Throw Out the 'Painkillers,' 'Vitamins' and Other Bad Metaphors in Silicon Valley
While I was seeking my company's most recent round of fundraising, some investors passed on the opportunity, stating that my enterprise is a "vitamin" and not a "painkiller."
I tried to explain that my company, 15Five, actually provides a communication tool, but the humor was lost along with the money.
The vitamin-vs.-painkiller dichotomy is a common metaphor in Silicon Valley, especially among venture capitalists. Despite the fact that the market for vitamins is great, many venture capitalists are convinced that it’s better to invest in a quick-fix problem solver than a preventative measure.
Health care companies know that paying for preventative care can ultimately amount to more profits because healthier patients need fewer costly interventions. Why can't Silicon Valley understand this concept?
"Painkiller" companies ostensibly provide immediate relief to customers and this drives revenue (or lowers the costs) for running the business. "Vitamin" enterprises, on the other hand, offer customers a nice-to-have item by solving a pain point that doesn’t feel all that painful. These companies are perceived as a risky investment for not being driven by intense customer needs -- ones likely to drive immediate revenue.
This paradigm is precisely what’s wrong with the common approach to business growth.
Yet I maintain to increase revenue, diagnosing barriers to business is crucial: Is communication stifled? Are people unclear on their goals? When you just get rid of the pain, you numb the ability to adequately gauge underlying issues.
Revenue results from performance, and performance suffers when managers are disconnected from employees. Solving internal communication dysfunction could be seen as a nice-to-have matter, but it's actually a main factor affecting performance. And unfortunately there's no quick fix.
Ever have a painful headache? You might do anything to end the throbbing as soon as possible. So you open a bottle and pop some pills into your mouth. Ah, relief!
But what happens six hours later or the next day? Sometimes the headache returns because the painkiller was insufficient for the problem. The real issue might be that a computer screen is too bright, you need more rest or water or you have a serious illness. The pain seems to be getting in the way but it's actually helping you become aware of an underlying problem.
The same is true in business. Managers seek a high level of output from employees. When productivity is low, they can yell or threaten people or promise a bonus. But if employees are not supported or working in roles that don't align with their passions and skills, the promise of a bonus won't have any significant impact on performance.
In the real world, painkillers can mask the symptoms. They might get people through the day even though their health is deteriorating. If the headache originates from dehydration, Tylenol may help someone temporarily feel better but he or she maybe should be chugging water. Don't just look at the symptoms. Look at the cause because prolonged dehydration over months or years result in kidney and liver issues.
Likewise, when performance is low, managers might try to quickly solve it by offering a bonus or threatening staff with termination. Maybe this will influence productivity for a while, but without asking questions or having a conversation, the situation can worsen. Unhappy employees can spread discontent throughout an organization and vital staff members might leave the company en masse.
Solid employee communication is not just a nice-to-have item. It's more than just a vitamin. It’s a diagnostic tool that can pay dividends in healthier, happier workers who are more productive, innovative and profitable.
Instead of asking how they can get the most out of people regardless of what’s going on beneath the surface, managers should ask employees what they want. Give them a voice to declare their triumphs. Provide a safe and inviting platform to share challenges and issues so that managers can provide direct support.
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