Unicorns and Assholes

I was at the Agile UX NYC 2012 conference on Saturday, and Phineas Barnes gave a talk entitled “4 keys to success in a design driven company“.

The slide that caught my eye was this one:

The argument of the slide: don’t build a team with unicorns or assholes.

His definition for a “unicorn” was the person who has the strict unwavering vision, and claims to understand better than anyone else – including your customers – what your customers need. (I don’t think there’s any confusion as to what he meant by “asshole”.) [1. He did note the caveat to this rule is when you have a unicorn who is also an asshole, i.e. Steve Jobs. He said to hire that particular unicorn.]

It boiled down to three points:

  • You need a team who can listen and pivot, so they can respond over time.
  • You need a team that can value options.
  • You need a team who’s able to admit that they’re wrong.

Yesterday, the “fighting game community” blew up in a massive drama bomb.

The story is a bit complicated, but it boils down to an incident that happened on a web reality show put on by Capcom to promote one of their new fighting games. One of the team captains, Aris Bakhtanians, made a series of sexually harassing comments at a female player on the show, allegedly as a way to play mind games. When Twitch TV community manager Jared Rea asked “Can I get my Street Fighter without sexual harassment?”, Aris responded:

> You can’t. You can’t because they’re one and the same thing. This is a community that’s, you know, 15 or 20 years old, and the sexual harassment is part of a culture, and if you remove that from the fighting game community, it’s not the fighting game community–it’s StarCraft.

And soon after, press coverage came, and things degenerated rapidly (see Boing Boing’s incendiary headline or the NeoGAF thread). The constant across most discussion over the last 24 hours is a repeated defense from some in the FGC that they like things just the way they are, sexual harassment and all, and anyone suggesting change is a traitor or infringing on their first amendment rights.

This isn’t really about the fighting game community, and it’s not really about building a lean startup. But it is about the company you keep, and the communities we build.

It’s in our nature to find like-minded people. We all want that acceptance and understanding and connection that comes from people who understand how we think and act. We like talking to people with the same hobbies, and we like working with people who have the same passions. That’s how we build our social circles, our teams, and our worlds.

It’s not so hard to keep the assholes and unicorns out, but you need to be vigilant to ensure the people already inside don’t morph into either type. The longer you’ve been wrapped in a cocoon of like-minded people, the harder it is to stomach someone saying you’re doing it wrong.

If you attack someone for suggesting change, you’ve become an asshole.

If you go deaf to suggestions of change, or pull rank over a newcomer, or use the phrase “this is just how we do things”, you’ve become a unicorn.

Building a vision is important. So is having a backbone and defining your culture. Not all feedback is actionable or even necessarily worthwhile. But if you can’t listen, can’t value options, and can’t admit when you’re wrong, you’ve gone blind to change. You won’t be able to adapt, and someone is going to come in and eat your lunch.