Montage Sequence #1 - Building teams and WrestleMania

A one time preamble:

Email newsletters are the new hotness?

My first reaction on hearing that was: "Thiel was right. We were promised flying cars and we are doing email in 2019 now? Humanity is doomed".
My second reaction was: "Thiel was wrong. 140 characters is way better than any flying car. And we now have 280 now so the joke's on you, Mr.What-Do-You-Believe-No-One-Else-Does".

My third reaction was "I should get in on this action!". I don't know what will show up here between my tweets and my blog posts but you (dear reader!) and I will figure this out together.

One last thing: why “The Montage Sequence”? It just so happens I particularly enjoy montage sequences in movies and spend a lot of time trying to deconstruct how they work. Be it the opening sequence of Pixar’s Up or a heist being put together by Danny Ocean, it’s a fascinating way to compress storytelling and emotion.

And no montage sequence is ever boring.

Teams and organizations

I've been spending a fair bit of my paternity leave reading about how people build things. In specific, bringing together diverse teams to accomplish a large endeavor, often engineering/scientific in nature. One particular fun set of stories has been those from the mid-century military and engineering projects from the US government.

Four in particular were compelling: “The Rickover Effect: How One Man Made A Difference” which chronicles how Admiral Rickover basically pitched and built something no one thought possible: the nuclear navy. Second, “Doing the Impossible: George E. Mueller & the Management of NASA's Human Spaceflight Program” is a riveting look at how George Mueller (no relation to the Mueller you might have been following these days) got us into space. ”Now It Can Be Told: The Story Of The Manhattan Project” is well-known for both the subject matter but also for it being written by one of the key players in the building of the atom bomb.

However, my favorite is maybe the least known of this bunch: “Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War”. If you don’t know who Col. John Boyd is, you’re in for a delight. This ex-fighter pilot turned strategist made not just one or two but arguably four different crucial contributions to how fighter jets are flown, how they’re made and with military strategy. Most of all, he’s known for inventing the “OODA” loop for how any team or organization should be run. If you’re in the business of running things, you need to read this.

Each of these are interesting in their own way but very quickly some common patterns emerge.

1/ They worked in large bureaucracies and were adept at working with multiple stakeholders, managing up, sideways and down to accomplish their goal. They weren’t the classic SV founder archetype in many ways.

2/ However, they were all mercurial characters often not liked by the career bureaucrats they were surrounded by. One consistent theme is they optimized for some macro goal rather than local incentives - or their own careers. Look no further Col. Boyd who never got beyond the rank of Colonel.

3/ They built small, agile teams with focus on experimentation, iteration and practical trials over theoretical debates. 

4/ They focused on building a shared understanding of the overall goal. It was always clear why your team or your work *mattered*. 

5/ They balanced #4 with strong autonomy for their leaders and teams. This sounds like an oxymoron but they somehow made it work.

6/ They were all strong communicators personally but also built transparent, frequent, wide communication into their organizations. Everyone knew what everyone else was doing and going through.

It’s both inspiring but also depressing to read these accounts. You get the distinct impression we are doomed to relearn these patterns from scratch with every new team we build.

The Road to WrestleMania: Becky Lynch and Kofi Kingston

Look, if you know me, you know I’m obsessed with the WWE and have been ever since I was a kid.

Nothing annoys me more than when someone asks “But isn’t it all fake?”. My goto answer is to say “Of course it’s fake. And so is every Marvel movie and Star Wars”. But that’s a lie. For the WWE is at its best when it’s real.

For a fan, there’s nothing better than the months of Jan-April when the company showcases their best storylines and talent in the lead up to their version of the Super Bowl, WrestleMania (you have to hear it in your head in full Vince McMahon voice. WRRRESTLEMANIAAAA). This year, there are TWO compelling storylines, both of which have been created as much by the fans as by WWE itself.

The first is the tale of Becky Lynch.

For the last couple of years, the WWE has been putting the spotlight on their female talent who have been headlined by former UFC champ, Ronda Rousey. It would have been a safe bet to assume Ronda would be standing victorious at this year’s WM. Becky, on the other hand, had been having a steady run. If you’re not a WWE fan, I would describe Becky as the indy band loved by the “purists” but hasn’t broken into the Spotify Top 10 yet.

But something unusual happened earlier last year. In wrestling parlance, without anyone really planning for or expecting it, Becky Lynch got herself “over”.

In other words, the crowd chants her name and the roof comes off when she makes an entrance. She is now not just a performer but a star.

No fan can explain exactly what made this happen or pinpoint a defining moment when Becky went from a talented performer with name recognition to someone a hundred thousand people want to see live. But it happened and it’s magical and now the WWE is running with it.

The second and even more intriguing story in my opinion is that of Kofi Kingston. Kofi has been in the WWE for over 12 years. If the WWE was a long running TV series, Kofi’s the equivalent of a familiar supporting character. Loved by all but no one expects him to take down the main baddie. He was best known for his acrobatic performances at the Royal Rumble and his role as part of a bigger group.

This all changed a month ago when Kofi got substituted in a last-minute replacement for another injured wrestler in a match. During that match something amazing happened: the crowd went from expecting him to put up a spirited performance but ultimately lose…to cheering wildly for him. And when it ended, he got that rarest of WWE accolades: the fans stood up and chanted his name as he soaked it in from the ring.

This is where reality meets scripted fiction. The WWE, obviously realizing the gold they have in their hands, decided to go all in on this storyline and now Kofi will have a chance to win the championship at Wrestlemania (he isn’t not confirmed now due to how the storyline is playing out but I expect that to be sorted out soon).

Here’s why this matters: the 80-90K fans at WrestleMania know this is all scripted. The millions watching at home know it’s scripted. However they also realize that Kofi getting this opportunity is a rare alignment of the stars. Something no one could have planned or predicted for someone who’s career seemed destined to be in the mid-card. Who doesn’t want to cheer for that? Who won’t be emotionally crushed if Kofi can’t pull it off?

That’s what makes this all real and that’s why I’ll be cheering for Becky and Kofi to win it all come WrestleMania night.

Until next time!
Sriram Krishnan


P.S Love this? Hate this? Let me know! Find me at @sriramk on Twitter or drop me a note at sriram@sriramk.com.