In business there is an effect similar to gravity. A business’s history and culture acquires a mass of its own over time. That mass perpetuates the values and norms of the business. In large organizations the mass of its history becomes a monolith by many names “what we’ve always done,” “the right thing,” “what we learned last time,””we decided,” etc.,. Here we call it the Norm. The Norm defends compliance, it draws us in, comforts us, and offers us safety from personal responsibility.
Here are 3 styles of leading within an organization with a powerful Norm, I recommend using all three at different times:
Assimilate- Comply, acknowledge the good and live with the bad. The power of such an organization is in its consistency. The system is far less punishing for compliant members than objecting ones. Absurd duties may need to be accepted and a great deal of mental effort will be expended to avoid offending the Norm. This approach takes advantage of the strength of ongoing currents within the monolith.
Subvert- Live within the system, but do not accept the values it has established. Regularly take the time to challenge the beliefs of the organization in closed-door meetings and side conversations. Be careful, this approach more often ends up being an exercise in gossip and bitter complaints than being an effective program for change.
Break- Invest energy to sustain conscious denial of certain values and take steps to remove yourself from the inner workings of the organization. This move not only requires significant effort, it also paradoxically needs the most acceptance from the organization. The subversive and the assimilated have the luxury of not being seen, but those who break with the Norm must live in view of its judgement.
Mandatory corporate cheerleading tires me. Especially when that experience is an awkward mandatory clap for Drake’s (truly the great everyman of our time) latest powerpoint presentation about our falling revenues.
I can only think of a few explanations for why leaders mandate cheerleading and use it profusely:
- You think your team is gullible and you want to pay them with pats on the back and mandatory applause from their peers.
- You think your team is emotionally needy.
For 1: You need to get real. An encouraging atmosphere is great, but performances like group applause and putting your name on a cake don’t last. What’s worse, employees usually know what you are doing and act to that effect. You run the risk of reinforcing externality and fame-seeking. A team focused on externality tries to predict and satisfy leader whims, not goals.
For 2: Even if your team is needy, their desire for cheerleading doesn’t make it any less demeaning when you comply. I’d wager they are a lot more capable of maturing than you are giving them credit. While you can’t take personal responsibility for their maturity, you can craft a culture that reinforces or challenges their dependence on cheering.
At it’s heart, corporate cheerleading arrives from a belief in the inferiority of the masses. Belief in superiority is a consequence of the ego that subtly develops with many leaders’ careers. It can manifest itself cynically (see 1.), pseudo-empathetically (see 2.), or finally in complicit ignorance where one carries on the traditions of the past.
Looking for a solid decision-making analogy for a team embarking on highly complex work in a fluid, evolving environment?
Why not try an octopus?
Here’s what that might look like
Octopuses have significant amounts of neurons positioned within their limbs. Each leg can process complicated sensory input and begin to interpret external stimuli. With these capabilities an octopus can begin to react a few milliseconds before sensory inputs have reached the central processing center of the brain. While the limbs exhibit the ability to react to momentary changes in the environment, octopuses also have eyes to perceive more distant threats and can migrate to react to shifts in the environment.
It is best not to lean too much on biology for the analogy and suffice it to say: the Octopus model strikes a balance by splitting response to the environment between independent functional groups and a central strategic perspective.
Like all good analogies, the Octopus needs a foil to prove that it is the right choice. In this case, let us consider the Portuguese Man-of-War (interestingly, not a jellyfish). A Man-of-War is a colony of specialized organisms working together to survive. In a world where distributed intelligence and decision-making is seen as the epitome of human evolution (DAOs, crowdsourcing, etc.,) it can be tempting to think of the Man-of-War as the paragon of a collaborative workforce. Each piece does its part in a perfect system without a power dynamic to pollute their interactions.
However, such an arrangement is only amenable in certain conditions. The Man-of-War lacks a function to perceive and respond to broader environmental changes. Without a central perspective the Man-of-War depends on the environment’s good favor to survive.
Here’s the thing, the octopus model isn’t strict in it’s hierarchy because it relies on the limbs for relative autonomy and interaction with the environment. The limb and head functions differ in relation to the perspective they afford. For example, in some cases a limb might need to be sacrificed to save the octopus. What limb could have the perspective to respond in such a way?
In business, a product line may need to be severed when larger threats are imposed on the enterprise. Product lines may not have the perspective to perceive the larger threats or respond in a sufficient capacity. Those product lines need relative autonomy like the Octopus limbs to respond and react, because a central strategic perspective will not have the timely contextual insights that a may have.
A few weeks ago I overheard a common complaint while in a meeting with technology experts.
“They don’t know what an MVP is. Our business partners just aren’t thinking as well as we are about these things.” The promulgator of this complaint was looking around the room ready to soak in the approval of their peers, who certainly would agree that “those other people” did not understand. Indeed most of those centered around this table nodded and smiled knowingly. While this situation of “us vs them” is common, the issue that arose in my mind from this comment was actually their use of MVP.
An MVP, for those who have more exciting lives than mine, is a Minimum Viable Product. It is a phrase that became popular in the software sector around 7 years ago. A basic definition would be “a product with just enough features to gather validated learning about the product and its continued development.” This definition is vague for a reason. While I am not going to get into too deep of a discussion about what qualifies as an MVP, it is important to know that there is no formula for an MVP. The MVP in any situation will change based on what is attempting to be delivered.
Going back to the comment I heard, I felt a disconnect around what was being defined as an MVP. The picture above, taken from here, is a general metaphor for what the goal of an MVP is. The technology being delivered worked, but did not provide what the business needed to give to the customer. In the diagram you can see that the MVP asked for was a skateboard. This is because what the business needed was something that moved the customer. In this situation, the individual was complaining about the business partner who was asking for software. What they were getting from the technology partner was an excellent wheel, whose code ran smoothly and would be a critical component of the car to come. But you cannot give your customer a wheel and ask them how well it moves them. My complaining colleague was assigning blame, but not accepting that it was the technology group that had misunderstood the meaning of an MVP.
Thus far we have noticed that there is a disconnect between to business partners and the technology group. Next we will look at what may cause this disconnect, and finally we will look at ways to overcome this disconnect.
The goal of the CBS show Survivor is to Outwit, Outplay, Outlast. With physical, psychological, and political gamesmanship it can make for entertaining television. However, we’ve seen cases where people apply this mindset to their workplace. This introduces us to another of our installment on sicknesses; the survivor mindset.*
The survivor mindset turns wit and political savvy from helping navigate your environment into an obsession with challenging your coworkers. It is ego masquerading as bettering yourself.
Survivors are committed to winning ‘the game’ through side competitions, tricks or tasks to collect ‘immunity’, and outwitting every other person in the office. Survivor syndrome degrades organizational and personal morale through breeding mistrust. The survivor mindset directs energy to:
- Endurance competitions like who gets the last/longest word at a meeting
- Shows of strength like where one sees who can push responsibility the furthest from themselves
- Immunity trials where extraneous tasks and personal favors are used to win over leadership and excuse future poor performance
Be careful that your ambition doesn’t become the kind that drives you to the survivor sickness. Not only does it degrade morale, it robs you. It robs you of the opportunity to relate with your coworkers as colleagues and friends.
In business, efficiency is often placed on a pedestal and revered as a demigod. Six sigma could serve as its Franciscan order. Agile was born of the pursuit of efficiency. There exists, however, a vast amount of work that lives in the qualitative and communication based setting known as a meeting. It is here that the rudder event occurs.
A rudder is small, yet controls the whole course of the vessel. In the same way there are often small actions, questions, or comments that control the whole course of a conversation. Learning to control these events, and guide conversations without having to dominate them is an important form of efficiency. The length of a conversation is not proportional to the value of its content (I would like to coin this as the McClain Axiom) and nothing exemplifies this more than rudder events.
Imagine if you will a conversation about implementing a new workflow. Because this will only be of interest to a few in the room, the conversation can definitely list from its destination without much effort. How can this be prevented? By keeping a steady hand on the wheel, with timely and direct comments and questions that keep conversations focused. This does require someone to be monitoring the conversation more than providing content, but in almost every meeting there are those who are there for the purpose of providing direction. An expert application of rudder events saves time in every meeting, and keeps people engaged. Saved time equates to efficiency.
I’d like to talk about how strategic is different from tactical. Before you go calling me Tactico-Strategicus, be warned that I differ in perspective with the tyrant in an important way. If you remember, the tyrant views tactical and strategic as a balance between near and long term plans. I’d rather distinguish strategic and tactical as occupying two different realms of thought.
The realm of strategic thought is known by it’s compelling need to understand a problem. Such a compulsion prioritizes decision options, evaluating outcomes, and anticipating consequences. The realm of tactical thought is known by it’s preoccupation with solving a problem. Such preoccupation values methods, techniques, and application of tools.
Tactical thought is advantageous in circumstances when action is at a premium and a clear target has already been set. Strategic thought enables you to move beyond the problem as it was provided, to gain deeper insight into the real problem. Remember, no matter how elegant, a solution that misunderstands the problem is a well executed failure.