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September 6, 2011 / Mike Su

Exceptional and the Exception

The little dustup going on at TechCrunch over Michael Arrington’s CrunchFund has awoken the sleeping blogging beast!!! (me, BTW, I’m the beast. I am. I’m like this big bear with claws and fangs..and this blog is like a little bunny, just cowering in the corner…). Been thinking about this quite a bit, especially with starting my own venture, about making exceptions. What TechCrunch is dealing with is a scaling issue.

To build something exceptional, you must make exceptions. To build something scaleable, you cannot make exceptions.

The truth is, most of the extraordinary, incredible things are built by extraordinary, unique, and frequently difficult individuals. They thrive in an entrepreneurial environment because they are not bound by rules. Only an organization that can embrace that uncertainty can truly leverage that brilliance. Yet most organizations are built to scale. To scale means creating rules and standards. Rules and standards usually means least common denominator. “We can’t pay this Mark Zuckerberg kid $120k! He doesn’t even have a degree!” “Salesman X you didn’t book this plane ticket 2 weeks in advance and therefore this expense report is rejected. Nevermind that it was for a client meeting that closed a $1mm deal.” These rules are made so that nobody really screws things up. But they also ensure that the truly great people never really shine. But the challenge is to build a scalable, repeatable organization. Yet at the same time, people are unique by nature, and the brilliant ones are one in a billion.

TechCrunch works despite Arrington’s eight thousand conflicts of interest because Arrington is Arrington, and the writers are who they are, and the culture is what it is. The journalist’s standards absolutely make 100% sense, but they are also standards which means they are the least common denominator, and if you took someone like Arrington and held him to those standards, he would not be who he is, and TC would not be the powerhouse that it is. Would our country be a much better place if it were run by a truly benevolent, clean, intelligent dictator that could not be corrupted and could reign for 40 years and had full authority to make all decisions? Of course. But such a person does not exist. So a system is designed with checks and balances that makes it much harder for any given president to do the right thing, but also guarantees that we never go astray. It is scalable, but very hard for that person to be exceptional.

So then, what? I don’t know that there are answers. Larry Brown recognized Allen Iverson’s brilliance and made exceptions for him and made an NBA Finals run with a bunch of has-been role players. But even that could not last for more than a year. These two things are at odds. Are you making Michelangelo’s David, or a manufacturable toy? An organization has to be one or the other, recognize it, and be transparent about it. When an organization transforms from one to another, casualties are necessary by-product.


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