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.”

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.

Who Is the Mother of Invention?

You’ve heard that “necessity is the mother of invention.” It’s a proverb that’s likely over 500 years old. But what does it mean?

The saying might recall Captain Kirk calling down to Scotty in engineering, and Scotty iconically replying, “She canna take much more, Cap’n!” Fans of the show 24 similarly joke about Jack Bauer telling Chloe to “just do it!” as the push she needs to make the impossible happen. And let’s not forget the ingenious agent Macgyver. Our culture is rife with the myth of the skilled but uncertain innovator solving an impossible problem in an unrealistic time frame simply because it was necessary. This kind of resourcefulness is a cornerstone of Americans’ beliefs about economics and the world.

But the question is: How true is it? Not the one-in-a-million stories we pluck from the biographies of rags-to-riches businessmen, but the kind of everyday invention and innovation that drives our economy forward. Does desperation drive invention? Or is it something else?

The answer, as with many things, is dependent on the specific definition and context. Desperation as a sense of urgency to meet a particular deadline may spur certain kinds of innovation. But desperation as a state of being–that is, the lack of security around one’s position, as with financial poverty or the ongoing threat of being fired–tends to lock us into survival mode. Desperate people grasp at proven solutions that promise to get them what they need, rather than inventing solutions that may not be sufficient.

That’s not to say these solutions are without risk. But consider someone who agrees to transport bulk drugs: The activity is risky, but the payoff is assured. Innovation requires room to be uncertain about the outcome: Will there even be a payoff? Will it be big enough? You can see this play out at companies that are in danger of bankruptcy: Rather than innovating out of the problem, for the most part they cut down to the basics and try to replicate past success. For every individual that becomes more innovative under that kind of pressure, thousands lose the ability to innovate at all.

If not desperation, then, what drives innovation?

The first parent may surprise you: Laziness. We innovate because the way things are being done is just too much work. This is part of the reason for a disconnect between hours worked and productivity: An innovator can work half as much as someone who doesn’t innovate, and still accomplish more. Laziness gets a bad rap simply because there are so many who misuse it. One of my own innovations early in my working life was a matter of saving myself the tedium of several weeks of repetitive tasks. That innovation was ultimately spread to offices around the country and saved hundreds of hours.

The other is often thought to be exactly the opposite: Enthusiasm. We also innovate because we want something new and better for the future. Our ability to anticipate the future is one of the things that distinguishes human evolution from natural evolution: we can evolve not just for the present circumstances but for the circumstances we anticipate.

Together, laziness and enthusiasm are the push and the pull of an engine. Laziness, better described, is a dissatisfaction with or disinterest in things as they are; enthusiasm is a deep interest in the possibility of things to come. Spitting out what is and sucking in what’s coming is the process that drives innovation forward. Without enthusiasm, laziness becomes pessimistic and defeatist. Without laziness, enthusiasm becomes toothless; if the present isn’t so bad, it’s better to just let that future come on its own.

Necessity may be a parent of invention in at least one sense: We invent things that are useful to us. If we didn’t need it, why would we invent it? This reveals a critical problem with the way innovation is handled in many organizations. Some businesses try to institute an “innovation department.” But isolating the innovators from the problems is self-defeating. An innovation department has to go the extra mile just to understand what problems need to be solved, and may often end up solving problems that don’t exist or aren’t high-priority. The power for innovation is always best placed in the hands of those who experience the need on a daily basis.

Motivating by Story: A Lesson from Theater

When you go to see a play, you may sit down with some assumptions about the people you see on stage. Among them may be an assumption that all those people want to be there.

A stage or a film set isn’t substantively different from the environment on a work team–the egos may be a little bigger, but if you’ve spent any time leading people, you’ve probably seen some big egos already.

One of the difficulties you might not expect lies in getting the cast on the same page. A director’s ability to interpret a script (which is tantamount to meeting the requirements of a project) depends on each actor individually working with that interpretation.

The irony is that for everyone to be on the same page, everyone has to be on a different page. Having a big-picture understanding of Hamlet finding out about and then exacting revenge for the murder of his father is a great perspective to have, but it’s not necessarily the story each actor is playing. Each person in the cast has to have a unique story in order to effectively and convincingly fulfill his duties.

To Laertes, Hamlet is a story about revenge–against his sister’s boyfriend for driving her to insanity and suicide. To Claudius, it’s a story about the ambition of a man who wouldn’t accept the cards dealt to him and worked to improve his station.

Similarly, one of the most important motivators in a team is not to see the big picture, but to see the small one–to see my story. It’s too easy to clock in and check out when I see what I’m doing as serving someone else’s story, and I’m just selling a bit of my life for a paycheck. To live fully within the work I’m doing, I have to understand: what am I doing right now to live my values?

Do you know the stories your people are telling? Do you know not only their value, but their values? Every level of organization has separate values: a nation, a business, a team, an individual. If you know their values, it will be easy to help them see their own stories in the larger story you’re telling together.

“Sure,” you might say, “I can show a key player how his individual story weaves into the big picture. But there are some people–interns, new hires, people from other departments or other companies–who tend to see their roles as small and interchangeable. And they are,” you may even say, “because they don’t have the specialization or depth of involvement to create unique value.”

There are two roles in Hamlet that are so famously insignificant and interchangeable that Tom Stoppard wrote a play about how insignificant and interchangeable they are: Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

These two characters have no distinguishing features and serve only to move the plot forward. The actors could easily clock in and check out. But a good director doesn’t ignore even the smallest part, particularly if she already has star players locking down the major roles. The flavor of the end product can be disproportionately affected by these seemingly insignificant roles.

Ultimately it comes down to the same objective: Even these small, interchangeable players have to see what they do as the integral, project-defining work that it is. Losing even the least significant roles confuses and degrades the end product.

Could you have a successful product without it? Of course–it happens all the time. I’ve seen successful projects with much more significant roles that were poorly executed. But attention to the least of your team members, and the ability to integrate their stories seamlessly into the final product, is what separates a passable director from a great leader. Learning the individual stories of each of your players, and weaving each of them into the whole, can take a project that is unlikely to even be finished and turn it into an incredible success.

Control Is the Enemy of Engagement

“Engagement” has become a management buzzword. Companies want to increase employee engagement to enhance efficiency and work output while reducing et cetera, et cetera, et cetera… And as is common, such management speak attempts to increase engagement as a variable, one of many variables that, if you can get them just right, will give your company the push it needs to succeed.

But this approach to engagement is self-defeating because it succumbs to the desire for control. It’s ultimately a way that leaders are attempting to control their subordinates. And control is the enemy of engagement.

Let’s unpack this assertion a bit.

“Engagement” is a pseudo-psychological term that management-speakers use to isolate the idea that employees care about what they’re doing. It’s a term that cuts out individuality from both the subject and object to make it into something one-dimensional that can be increased or decreased. But you can’t isolate the concept of “caring” from either the subject that is doing the caring, or the object about which the subject cares. So instead of “engagement,” let’s use the more everyday “care.”

The term “control” is also an overly specific term that suggests micromanaging. But the idea is much broader, something that we often think of negatively as “power.” Consider the villains in The Lord of the Rings, or dictators like Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong-un. Are such characters content to oversee, to promote, to protect, to encourage? Or do people who consolidate power want to control?

So I will amend my assertion: from the sterile “control is the enemy of engagement” to: “Consolidating power prevents people from caring.”

A lot of leaders aren’t going to like where this is going. You may be the kind that wants to create the experience of “engagement” so that you can have more control over your organization–so that you can better consolidate power and make the organization do what you want.

But if you are seeking to increase engagement–if you want your people to care–then you are going to have to give up control. That doesn’t mean abandoning your position as a leader, but it does mean letting your organization lead you as much as you lead it.

You will lead your organization with purpose, not with strategy. Strategy is a specific outline for what you’re going to do–the “what” and the “how.” For pretty much everyone outside the executive level, strategy doesn’t matter; it just means I should anticipate some annoying changes to the work I have to do. Purpose, on the other hand, is a belief in who we are and who we want to be. It’s the “why” that drives what we do and how we do it. Most importantly, it’s something in which everyone can participate, and in which people choose to participate. You can order people to follow a strategy, but you have to convince them to be part of a purpose. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” You need to articulate your vision simply and succinctly and intuitively, and then you need to teach the people following you to want that vision.

Your organization will lead you in terms of strategy and structure. Rather than doing analysis and picking up the latest business books to determine what your organization needs to do, let your organization tell you what it needs. Just like your body will tell you what to eat and how hard to exercise once you’ve learned to listen to it, your organization will offer its aches and its needs once you’ve learned to hear. If your organization is operating in service of the purpose you’ve articulated, you will need to make yourself a servant in turn to your organization’s needs.

I’ve given an expansive version of the process over the past few paragraphs, but all of this should come together as something instinctive. It should pour out of you: “I’m excited to do [vision] with you because [purpose]! What can I do to help you achieve it?” This kind of enthusiasm, humility, and service-mindset from a leader is infectious. If your people are part of the organization because they want to be, and they believe in what your organization is doing and your vision for its future, they will have a tendency to pick up on your enthusiasm and your service attitude. And the more people are serving one another to accomplish something they care about together, rather than trying to control one another over competing visions, the more successful your organization will be.

That’s the essence of the dichotomy of “engagement”–caring about what you’re doing–versus “control”–struggling for power.

Feedback: The Motivation Superpower

Intrinsic motivation, left to itself, can be unfocused. This is especially true across an entire organization. There are ways to improve focus through establishing shared values and getting everyone to tell the same story, but there are also mechanisms for improving the focus of an individual’s intrinsic motivations. Few of these mechanisms are more fundamental than feedback.

I don’t mean peer review forms or a semi-annual sit-down with the boss. I mean simple feedback loops that work throughout every day.

Simple feedback works like this: A subject takes an action, there is a reaction, and information about the reaction is returned to the subject, who can then use the information about the reaction to modify her activity. I touch a hot kettle, the kettle burns my fingers, my nerves send information about my fingers burning back to me, and I pull my hand away. This is how fundamental feedback is. But because so much business in today’s world is abstract, we have to construct feedback loops deliberately rather than expecting feedback to happen on its own.

Lack of feedback can quickly erode motivation. And the more entrepreneurial or “self-starting” a position is, the more important feedback is to the person in that position. Feedback is your sight, like a bat echoing its own songs to understand the contour of the world around it. If you don’t hear an echo, how do you know what to do?

Yet for how fundamental it is, it’s surprisingly easy to forget. And then it’s surprisingly easy to chalk up motivation problems to lack of incentives, or poor leadership, or other priorities getting in the way, when really the people around you are lost in a world that doesn’t echo back at them.

How can you create effective feedback?

Feedback must be immediate, contextual, and apparent. Feedback is a behavioral stimulus–it has to fit both the time and the context of the action that caused it, and it has to be clear and concise in order to reveal information that’s useful for subsequent action.

This doesn’t mean feedback is always a result of things that are done–sometimes it’s the result of something that’s undone. Networking sites like LinkedIn and dating sites like Match.com tend to provide feedback in the form of a percentage completion bar to let you know how “complete” your profile is. Of course, your profile on these sites is as complete as you want it to be–but by creating this bit of feedback, such sites are able to encourage participants to improve the quality of information about themselves without offering any incentive other than having a “more complete” profile.

Feedback is a leadership superpower because all feedback is either grounded on some fixed point (values), directed toward some fixed point (objectives), or both. Thus continuous feedback is a way of aligning the efforts of a team toward the same values and objectives. And if you focus on those ends–values and objectives–when providing feedback, you can effectively avoid micromanagement while getting results that both satisfy your goals and represent your team.

Sometimes as a leader, I may have to manufacture feedback. This may require a shift in perspective: rather than believing there’s no feedback available because something is tied up in political limbo, I may need to provide feedback on the work itself–its quality, its relevance, etc. My team member will be able to take that feedback and apply it to other efforts. As a consequence, they’ll also be creating value that better fits my own vision, since it’s directed toward my feedback.

I may also have to generate feedback for myself. One way to go about this is to establish clear expectations with every completed action. After completing something for which I expect feedback–which does not necessarily mean something that requires “notes” or changes–I can mention the kind of information I want to receive and the date by which I would like to receive it, and then follow-up after the appointed time has passed. Remember this information should be immediate (and contextual), concise, and oriented toward fulfilling values and accomplishing objectives; it should as a result be quick and easy for the requested party to provide.

Proper application of feedback can, on its own, stimulate a lot of action without the addition of artificial incentives. It’s the first step in turning intrinsic motivation outward, but it doesn’t yet offer an actual incentive–merely a reflection. The information reflected back at us also implies specific objectives–something that someone outside of us is looking to find, and therefore something we can work specifically to improve, which we do if we have the intrinsic desire to create something useful for another person. Giving feedback without tying it to any extrinsic reward is the second level of motivational strategy.

What are some effective ways you’ve found to provide feedback to others? What ways have you learned to solicit useful feedback from others?