about it now you know the reality. When you do this consistently and well you are able to build trust, confidence and quality. That is the glue that keeps the reputation and the positioning in place and the quality product that does what you promised it would do.
Horst Schultze, leader of the Ritz Carlton and much-celebrated hotelier said that people want ‘a defect-free experience.’ And when it isn’t that way your response to fixing the issue becomes more important than the issue itself. You can blame, hide and comprise all you want but The Edison Machine didn’t work. It never did.
This is for leaders. I am for leaders.