Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Drink the (Un-Spiked) Kool-Aid

I discovered the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" from (now ex-) Product exec Jonathan Rosenberg at Google. I loved the concept  immediately. The phrase materialized happy childhood moments of being a kid and sucking down Kool-Aid glass after glass. To me, there was something neat about employees "drinking the company Kool-Aid" and being giddily excited about the products and culture. Shortly thereafter (and yes, probably after overusing the phrase), I was informed by a friend where the phrase actually comes from. Prepare yourself. Ever heard of the Jonestown massacre of 1978? The event is often referred to as a cult suicide.  Jim Jones, the leader of the Peoples Temple, persuaded many followers to move to a commune in Jonestown, Guyana. In November 1978, he ordered the residents to commit suicide by drinking a flavored beverage laced with potassium cyanide. Those who could not or would not comply, such as infants, were injected involuntarily. Over 900 people died. While the dark past of the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" is not something I am jazzed about, I still find it serves as an interesting business idiom.

All great tech companies experience some degree of the Kool-Aid effect. It makes sense, right? Once a company creates a number of products that people deem as "cool" or "must-haves", it only follows that many engineering minds are attracted to work on them.  However, occasionally a company culture is so strong that people lose their critical eye and follow product vision blindly. A modern example of this is Apple.  I have met a handful of "Apple fanboys" who will obtusely argue that every product Apple creates is the best in the market, without much rational analysis or definition of what "better" even means. Generally speaking, I am actually a proponent of employees indulging some business Kool-Aid from time-to-time. There is nothing quite like drinking in an admired executive's words while sitting with your peers. I felt this countless times in a college leadership program in Colorado. I also have enjoyed the high of contributing to a product that people are delighted by, while building features for Google Local Search last summer.

Going a step further, I would assert this factor plays into the convoluted mix of reasons for why failing startups persist too long. Perseverance an essential quality for success, but often times, employees are taught to drink the founder Kool-Aid early and often and can lose sight of when to move on to the next great idea. My advice?  No company always makes flawless decisions (yes, even at Apple); so enjoy some sugary Kool-Aid with your coworkers, but stay alert enough that no one can spike the batch.

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