I am continuing to tune the approach to Bad Blood, Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou (published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2018 – Buy a copy and read along!) Today we tackle a single chapter.  Chapter 6, titled Sunny, introduces Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani to the story.  Sunny, Holmes’ live-in boyfriend (the stress on the live-in part is to shine a light on just how close Holmes was to Sunny), adds another layer of toxicity to the Theranos story. The toxicity feels extraordinary but is not that uncommon when teams break down. 

Chapter 6 – Sunny

The chapter is a tale of two relationships.  The first is the cycle of one of Holmes’s friends from Stanford joining and then by the end leaving disillusioned.  This relationship is used as the framework for the plot in the chapter. Chelsea Burkett represents the type of person that joins a team and by thier hard work makes the team better.  The second relationship, the problem relationship is the introduction of Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani. Sunny is Holmes’s live-in boyfriend into the story.  In the book, Holmes is not overly forthcoming about the relationship with Sunny to investors and board members. The inference is that she knows it is an issue inside the firm.  Sunny, in the book, is a pushy, in-your-face person driven by wealth (same as Holmes) with a loose handle on truth and ethics.  Bad Blood might be specifically about Theranos; however, it is easy to recognize the activities at Theranos as an allegory to teams and the relationships between people in teams.

Teams are a mass of relationships; mess with the relationships and the teams will break down.  In the book, Holmes’ relationship with Sunny is not exactly what would happen in the standard software development team, but over time teams can get comfortable and build boundaries that insulate the team from outside information and influences. 

Agile teams work well when they have multiple feedback loops.  Those feedback loops ensure that there are multiple sets of eyes on work. In the story, Sunny deflected people from taking hard looks at the tests of the device in Mexico and later in Thailand.  Feedback loops surface problems (which neither Sunny or Holmes wanted), create an environment for collaboration (which flew in the face of the compartmentalization within Theranos) and helps team members develop (while not addressed — development does not seem to be high on anyone’s list in Theranos).  In agile, team boundaries develop so that feedback loops are safe.  Only when the boundary gets too resistant to new information does a boundary turn toxic. As an example consider the venerable agile institution, the stand-up meeting. Nearly all new teams are tentative when they begin sharing in standup meetings.  There is no perceived boundary which inhibits trust.  As the team builds trust, stand-ups become less about status and more about planning and collaboration because they can risk sharing.  If team members go too far and build hard boundary between themselves and the rest of the organization (the business)  they will create a single interpretation of truth that lets them go way off track if the environment or the business changes.  If you have ever been on a project where the whole team KNOWS that the solution they are pursuing is right and that everything else a distraction will have fallen into the same trap described in the book.  

The last line in this chapter sums up how boundaries impact teams.  “In her relentless drive to be a successful startup founder, shed built a bubble around herself that was cutting her off from reality.” Teams or organizations can fall into the same trap.

Thoughts on this tuned approach?

Previous Installments:

Week 1 – Approach and Introduction https://bit.ly/2J1pY2t   

Week 2 — A Purposeful Life and Gluebot https://bit.ly/2RZANGh

Week 3 — Apple Envy, Goodbye East Paly and Childhood Neighbors https://bit.ly/2zbOTeO

Week 4 — A Reflectionhttps://bit.ly/2RA6AfT