The Netflix hit series Fauda has given the world a unique view of Israel. Through the prism of an elite undercover army unit, this nail-biting drama leaves international viewers thinking that although seemingly authentic, it may not be the best lens through which to view Israeli culture. Having lived in Israel for the past 10 years and worked in hyper-growth startups, I think many cultural aspects shown in the show can help us understand what makes Israel such a unique place to build companies.
Whenever I am fortunate enough to meet foreign business travelers to Israel, I always ask if they have seen Fauda. They often enthusiastically recount their admiration for Doron (Lior Raz) and his disrespect of authority as he dashes headfirst into any situation.
Fauda literally translates from Arabic as Chaos and is used as a code word when an operation goes wrong. Below are five lessons I think Fauda can help us understand about Israel’s Startup and business culture:
Fauda focuses on the deep emotional turmoil an undercover agent has to endure both with his family, his colleagues (who are more like family), and his targets (undercover relationships which often cross the line into “real” relationships). The authenticity Doron brings to all of those aspects results in emotional drainage from each angle, but the emotional connection also brings an incredible level of engagement and dedication.
Israelis are used to making relationships deeper than blood, their experiences with compulsory army service and a small intense country lead to a specific culture and ethos that extends itself into the workplace. They deliver and demand authenticity in these deep connections they build. They treat each other like family, which can mean squabbling and shouting at each other like siblings, telling hard truths, but being by their side when things get tough.
A recent book, the “Israeli Business Culture,” terms ”directness” as a distinct feature of the business culture here. I like to think of it as unfiltered communication, the way you would be with a sibling or parent or close friend. In startups, you can feel you are in the trenches together and despite situations that are less than perfect, you need a team that has your back.
In her book Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener talks about how startups for better and worse use emotion and mission to create an intoxicating culture for their employees and drive high engagement. Israel is a great place to witness these deep emotional connections play out.
2. Disrespecting Authority:
Sometimes termed as Chutzpah, much has been written about this and it has a whole chapter dedicated to it in Saul Singer’s “Startup Nation”. Doron epitomizes this in Fauda – continually ignoring his commander’s orders, not backing down from doing what he thinks is right, and diving headfirst into what he thinks will get results. He knows he has a team to back him up and his bosses know he delivers, so they often give him the space he needs to operate.
In startups, this superman or distortion complex is well documented in founders and when combined with an underlying culture of informality and directness, Israeli founders are often comfortable telling the whole world that the world is doing things the wrong way.
3. “Yehiyei Beseder “ It will be alright:
The attitude of “it will be alright” and moving forward with things is part of the risk-taking culture that Osnat Lautman outlines in her book on Israeli Business Culture. I believe it goes further than just a high appetite for risk. Doron is guilty of this on many occasions — putting himself in situations he shouldn’t have been in and then improvising his way out of them.
I have been fortunate to do a lot of work with the Japanese market, the opposite end of the spectrum in business culture to Israel. The Japanese are perfectionists and have a high expectation that their word is their bond, if they say something is finished, or commit to something, then it will happen. Israelis don’t mean to ship unfinished goods, but have a genuine belief that everything will be ok, they will figure it out on the fly, and it will be good enough. The common startup ethos of “Get Sh*t Done” and “Just Ship It” are ingrained into the culture in a country where perfection is uncommon.
This Attitude of Yehiyei Beseder (translated:- it will be alright) …. It is part of living in one of the riskiest neighborhoods in the world. As David Ben Gurion (Israel’s First Prime Minister) said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.”
Imagine three companies who are asked to build a circle.
The Japanese Company will spend 6 months longer. The circle will be perfect to the nanometer but will cost more, be and is over-complex and over documented.
The American company will deliver something that has the most incredible branding as a circle. It might not actually go round but they will tell you that you will love it and you will love it.
The Israeli company decided you don’t really need a circle, you just needed something round. They think “Yihyeh Beseder” and ship you something that kind of looks like a circle, they show you it goes round and that it does the job that you needed it to do … sort of! It might even do the job better than the circle you thought you needed because often they think and they are right and that they know better.
In my opinion, the ability of Israelis to improvise well is a feature that has come about from the Yehei Beseder Culture. In “Startup Nation”, Singer writes about the need to improvise in the army and nature as a young country of making do with what was available. I also think that in today’s culture the two go hand in hand: Israelis are good at improvising because we put ourselves in situations of “Yehei Beseder”, and vice versa.
4. A small, agile multidisciplinary team can often achieve more than an entire platoon.
This is pretty much self-explanatory and is something all companies are trying to emulate. The Fauda team can go places no one else can, but every now and then they need wider support. Startups in Israel are enabled to grow and learn from the wider ecosystem in the country, especially because experienced companies are so willing to help.
The small team, when combined with a lack of respect for authority, allows the Fauda team to move at immense speed. Bureaucracy will often nullify the opening window of an opportunity Doron has, so he takes the decision himself at a micro-level. This distributed decision making combined with the macro-management allows the team to get results and lets people get on with what they need to do.
5. Collateral Damage:
There is a lot of collateral damage in Fauda that the team needs to learn to live with. This includes direct deaths and broken interpersonal relationships within the team and their families. I would never seek to compare the business world to real life and death scenarios that real people deal with, especially in the complex reality of the middle east.
However, if you can excuse the analogy, there is also collateral damage in the startup world. We often only see the startup successes, but their path is lined with the litter of failed companies, poor investment rounds, and burnt-out employees. The collateral damage of those who sacrifice the long hours away from families building these companies and the trade-offs they need to make in trying to have a “work/life balance”.
In addition, even successful companies often have to part ways with dedicated employees who couldn’t keep up with the growth or weren’t right for the new stage of the company. Despite these deep emotional connections on both sides, Israelis can often be pragmatic about knowing when it’s time to move on for the greater good and part ways as family. They have learned to be realistic and live with those tradeoffs and extremes.
(Meeting Rona-lee Shimon who plays Nurit in Fauda – at the Series 3 English Premier in Tel Aviv)
In the same way that Fauda has helped the world understand some of the intricate complexities in the Israeli – Palestinian narrative, I also hope it is starting to help people all over the world understand a little more about Israeli culture. Hopefully, with this better understanding, we can work together and learn from each other in the business world the political world and ultimately at a human level.
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