There Are No “Good People”

A lot of people are surprised when they discover that I don’t believe in “bad people.” I don’t believe there is such a thing as an irredeemable, fundamentally broken individual who just needs to exit the human race as quickly as possible.

“Not even Hitler?” the hypothetical objector exclaims, appealing to Godwin’s Law right out of the gate.

“No, hypothetical person,” I reply. “Not even Hitler.”

I’m raising this point in the midst of sexual assault scandals rocking everyone’s world as if we should be surprised that a culture that scarcely thirty years ago didn’t widely recognize sexual harassment, that to this day continues to ask victims of rape what they were wearing and whether they should have gone into the room with him, conditions its men to respect their own sexual urges over the self-sovereignty and safety of others.

“But I’m a good man,” cries Louis C.K., Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Al Franken, George Takei, or whatever respected man is currently under discussion as having forced himself sexually against others.

Well that right there is your problem. The flip side of the notion that “bad people” don’t exist is that “good people” don’t exist either. There are just “people,” with all the mess of bias, emotions, desires, and other irrationalities.

I don’t mean to excuse any of the horrible things done by these or any other people. But whenever I give an apology with the claim, “I’m a good person”–or anytime I defend someone saying, “He’s a good person”–I’m implying there are “bad people” out there who are the ones who do these things, and the bad thing I did isn’t part of who I am. But clearly it is part of who I am. Because I’m the person who did it.

Of course, there are also people who think they’re the “bad people.” These people go home and love their spouses, children, or pets with complete selflessness. They give to poor people or help others avoid the mistakes they themselves made, often with the reasoning that “just because I’m a bad person doesn’t mean everybody else has to suffer.”

In a way, both these narratives exist because they save us energy. If I’m a “good person,” I don’t have to stop and think about what I’m doing, because by virtue of “being good,” I won’t ever do anything bad on purpose. If I’m a “bad person,” I don’t have to stop and think about what I’m doing either, because even if I try to do something good it will inevitably be corrupted by my “bad” nature.

The most terrible people in the world have almost always been “good people” by their own reckonings. Tyrants, slave traders, and genocidal maniacs have all reasoned that because they were essentially “good,” the actions they were taking must be justified.

It’s this kind of “goodness” that prevents us from making progress against racism, sexism, classism, and all the other dysfunctional “-isms” that plague our culture and keep crushing human lives under their weight. Your mom spouts vitriol about the Vietnamese family who moved in next door, but she’s a good person. Your buddy touches women inappropriately all the time but hey, he’s a good guy. Your boss would rather vacation in ever more remote tropical islands than lift a finger to help people less fortunate, but he’s always nice to you at work, so he’s a good person too.

Do you consider yourself a “good person?” If so, I recommend seeking treatment immediately before the condition worsens. Talk to a therapist or religious leader, and if they in any way imply it’s a simple thing to do, get a second, third, or fourth opinion as needed. Read Thich Nhat Hanh or Thomas Merton, follow the fantastic On Being podcast and blog, look in whatever texts you consider sacred for the words that are spoken to you and not the words that are spoken to others.

Give up being a “good person” or a “bad person” and work on becoming “good at being a person”–someone who has learned to accept his irrationalities and idiosyncrasies and limitations, who always acts with empathy, who considers the people affected by his actions before taking action. To quote Kendrick Lamar, “Be humble.”

I struggle to this day with the belief that I’m a good person. Sometimes I have to catch myself when I think that the things I believe or the lifestyle I embody mean that I’m a good person, incapable of doing wrong because it’s simply not in my nature. There are also times when I’ve been shaken to my core to think that I not be a good person–that I’m not capable of doing anything right, that I’m useless as a human being. It took me years of growth and practice to recognize and ingrain in myself that I was neither good nor bad. And as I began to leave behind rightness and wrongness (to allude to the Islamic mystic Rumi’s famous poem), I also began to find I was calmer, more focused, more energized by the change I could help to create in the world and less burdened by self-doubt.

This isn’t a quick process–it means dedicating yourself to learning how to be human the way you might dedicate yourself to learning guitar or glass blowing; and it means you have to keep practicing instead of depending on your inherent “goodness.” But it’s the one skill literally everyone needs. It’s the one skill that matters most to our collective future. And you can’t be an effective leader of your home, your business, or your country without it.

If you’re looking for help with this, please post in the comments below and I’ll try to provide some more resources.

Emerging and Disrupting With Purpose

The most disruptive idea in the market right now isn’t a new technology. It’s organizations that can disrupt themselves.

In my last post (which was some time ago), I talked about collective intentionality at the end of a series of posts about emergence. Before I move on, I want to bring the two ideas together.

Emergence is often discussed in scientific contexts as something which doesn’t have purpose on an individual level–only the collective appears to have purpose, as with slime mold finding the shortest path to food despite each individual cell having no such specific intention.

The interesting thing about intentionality is that it doesn’t require conscious thought–as a matter of fact, in its best form intentionality is close to unconscious. Intentionality is directed existence, or “being about something.” In philosophy, “intentionality” is typically used in the philosophy of language, for example, the word table is “about” a table. The word isn’t a table, but to signify a table is the word’s reason for being. If tables didn’t exist (even as a concept), “table” wouldn’t be a word, it would just be a jumble of letters or sounds.

Similarly, when we choose to be intentional, what we are choosing is to be “about” something on a fundamental level. It happens at a more basic level even than a typical mission statement. This “being about” is something Simon Sinek describes in his “Golden Circle” approach: the “why” toward which all action in an organization is directed. It’s true that there isn’t an intelligence directing the movements of slime mold or the flocking of birds, but there are many individual parts combining a few simple rules with a collective objective: to find food, to find warmth, to survive and reproduce. Without intentionality, the movement of slime mold or the flocking of birds would never happen: the birds would fly off in their own directions and the mold would grow aimlessly until it dies.

As humans, our intentions can be much more varied, but it still needs to be fundamental. An organization, for example Gravity Payments, could have an internal manifesto with guiding principles, objectives, goals, key performance indicators, and so on, but all of these are worthless if they don’t draw clear circles to highlight the central “why” of the organization: to simplify transaction processing. Everything CEO Dan Price says to the members of the organization must reinforce its central narrative and focus every individual’s actions toward achieving that purpose. Only when everyone in the organization is moving toward the same purpose, does emergence propel the whole organization.

By establishing intentionality and changing the structure of an organization to better facilitate emergence, the organization will be prepared to increasingly disrupt itself. This doesn’t happen automatically. There are other factors to consider, particularly the diversity of perspective, the responsiveness to external realities such as customers and market conditions, the potential for peaceful revolution within the organization, and so on. These factors can affect the viability of an organization whether it’s a garage-based startup or an entire nation-state.

What all this means is that traditional organizations have it backward: Strategy will take care of itself, if you take care of the people. The decisions made by the so-called executive level will bubble up from what were previously considered the lowest levels of the organization. This requires re-thinking the organization’s relationships to some pretty fundamental principles, including power, employment, and compensation.

I’m eager to get readers’ thoughts about this approach to adaptive organization. What possibilities of this approach excite you? In what ways are you skeptical about this approach? What about the idea requires more clarification?

Be What You Intend to Be

Much of what goes on in a traditional organization is unintentional. That is to say, it isn’t an action that someone has decided to take in order to contribute to the well-being of that organization and its stakeholders. It’s operating on default.

Ironically, unintentional behavior can often be the result of trying to clamp down on unintentional behavior. On the other hand, it can just as easily be the result of leaving people isolated and expecting them to do their best work without any assistance or support.

The road to a more intentional organization is one described ideologically by business greats from Warren Buffett to Richard Branson. Here is the idea as verbalized by Steve Jobs:

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this idea is counter to the operation of a traditional organization. Traditionally, decisions get made and orders pushed down the chain of command; results come back up and get pieced into something like the final result that the person at the top of the chain wanted.

Counter-intuitively, the result of the traditional approach is that much of what happens in the organization is unintentional. People who wait for orders don’t make the best use of their own time; and the people above them, who don’t have the perspective of each individual’s point of view, don’t make the best use of their time either. People fulfill their immediate expectations without a view of what’s good for the whole. What’s more, managers often don’t communicate all their expectations, and the results reflect the holes in each subordinate’s understanding of the tasks assigned to him.

Becoming intentional means, at least in part, understanding myself, acknowledging and accepting what I am, and developing upon my strengths. As in the Cherokee proverb of the two wolves, I become better by feeding what is good within me. It’s not a choice I make when I’m faced with a hard question, it’s a choice I make by the way I condition myself to face the hundreds of little choices throughout the day.

The same is true of an organization: I have to feed what is best in my organization and what is best in the individuals within it.

This is one reason organizations that focus on facilitation can be much more effective than traditional organizations. Instead of “managing” in the traditional sense, leaders help people to do and become their best, guiding their individual work toward the ultimate good of the organization as a whole and helping to connect it to the work of others.

What this means for a leader is that I am first of all responsible to my people rather than for them. (Responsibility for my people is still important, though it’s mostly externally-facing: followers want leaders to have their backs.)

Whereas a traditional organization is merely, as Emerson put it, “the lengthened shadow of one man,” an organization of facilitation is an attempt to leverage the power of community toward a common goal. That makes the intent of each individual important to the whole. Each level is intentional about its own goals and behaviors, and each subsequent level is there to help the previous level attain its goals and bind efforts together.

Here are a few risk factors for unintended behavior, and what you can do about them:

  • Fear. When people are afraid of something, they tend to either destroy it or hide it. I have never seen either of these behaviors yield positive results in an organization. If the people working with you act fearfully, address it head-on. Learn what they are afraid of. Dig into the root cause, too–few people are afraid of disappointing a customer so much as they’re afraid of what might happen to them. If you start to notice a lot of people having similar problems, you have a systemic fear on your hands–usually one that has to do with trust within the organization–that requires a change.
  • Inconsistent culture. People are more willing to take personal risks if they feel anchored and supported. That has partly to do with knowing that the people around them have their back–even people who may be on a different team, or come from a very different background. Your hiring practices and cultural guidelines need to be spelled out so that the people you hire are people you’d choose to weather a crisis, not just people who would have fun together at happy hour. More than that, everyone in your organization needs to be telling the same story and believe in the same destiny.
  • Too much process. Process can be a good thing if done correctly–if the process represents a best practice, serves the people, and is capable of evolving. But if you need a process to mitigate risk, that means you already have unintended behaviors–and adding a process could make the issue worse, as people attempt to short-cut or circumvent the process in order to get their work done. (Ask yourself: Is the process an invention or a control?) Pare down or eliminate any processes that get in the way of doing good work, and instead focus on gaining buy-in from your ostensibly reliable (you did hire them, right?) employees as to how to avoid putting your community at unnecessary risk.
  • Over-management. If responsibility for my efforts always goes up to my manager, my natural human response is to fight against that control mechanism. I might give up on doing anything that isn’t assigned to me, I might deliberately procrastinate or slack off, or I might start looking for other jobs. (The top cause of burnout isn’t over-working, it’s lacking control over or engagement with your work.)1 A quote from a study in the Indian Journal of Industrial Relations: “Burnout can be minimized/avoided if individuals develop a high level of involvement in their jobs and they are able to identify themselves psychologically with their jobs.” Adding controls and oversight to prevent me from doing anything but the work I’m supposed to be doing will provoke a desire to rebel against them. Try cutting out levels of management and finding ways to prevent micromanagement, or better yet, train your “hierarchy” to be a facilitating structure instead of a managing structure. If you have good people, you won’t need to control them; and if you stop controlling them, you’ll find out pretty quickly who’s good and who isn’t.

The only way you’re going to get more than a handful of people to be fully engaged in accomplishing a goal is to get them to buy into that goal and work toward it on their own motivation. In other words, hire good people and let them tell you what to do. Think of it this way: As long as I hold the power to fire my leader, what do I lose by being a servant?

What reservations do you have about making this kind of change? Did I miss something? I’m looking forward to getting your reactions in the comments.

References   [ + ]

1.  A quote from a study in the Indian Journal of Industrial Relations: “Burnout can be minimized/avoided if individuals develop a high level of involvement in their jobs and they are able to identify themselves psychologically with their jobs.”

Nourish the Unexpected: Facilitating Emergence

It’s not quite enough to stop controlling in order for the people in your organization to do self-managed, unprecedented work. Facilitating their work is also critically important.

Facilitation nourishes and encourages people in several ways. It feeds the part of us that wants independence and mastery because a more experienced manager/co-worker is helping us with a goal instead of exercising command over it. It feeds the part of us that wants social validation: if someone is helping us accomplish a goal, it tells us the goal is worth accomplishing. It even feeds the part of us that’s lazy–that is, the part that wants to accomplish our goals while using the smallest amount of energy possible.

Think of your organization as a computer:

Algorithmic Containmentphoto credit: Algorithmic Contaminations via photopin (license)

A computer is highly structured, functional, and hierarchical, but in order to continue running the latest software, it has to be continually upgraded and redesigned. A computer doesn’t grow on its own. This is the traditional organizational model.

Now think of your organization as a garden, growing all kinds of plants:

English gardensphoto credit: Gardens at Canons Ashby via photopin (license)

You can select the kinds of plants to grow, you can fertilize and water them to help them grow faster (but not too much or it will choke them), and you can trellis them to help them grow in a certain way, and you can prune them when they grow in ways that aren’t fruitful. Plants in a garden grow on their own, but left untended, weeds will sprout up and diseases will take hold and some plants won’t receive enough nutrients.

(Doesn’t this second metaphor sound like your organization already? Why do we so often feel like we need the additional layer of inorganic structure, except that we want an illusion of control that we don’t actually have?)

Facilitation is the art of pruning, trellising, weeding, hedging, fertilizing, and helping your organization grow. You don’t order a pear tree to blossom, you don’t command bees to pollinate, you don’t provide tomatoes with minimum production quotas. You also don’t give them these initiatives and then go back inside your house and expect everything to work unless you’re told otherwise.

A similar approach can be used to grow your organization.

Consider an example of a great gardener: Brian Grazer, movie and television producer and co-founder of Imagine Entertainment. Grazer’s preference to ask questions and make requests rather than give orders helps gain buy-in, makes people feel respected, and allows him room to doubt his knowledge without being hands-off. As a leader, he uses questions and requests as a form of trellising, guiding people to grow in a certain direction rather than commanding them to do so.

The kind of gardener you become is up to the specifics of your situation. So long as you’re seeking to grow your people and your organization, you will treat them with care and make sure they have the resources, support, and guidance they need to grow in the way that’s best for them. Being neglectful and being overattentive both have their hazards.

Have you ever worked with a good “gardener?” What have you learned from these people who dedicate themselves to growing their people, their organizations, and even their strategies?

How Emergence Works in Organizations

Emergence isn’t about collecting a bunch of fine people and letting them do what they want with no structure of any kind. In fact, emergence needs structure–just not the same kind of structure traditional organizations use.

Functionally speaking, the traditional top-down structure is a method of augmenting one person’s ideas with the minds and bodies of others–like a human Voltron.

Voltron with an overlay of an org chart

This is familiar to our way of thinking–a reflection of Industrial Age ideals of order, rationality, and efficiency. But Voltron is ultimately a machine, and as we enter the Second Machine Age, organizational structures that mimic machines are going to fall by the wayside: they are less efficient than actual machines, and less adaptive (in an evolutionary sense) than organic communities.

Consider the example of Microsoft’s .NET versus the open-source Ruby On Rails: the closed, controlled, heavily planned product has consistently lost market share for years, while the decentralized, agile developer community has turned out a consistently more popular and more useful product. In terms of external incentives and long-term planning, Microsoft should have the better product. Instead, Microsoft is planning to make .NET open-source because of the spectacular failure to keep up. The organic community has unequivocally trumped the traditional model.

Let’s take another stab at that organization chart. Take the person at the top and place her instead in the middle. Connect her to all her sources of information, her co-workers, the people who report to her, the people to whom she reports. Do the same for each of those people to whom she’s connected, outward until everyone in the organization is accounted for, and connect each of them with their points of contact to the outside world. What you have now much more resembles a neural network:

Map of the neural network of a mouse

This isn’t an aspirational image, it’s a reflection of reality–a reality that the former image attempts to control and confine into a linear hierarchy. For comparison, here is a map of Twitter employees using the platform:

Network map of Twitter employees

Seeing an organization in this way–as it organizes itself, and not as the linear design into which we try to squeeze it–reminds us of the first principle of emergent structure: the number and quality of connections improves emergent behavior.

This isn’t a call to increase the number of networking events at your business. Human beings will create connections on their own if given the right environment.

Consider Google’s practice of mixing functional groups on the floor. While this would be anathema to a linear hierarchy–I would have to walk to another part of the building to talk to a co-worker–at Google, the people around you may become your co-workers. Some businesses have replicated the design without taking into account the hierarchy and culture, resulting in marginal improvements at best, and often employee frustration. (Even at Google the practice is not without its drawbacks, but it is an intentional culture play.)

The quality of the connections is likewise based on trust; the traditional organizational structure makes trust unnecessary, and by making it unnecessary, undermines it. This leads to a second principle of emergent structure: where traditional organizations depend on chain of command, emergent structure depends on social contracts.

A social contract is, at its most basic, an agreement held in common between any number of people, either written or implied. Top-down structures choose policies and impose them. Leaders of adaptive organizations make a case that a policy is in the best interest of the organization, and modify it based on the needs and applicability to a particular population. We all agree that we need to follow a certain regulation or we will face prosecution, therefore we promise to follow that regulation and hold one another to it.

In this way, instead of imposing a rule that employees follow like the speed limit (seven miles per hour over isn’t really speeding, you know), employees are accountable to one another for their actions. We all know we have made the promise with one another; when I violate the promise, I have broken my promise with everyone in the organization.

Social contract underpins the entire structure of a culture. When I expect that I have ownership over my work and it won’t be taken away from me and given to someone else, that is an implied social contract. When I expect that I can do my work every day without fear of sexual harassment, that is (usually) a written social contract.

Social contract also defines the leadership of an organization. A person can be an owner if he has enough money, and he can be a manager if he has enough connections, but he can only be a leader if he has people willing to follow him.

Finally, in addition to good connections and social contracts, emergent structure requires process. This may seem to contradict what I’ve said so far, except that human processes are approximate–they are always applied using judgment and a “feel” for the particular situation.

Human process is an interesting phenomenon. Machine processes can be made to take variables into account, but machines don’t make judgments. And machines don’t vary processes in ways they haven’t been explicitly programmed to learn, i.e., they don’t introduce personal experience or personal interpretation. Emergent behavior in an organization depends upon human experience and variability, working against an established process, to produce unexpected outcomes. Only processes that are documented and followed can be improved. Everything else is folk knowledge, which is improved by rare individuals and passed piecemeal to others.

This kind of adherence to and improvement of process depends wholly upon social contracts and quality connections: I must know that I am not documenting my changes to the process on behalf of some uncaring management four levels above me, I’m keeping rigid documentation on behalf of people like myself in the organization who are doing their best to cover for one another and keep things moving.

This is why I encourage you to abolish the idea that there is a “top” or “bottom” to your organization. The goal is to have a structure where everyone finds the most appropriate place for as long as that place is appropriate, not a structure where everyone struggles to climb as high as they can. In order for this to work, we also need to rethink the role of leadership in such an organization–because it is still critically important–and what that leadership is attempting to do.

I’m eager to get your thoughts on all this. Did any of this sound like an organization where you’ve worked, either under the traditional model or under a more adaptive approach? Have you seen leaders embrace the “neural network” of organization and truly try to engage all their members in uniquely meaningful ways?

Hiring for a Unique Culture

Culture is an emergent phenomenon. It exists between the people who make up that particular culture, and evolves based on their interactions–the mythology, folk knowledge, and traditional practices they create and pass between themselves. If you hire based on skill alone, your internal culture will look pretty much like the rest of your industry, because it will be populated with the same kinds of people.

Unlike the Industrial Age, hiring today isn’t picking up a part to put into an already-designed machine to make the machine run. Hiring into an emergent environment only happens when the candidate fits both the current culture and the future culture. Emergent strategy depends on the people within the organization working with and off of one another to yield unplanned results.

Here are a few tweaks to your hiring practices that may yield better results:

  1. Don’t appeal to everybody. Many organizations just want to be liked by everyone. They want to be the place where any individual out there would love to work. Don’t do that. Your organization is unique, and you want people who fit that collective vision and identity. Netflix asserts very clearly that its culture isn’t for everyone, but that is precisely what makes its culture all the more appealing to those who do fit. Figure out now why people wouldn’t want to work in your organization, and you’re on the way to creating a unique and powerful culture.
  2. Fill blind spots, not roles. Roles are a collection of responsibilities and skills that fit a pretty standard definition. Blind spots require a more complete understanding of your team and organization. Simply put, a blind spot is something you need that you don’t have, at the broadest definition that is required (e.g., do you really need someone with three years of Trello experience or do you just need someone who’s comfortable with agile project management?). A blind spot may be a specific competency, like a specific piece of technology, or it may be a tweak to the chemistry of the current team–for example, a more outgoing individual that will facilitate communication between the more introverted members of a remote team. It strips away the expectations that come with hiring someone into a particular role, allowing the new hire to integrate more organically with what’s already going on in your team for the first few months until they have a rhythm going.
  3. Advertise your vision, not your requirements. Anyone who isn’t excited by your specific vision doesn’t belong to your culture. And don’t just advertise the vision of your company. If possible, state succinctly but with enthusiasm what your vision is for the team and even for the specific role. A less-skilled candidate who is energized by the collective vision will be twice as valuable as a more skilled candidate who just wants a new job. And bear in mind that a long list of qualifications belies a search for an interchangeable part. If you want your candidates to get excited about a position, pare it down to your vision and the key blind spots you’re trying to fill. Leave room for the candidate to surprise you.
  4. Interview thoroughly. The hiring process I’ve seen averages two interviews. Google suggests no more than five–and then actually goes on to interview candidates five times, looking for factors including raw skill, problem solving ability, and cultural fit. In an adaptive organization, you’re going to want to take advantage of four or five interviews in order to thoroughly vet the skills, the personality, and the chemistry with the current environment.
  5. Weigh potential. Today the pace of change in technology and the economy means being able to learn what’s needed for the future is more important than having what’s needed in the present. Your people will not only need to adapt as things change, but they will need to create change themselves. And then they will need to live into that change. If the candidate doesn’t have what’s needed to adapt to whatever his role will be in three years, he may not be the best fit.
  6. When in doubt, leave them out. Don’t hire a candidate unless they leave you no other choice–by which I mean, she is such an excellent fit for your organization that you couldn’t bear to let her take another job. Turn away business before hiring someone who doesn’t add to your culture. Adaptive organizations thrive based on the number and quality of connections between employees. Hiring someone who isn’t going to improve your internal network is poison to your long-term goals.
  7. Enlist your recruit’s help. Zappos offers a $2,000 bonus for new hires to quit. The idea is that a new hire will take the money if they don’t feel that they are a good fit for the culture or they don’t believe in the long-term potential of working with the company. In the long run, the occasional $2,000 quitting bonus saves the company a lot of money on people that might otherwise be a drag on the culture. A new-hire quitting bonus might not work for you, but you should still look for ways you can work with a new hire to ensure he’s the right person, and part ways amicably if he’s not.

Filling your organization with effective people who fit with the people around them and are excited about a common vision is the basis of any good culture, not just in an adaptive organization. But because of the importance of emergence in adaptive organizations, getting the mix of people right for your culture is a crucial requirement for success.

EDIT: Reader Brian Gorman offers two additional points to consider: “Having spent more than four decades living in the world of organizational change, I would add two more to his list. 1. Hire for the culture that you want, not the culture that you have. 2. Hire for resilience; you need people who can learn new skills, and shift their mindsets, as your organization continues to change.” I would add a caveat to the first that anyone you hire needs to be able to work in the culture you have today, or she’ll be out the door as soon as she can–which makes finding adaptable people all the more important during a period of change.

Which of these points do you find is most important or illuminating? Are there any important points about hiring for culture that I’ve missed? Do you disagree with my points? I look forward to discussing it with you in the comments.

When You Stop Controlling, What Emerges?

In my last post I mentioned emergent behavior is a strength of adaptive organizations.

A definition of emergent behavior: A behavior is emergent if it’s something the collective does without any individual intentionally aiming to  it belongs to a collective but not to the individual components that make up the collective. It’s sometimes used interchangeably (even though it isn’t strictly interchangeable) with “self-organizing.” The movement of a flock of birds, for example, isn’t led or organized, but nonetheless ends up creating a beautiful, organized pattern–so much so that scientists long hypothesized that there was some sort of organization or leadership.

On the surface level, it’s easy for leaders to get excited about emergent behavior. It’s engaging, it’s innovative, and because of its connection to artificial intelligence, it sounds futuristic. But as soon as you start to dive into the details of emergence, it starts to get scary very quickly.

Emergence not only unplanned but unplannable. It doesn’t obey a strategy or market tactics. We’re able to tell the stories of the individual parts of a system, and we’re able to tell the story of the system as a whole, but the individual story and the story of the whole are not clearly and causally related. In other words, it’s not possible to control emergent processes to create a specific desired outcome–at least not without some kind of mind control.

To most business leaders, this makes emergence a non-starter, or at the very least makes it something they would limit to a dark corner of the dreaded Innovation Department. Our objective is to contain what we can’t control and subdue it with everything we can control. Giving up control is the exact opposite of what I try to do every day.

The good news is that, although I’ve written quite a few words already about emergent behavior, I haven’t yet mentioned what emerges.

  1. Leadership. We all know leadership and management are not the same thing. Management is a way of delegating down a chain, percolating down to (one can hope) the right people for each task. By contrast, a leader only exists because there are people who choose to follow. Leadership is visionary and inspiring–not the mushy feel-good kind, but the kind that puts such a strong idea in your head that you will stick with it through disagreements and difficulties, even through loss and sacrifice.
  2. Culture. Culture is already an emergent phenomenon, but a particularly interesting one because it works as a feedback loop: culture emerges between people, but then it is identified and qualified and absorbed by the individual who goes on to influence the culture. But even with that in mind, managers still attempt to control culture as though it were something that could obey their will if only they tried hard enough.
  3. Strategy. Slime mold is so efficient at finding food that scientists spent several years laboring under the hypothesis that they would find “controller cells” that coordinated the behavior of the colony. Emergent strategy adapts to present conditions more quickly than planned strategy because its members are responding directly to stimuli, and due to its parity with the pace of culture it is just as good or better at future-readiness. What’s more, due to its emergent properties, it scales much more effectively than planned strategy. (The flip side of its scalability is that emergent strategy is less effective in smaller organizations; emergence is itself something of a network effect.)

I want to emphasize that emergence doesn’t mean surrendering your organization to chaos and anarchy. I will delve further into the subject, but for now just imagine that your organization is your back yard. At present, at its best, your backyard is neatly mowed, has some nice lawn furniture and a couple of lawn games. I’m not suggesting you should let your lawn be reclaimed by nature–covered in scraggly bushes and weeds–but that your lawn could be a Japanese garden, a beautifully manicured work of nature. Without the self-directed growth of the plants, it wouldn’t be possible, but likewise it wouldn’t have form or meaning without the care given to cultivating and pruning those plants.

I’d like to take this opportunity to do a check-in with you. What excites you about emergence? What concerns you? I have several posts in the works, but I’m interested in where you want this to go next. Let’s have a conversation in the comments.

The Strengths of Adaptive Organizations

While most of my posts can be applied to many different kinds of organizations, and even more can be applied to businesses specifically, I write all my posts with adaptive organizations in mind.

Adaptive organizations are generally loosely-structured, non-hierarchical, and depend on temporary teams to pop up and disband on their own. They’re the primary focus of Frederic Laloux’s book Reinventing Organizations, as well as the driving philosophy behind the consulting firm Undercurrent.

Adaptive organizations are designed to maximize the co-operation of human and machine. Unlike Industrial Age organizations, adaptive organizations (what Frederic Laloux calls “teal” organizations) do not rely on humans functioning as machines. Instead, they depend on the value created by healthy individuals, collected from diverse backgrounds and bonded into communities by a common vision for the future.

The contrast between the two concepts can be so pronounced that some can’t even fathom how these futuristic organizations would work. But the fact that adaptive organizations are already beginning to emerge (as with Spotify, Valve, and GitHub) shows that they aren’t just a philosophical exercise. They are real, they are successful, and they will continue to thrive.

Laloux outlines three principles of adaptive organizations: self-management, wholeness, and evolutionary purpose. While these are incredibly useful guidelines for creating a future organization, they don’t quite explain why adaptive organizations work. I’d like to propose three corollaries to Laloux’s principles.

  1. Traditional organizations rely on planned behavior; adaptive organizations encourage emergent behavior. Traditional organizations are heavily planned: they hire people with specific skill sets to fit into specific roles and accomplish specific tasks that make up a system that’s carefully designed to play out the vision of the entity at the top. This ultimately makes traditional organizations less than the sum of their parts. Adaptive organizations operate at the opposite end of the spectrum: they expect employees to manage themselves and one another dynamically. Fixed hierarchy is counter-productive because it limits deviation from an established agenda; in a fixed hierarchy, I don’t have much room to do anything that doesn’t directly benefit my immediate supervisor, and he in turn has little room to do anything that doesn’t benefit his immediate supervisor. Designing an organization to encourage emergent behavior means opening up to unplanned innovation by anyone at any time. It can be equal parts dangerous and game-changing; the art and science of emergent behavior is to minimize the danger without discouraging the game changers.
  2. Traditional organizations consolidate efforts in an attempt to design the best, most efficient single outcome; future organizations rely on multiple discovery to generate iterative, multi-dimensional innovation. When a traditional organization discovers two different efforts to accomplish a similar goal, it’s seen as inefficient. Duplicative efforts are shut down and/or consolidated into one another, leading to political battles and possibly resentment on the part of the employees who were trumped. These consolidation efforts frequently fail, either in process (they are never completed) or in product (the outcome is too unwieldy or unhelpful). Multiple discovery allows several efforts to reach the same point from multiple directions, or to reach different points from a similar origin. The outcomes of the individual efforts tend to be leaner and more focused, and if one option fails there are others at the ready.
  3. Traditional organizations depend on metric productivity (output divided by hours divided by pay rate); adaptive organizations develop unique value. Metric productivity is the enemy of unique value: it suggests that all products, customers, and employees are comparable and judges each employee against some Platonic ideal of productivity. Metric productivity is what causes us to believe that putting in more hours makes us more valuable to our employer, that what we do to our bodies in our off-hours isn’t important to what happens when we’re on the clock, that our mental and spiritual and social well-being is something we do on our own time and work doesn’t factor into it. But metric productivity isn’t just bad for employees, it’s also a dead end for employers. If your concern is wholly for metric productivity, chances are high that you’re in competition with someone. Competition is a sinkhole. If you’re not digging yourself out of it and creating unique value, you’re bound to lose.

This is how adaptive organizations can thrive in spite of the concerns that keep leaders locked into traditional models. Adaptive organizations eschew the assumptions of traditional organizations–efficiency, competitive pricing, planned behaviors and outcomes–and take the lead because they engage both employees and customers in a way that makes traditional competition obsolete. They also gain efficiencies in unexpected ways–from Buurtzorg spending less time on patients by spending more time with them, to Netflix’s “the best are 10x better than average” philosophy. In the end, adaptive organizations are even better than traditional organizations at traditional metrics, because they focus on purpose and put the future of their organization in the hands of each individual. Instead of focusing on functional planning, an effective leader provides focus, narrative, and inspiration to the efforts of the collective–as Saint-Exupery puts it, she teaches them “to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

This post serves as the frame for my next several posts, in which I’ll tackle multiple discovery and dig further into emergent behavior to provide some practical understanding of how to apply these concepts to a real organization.

What do you believe about adaptive organizations? What’s keeping you from applying these principles to your own organization? I look forward to discussing with you in the comments.

Listen to the Opinion, Speak to the Experience Part 2

“For acquired knowledge cannot be divorced from the existence in which it is acquired.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It’s been pointed out to me that my previous post is a bit confusing. Granted, it’s a topic that’s probably worth writing several books, and a skill that can take years of personal development. But I want to drill down to a core that’s useful even in the short-term.

There is no such thing as objectivity among humans. (As software people are fond of saying, “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.”) In collaboration with one another, we represent a wide array of experiences and we have each filtered out what we have found to be the salient points that we apply as broad rules of the world. This is a cognitive belief, or what we call an “opinion.”

But behind the opinion is the semi-instinctual gut feeling that is our initial filter. This is an emotional belief: a reaction, derived from our experience, that we first feel and then attempt to understand through logic and words. (I say “semi-instinctual” because highly developed, balanced individuals can actually inform and change their emotional beliefs.)

So, when we are dealing with people–whether it’s working toward consensus at a meeting, motivating a co-worker, or addressing a client’s concerns–we are dealing with a complex of emotional beliefs, masquerading as opinions.

Particularly in business, we’ve been taught to act as though the world is a rational place–or at least, that it can be made rational. And so when we encounter conflicts in opinions, we take all the facts and information from those opinions and try to reconcile them. When we can’t, we start throwing out those that don’t agree with our views until we come up with a patchwork of ideas that meshes together. Or worse, we split the difference between competing opinions and call it “compromise” just to get people on board.

The message of this process is that not every experience is valuable. If I’ve contributed my opinion and it’s been thrown out, it means that I am wrong and my perspective is useless (according to whoever is throwing it out).

But there are reasons for every opinion that are relevant to each solution. If I have a difference of opinion from everyone else in the room, it means I have an important experience to contribute–even if my opinion, the product of that experience, doesn’t bear with reality.

So much of our focus in management (and even leadership) is on getting the facts, the efforts, the opinions to fit together into a whole. And so we may often end up with solutions that are like an exquisite corpse: a too-elaborate tacking-together of mismatched parts that could never be functional.

What if, instead of trying to mesh together a patchwork of opinions, we instead undercut the opinions and worked to form an understanding of the human experience underlying the problem? What if there were no relevant experiences that didn’t matter? What if an opinion, which we often use as a way of rationalizing our emotional beliefs, is actually a lens we can look through to find the experiences that are most important to what we’re doing? Could we find a way to address the whole reality of our human experience of a problem, instead of presuming that our years of experience or our level of mastery elevate us toward perfection?

I’m not sure of the answer, but I do know that developing my own emotional maturity and my own ability to see through the eyes of others is one of the skills I value most in my business experience. This post is my own opinion: the way that I make sense of my experience. I look forward to being informed by yours.

Listen to the Opinion, Speak to the Experience

We each have at least two sets of beliefs: cognitive beliefs and emotional beliefs. Which one do you believe controls you?

You’re likely to say your cognitive beliefs–because it’s your cognitive self that is analyzing the question, and that part of yourself wants to believe it is dominant. That it has the power to bully your emotional self into agreeing with it.

But if we were all governed by our rational selves, we would look at the same facts, see the same things, and form the same opinions. There would be no public debate, and we certainly wouldn’t have the incessant raving of rabid pundits on every form of media.

My emotional beliefs determine which facts are more important than others, which virtues are more significant than others, which vices are more destructive than others. They are the substance of all my conflicts with my lover, my mother, my best friend, my boss.

But my cognitive self wants to believe it’s in control. And so it formulates cognitive beliefs–what we call “opinions.” These opinions form a shield around our emotional beliefs, which is why we hold onto opinions so dearly. To expose our emotional beliefs would leave them open to invalidation.

To measure and count and address the opinions of people is to be a representative, not a leader. A leader isn’t concerned with opinions, she is concerned with experiences.

Consider the myriad experiences in the debates over immigration: legal immigrants with illegal-immigrant friends and family who risked their lives to cross the border; legal immigrants who struggled through a complex system; immigrants whose legal status is threatened or has slipped; union workers put out of work by immigrants; refugees from physical and economic violence; citizens who live close to violent border towns; illegal parents of legal children; kids who grew up with immigrant parents or grandparents. Every one of these people (and more) has his own experience that informs his opinions about immigration.

Phenomenology, the study of experiences, adjoins the fields of philosophy and anthropology. It’s a field that has gained some notoriety lately through books such as The Moment of Clarity, which describes case studies using anthropological techniques to inform business decisions at companies like LEGO and Intel. It also helps to turn this inquiry inward, to observe not just the experiences of customers but the experiences of the people within my own organization.

When I shout an opinion at you, what I’m saying is, “This is the best way I can see to reconcile my own experience with what I know about the world.” If you attempt to address my opinion, you are saying, “You just don’t know enough about the world.” When you attempt to address my experience, however, you are asking, “How can your experience inform what we know about the problem?” Doing so not only moves a team toward consensus, but promises a better solution.

Of course, it’s not wise to ask, “What experience do you think is driving your opinion?” Nobody wants to turn a business meeting into a therapy session. Instead, try to live like an anthropologist among those you would seek to lead. Watch how they work and observe their environment. Hear the patterns of their complaints and identify their core beliefs. Consider their incentives and responsibilities. Try to become one of them (without taking it overboard and acting like you can do what they do). Always, always ask, “Why?”

Over time, and with practice, you will start to hear the experiences. And as you do, it will become possible to address problems in a real, substantial way, rather than simply speaking to the opinions.

If you agree or disagree, please share your own experience in the comments so that we can all learn from it.