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May 11th, 2022 Share: Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on LinkedIn

How to Combat “Squirrel Brain”

In our last dispatch about Kevin Kelly’s wonderful list of 103 things he learned in his 70 years, I made a comment about a rather common problem among startup founders: Squirrel Brain (also known as “shiny new thing syndrome”). I received a couple of emails from fellow Heretics asking me to dig deeper into the topic as it is not only a common issue but also one which (in the words of one founder) “literally self-destructs startups.”

To get us started, and as it is such a great summarization of the issue, let me continue to quote this founder: “I’ve seen it create an incredibly frequent change of direction and the resulting decrease in velocity. Or the juggling of far too many balls and adding new ones every week. And I’ve seen it lead to constant daily micromanagement of different people every minute of the day, leading to high employee churn because the CEO repeals all work done every few days. All in all, it seems to me that it’s a trait that’s very prevalent among most founders, that almost no one talks about.”

Yep. I’ve been there — charged as guilty. In my first startup, every second day, after my 4th coffee, I would run into our little office, assemble the team and share yet-another-great-idea. Typically, I didn’t even mean these ideas to be anything more than just an idea — a fleeting thought I wanted to get off my chest and get some reactions to. Alas, my team took it as direction and shifted whatever they were doing toward the new, shiny thing I so enthusiastically presented. To say it ended up being a mess is an understatement.

Since then, I have learned a few things — and I still have a very active, curious, and sometimes weirdly wired brain:

  1. Ideas are ideas and shall be treated as such. I often find myself ruminating about an idea for the business. When talking to others, especially your team, make it utterly (and I mean utterly) clear that this is only an idea, and therefore something you, at best, want an opinion on. Even better is to share these ideas only with those who will not even remotely assume that your idea is strategic direction.
  2. Do not share on first thought. Unless you are a genius (I surely am not one), ideas need time to form and take shape. I avoid sharing ideas prematurely — in my case, I found that ideas require at least a good night’s sleep to form into something even remotely defined enough to share.
  3. Know which questions you want to ask. Just as important to becoming clear about the idea is to be clear about the questions you intend to ask to further your idea. An idea without a set of good questions is easily mistaken for direction.
  4. Distinguish Capital-I and lowercase -i Ideas. There are big and small ideas. Small ideas improve your current business, big ones put your existing business into question. I would argue that if you find yourself having many capital-I ideas, you are not deeply immersed in your core business. If that is the case, you ought to figure out if the thing you are currently doing is truly the thing you want to be doing long-term.
  5. Words are insanely powerful and never enough. Most importantly, c you ought to realize that whatever you say (especially as a founder/leader) has insane impact on the people working with you. As important are all the things you do not say — and people will fill in the blanks with whatever pops to their mind. Be careful!

Learn to tame and work with the little squirrel in your brain — it is a great source of power if harnessed right.

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