An Inclusive Parable: Canaries in the Coal Mine



I had the great honor of being on an investor panel at Inspirefest in Dublin moderated by the inimitable Kara Swisher, cofounder and Executive Director of Recode.

I applied a “canary in the coal mine” analogy to the rationalizations that some people make around the low proportion of women (and indeed the under representation of many other groups) in Venture Capital (just 6% or so of partners) and tech more generally.

The parable goes like this … canaries were of course small birds taken down mines for safety reasons. But what happened when the poor little canaries expired?

Did the miners blame the canaries for not being tough enough? Hence conclude perhaps that the canaries really needed some extra deep mine training. That way they could “make it” in the underworld just like they, the tough miners, had done for years before the canaries arrives on the scene.

Or did the miners decide that really what they needed was … more canaries. Hey, building a pipeline of canaries would be great! That way there would always be new canaries to staff the mines in the face of canary attrition and maybe even grow the number of canaries.

NO. Of course the miners didn’t blame the canaries when the canaries quit. (Well, died actually.) Neither did they think that just calling for more canaries was going to solve the problem of losing canaries!

Rather they reflected on the underlying problem facing the canaries. Which, when they thought about it, wasn’t the canaries themselves. They didn’t need “fixing”. Rather it was the ATMOSPHERE. And the miners knew (once they had evacuated back to the surface asap), that the solution was not tougher canaries or more canaries. It was to change the ATMOSPHERE in the mine in the best interests of the canaries, but also in the best interests of THEMSELVES.

In a human organizational context we call that atmosphere CULTURE. And what is missing when a group of people don’t seem to stick around, no matter how hard you try to bring them in in greater numbers or “fix” them, is something we call INCLUSION.

So the moral of the story is … when the canaries in your coal mine seem to be in trouble. Don’t blame them. Look at the context they operate in and work out what is wrong with your organizational CULTURE and how you can make it more INCLUSIVE. Maybe that way the canaries will feel they are valued and that they fit in. And hence decide they want to stay around a little longer.




Reprinted by permission.

Image credit: CC by Michael Sonnabend

About the author: Adam Quinton

Adam is Founder/CEO of Lucas Point Ventures and an active investor in and advisor to early stage companies. His investments include The MuseRapt Media, VenueBook, Hire an Esquire, Valdiatelyand Snaps. He recently served as Chief Financial Officer of NYC based cybersecurity company NopSec, another of his investees. In 2014, he was named one of the 25 Angel Investors You Need to Know in New York by AlleyWatch.

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