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.”

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.

Do This, Not That: Market Versus Social Norms

Dan Ariely makes a distinction between market norms and social norms in the fourth chapter of Predictably Irrational. He touches briefly upon the way that employers mix their messages, dangerously breaking social contracts and making things about money when they are attempting to lead a socially-driven organization.

As the book documents, operating on market norms (i.e., thinking about the money I’m getting in return for the activity I’m doing) can damage productivity even when compensation is considered adequate. But worst of all, it can damage relationships when we assumed we were operating on higher terms–social norms like trust, reciprocity, and friendship. And we can’t mix the two: once we perceive that our efforts are being valued according to market norms, that’s the mindset we use for the entire interaction.

The next era of commerce will not be kind to organizations that depend on market norms, except as perhaps a back end, business-to-business protocol. For the most part, those things that are driven by competition, price, and data can be outsourced to computers and become a secondary function of people-facing businesses, businesses that use humans for those things humans are uniquely capable of accomplishing.

If you’re still using market norms to run your business, it’s best to start weeding them out now, before they relieve you of all your self-motivated people and leave you with half-hearted key-punchers.

Here are a few “do this, not that” guidelines for common business practices:

  1. Pay healthy salaries, don’t track hours. Some businesses require hour tracking, but to the extent that it’s possible your people shouldn’t identify the time they put in with dollar amounts. Doing so puts them in a market mindset: Am I getting enough money to be worth what I’m doing? Paying healthy salaries instead removes market questions from their minds, and has the potential to make the rare transformation of money into a social contract: the business is a community that takes care of your needs, rather than an employer compensating you for your activity. This is the genius behind Netflix’s policy to pay employees as much as they would pay to keep them: there’s no need for employees to ever negotiate salary or think about how much their work is worth, so they operate on a basis of trust and social contract rather than constantly competing with the employer for a fair wage. Even better if employees have direct deposit, where the money simply appears in their accounts as if by magic.
  2. Appeal to social contract, don’t talk about money. It should go without saying that you should never bring up the fact that you’re paying an employee, or use money as a bargaining chip for a change in behavior. They’re already aware that a threat to their position in the community is a threat to their livelihood. Focus on the social contract rather than the monetary transaction. Are they letting down their co-workers? Are they hurting their ability to make a difference in the organization? Talk about those things. If you have to mention money, it’s already a lost cause. (If they’re the ones bringing money into it, you might as well address their concerns–they’re already thinking in market terms. Take it as a form of feedback on your ability to keep market norms out of your business, and consider whether the issues raised might affect other people as well.)
  3. Make your people financially secure, don’t cut costs at their expense. If your employees have to be worried about paying the rent, covering bills, and eating, then they are already thinking about their jobs in terms of market norms. If you’re going to employ someone, make sure you’re ready to pay enough that they don’t have to be concerned about the basics of life. That includes health care, child care, and retirement. Ariely and James Heyman report that people who perceived themselves as paid inadequately lost as much as a third of their productivity at a very simple mechanical task (forget creative problem solving), and that’s without factoring in any worries about feeding their children. And if Costco is any indication, paying a living wage is a clear path to sustainable business.
  4. Share successes, don’t pay bonuses. This is a tricky one: Traditionally, bonuses are the way you share successes. But paying bonuses can create a clear line between the actions of an employee and the money, turning the action into market-regulated action rather than social-regulated action. There are different ways of accomplishing essentially the same thing. One is to reframe the concept of compensation entirely, as with my post on taxation. If employees interpret the amount they earn not as a payment from you but as something they are accomplishing with you, it may be possible to avoid activating market norms. Another way is to award the bonus as an in-kind gift–but this is fraught with pitfalls. Having the employee choose the gift causes the employee to think about the monetary value; choosing the gift for the employee puts one in danger of choosing something the employee doesn’t want or need; and having co-workers choose may invite comparison and market-norm thinking among the co-workers.
  5. Show loyalty, don’t dig moats. There are already a lot of financial obstacles to leaving a job. Creating new ones causes your people to think about the job in terms of their financial need instead of thinking about the social contract. Instead, you should make it as easy as possible for them to leave–and challenge yourself to convince them they shouldn’t. To the extent your people feel that they are with you by choice and not by necessity, they will be more likely to act on social norms instead of market norms.

It can be difficult to manage the financial needs of the business while operating on social norms, but undermining the social norms can quickly undo all the effort you’ve placed into creating them. If you start by thinking of your organization as a community, a family, or a nation, you will be on more solid ground. And when in doubt, leave the money out of it.

Can We Open-Source the Law?

Here’s a wild idea for you.

When the United States was formed as the first modern democracy, its founders had some pretty crazy ideas about how the democratic system would work. People would be elected and leave their jobs to become lawmakers for several years, and then return to their jobs and let someone else take a stab at it. It was an efficient approach to getting the perspectives of the people who made up the nation to collaborate on laws.

But how would they have written the Constitution if they had today’s technologies and insights? Would it have been different?

Enter Jos de Blok, CEO of Buurtzorg, a nursing organization that turned the business of home-care on its head. Unlike traditional leadership that does extensive strategizing and change planning, de Blok has a blog. When he’s planning a change in operations–usually a small, incremental change rather than a massive treatise–he posts it on the blog and allows 24 hours for response from an organization of nearly 8,000. Based on feedback, he proceeds, amends, throws out, or gathers a task force to hammer out the details.

The specifics of Buurtzorg’s approach will not apply for every organization, but the concept is sound: Centralized (non-hierarchical) management of an open-sourced approach.

Open-sourcing has provided not just stable software but some of the most secure software in the world, despite the early concerns over its transparency and malleability. Yet the approach has yet to make much of a leap to other fields, despite being at its core a knowledge method and not a software-specific method. (Wikipedia is among the few notable examples.)

There’s a lot to be learned from the way open-source groups guide development. Many have small development teams that are able to invest and focus on key features that aren’t getting as much attention on the outside. Some companies identify features that have to be developed in a closed environment in order to be valuable, and embed them within a different version of the product. But there are often so many eyes on every line of the source code that it’s difficult to deliberately sabotage the effort, and developers who comb through the code before a final release are typically able to pull out unnecessary operations and tie up loose ends.

These open-source software projects are at work in the wild, accessible to billions of people, and many of the developers working on them have very little personal stake in the outcome except their own excitement about and investment in the project.

Suppose these same techniques were used to guide your organization, every member of which is deeply invested in your policies and decisions. Instead of investing in a complex analysis of the state of your company, you’d get immediate feedback from the people who know it best. Instead of deciding on a change plan and having to get buy-in from every last member of your organization, you’d already have a good chunk of your organization on board. Instead of having to course-correct in the middle of an enormous project, your incremental changes would correct themselves.

If it sounds idealistic, that’s because it is. Don’t misunderstand: It’s a completely practical approach, and may even become a necessary approach to managing large organizations in ten or twenty years. But it’s also idealistic because it requires leaders to relinquish power, and perhaps just as importantly it puts them on uncertain footing. Leaders not only want power for its own sake, they want power because they don’t trust their people, and this approach to an organization’s policy and strategy relies absolutely on trust.

Fortunately there are ways to develop that trust, some of which I’ve already written about. You can treat your employees as partners. You can remove the stigma of failure. You can establish shared values. And as always, you should approach it in the way that works best for your specific organization. But as with any change, at some point you will have to make a leap without knowing exactly where you will land. It can be terrifying, but it’s the only way we accomplish any meaningful change.

Perhaps the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have open-sourced America’s laws even if they’d had the tools. But on the whole they were the kind of people who were always trying to improve upon the work of others. We’d be doing them a disservice if we didn’t try to improve upon theirs, even if it’s only within our own small organizations.

I’m looking forward to discussing your insights and concerns in the comments below.

How to Value Your Diversity

Equal pay for women is a checkmate strategy.

There are two possible schools of thought when it comes to equal pay. One is that women are the same as men; the other is that women are different from men.

If women are the same as men, then they deserve equal pay. This is easy to understand: If women are the same as men with regard to their work, then if business is a meritocracy they deserve to be making the same amount for the same work.

I’m of the camp that women and men are statistically different. (By which I mean you can’t narrow down from the generality to say any one woman is a certain way compared to any one man, but on average women tend toward certain traits and men toward others.) Whether this difference is primarily the product of cultural expectations is irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

That women are different and therefore deserve equal pay goes back to my discussion of diversity and innovation. Innovation is recombinant, meaning it requires a diversity of perspectives, values, and opinions that can be synthesized and resolved in new ways, sometimes resulting in entirely new ideas. If women are different from men, this contributes value to the innovation process.

But there’s a problem with unequal pay and the relative value of the individual’s contribution. By setting one person’s pay lower than a peer, you are also setting the relative value of that person’s contribution.

This sounds counter-intuitive to anyone brought up on supply-and-demand economics, which say you’re paying less for the same resource. Yet we’ve seen time and again that the amount you pay for something changes its practical value. If you paid a hundred dollars a month to read my blog posts, even if the product wasn’t substantively changed, you’d be taking these words a lot more seriously. This blog would, in effect, become a different product in your mind.

The same behavior is at play in your employment, even where the actual amounts you’re paying each employee are hidden from each other. The behavior is subtle: management values this person’s views more than another’s; or a particular employee is bolder because he knows he is being paid on the upper end of his market range. Meanwhile, people who are being paid less than their contribution is worth may be holding back. Why should I be investing more in my employers than they’re investing in me?

Thus, by paying an employee less, you are actually making her contribution less valuable.

Thus it isn’t a matter of paying women equally, but valuing women equally. Women who move forward with the knowledge that they are paid equally, and men who encounter women with the knowledge that they are paid equally, will both value the contributions of those women more. And because these contributions add a diversity of perspective–and those perspectives are valued at the same level as their male peers–they contribute value to the end product.

Thus, equal pay is simply logical from a business standpoint. The same rationale applies to equal pay for people of other cultures, subcultures, or anyone who enters a business environment with a new perspective. Short-changing a perspective leaves it anemic; and starving an investment, like your investment in an employee, is bad business.

Interlocking Shields: The Importance of Constructive Conflict

Any organization that’s trying to become more innovative has to adopt one universal management skill: constructive conflict.

Constructive conflict doesn’t mean conflict resolution. It means allowing conflict to happen, even encouraging it, and focusing it into a creative, constructive exercise.

Conflict is important because it challenges beliefs and assumptions. It reveals the limits of our vision and draws out feelings and opinions that need to be dealt with. Well-executed conflict can result in more robust ideas and more complete buy-in; it also prevents territorialism and resource allocation inefficiencies from people overstating their needs, and allows us to air grievances before they develop into grudges. For these reasons, conflict doesn’t go away in a good business environment.

Conflict occurs when people have different information, different values, or different needs; constructive conflict facilitates synthesis of these differences:

  • Synthesizing information allows decisions to proceed with a more holistic view.
  • Synthesizing values allows each stakeholder to understand other stakeholders’ concerns and determine whether they are important to the matter at hand.
  • Synthesizing needs helps make decisions and compromises that will benefit the business overall and not just the stakeholder acting on his or her own.

Conflict avoidance, on the other hand, short circuits innovation by preventing the interaction of diverse viewpoints and areas of knowledge. Providing a framework for conflict to happen makes collaboration possible. All the platforms and incentives and leadership messages trying to push collaboration can be sabotaged by not knowing how to create positive conflict.

Although constructive conflict is a skill, we can start by creating a solid foundation for conflict. This begins with shared purpose and shared values: if people are working toward the same end, resolving the conflict becomes a matter of how best to achieve that end instead of a contest of ends.

We can also more clearly define roles. This is a particular challenge for less-hierarchical organizations: a manager, for example, becomes a role rather than a position of absolute authority. Yet as I’ve discussed previously, “domain” is critical to the development of individuals. Defining and using domain in very clear-cut ways helps those involved in a conflict to understand the perspectives of one another, and reduces the scale of conflict to border disputes while eschewing hostile takeovers.

Finally, constructive conflict and trust feed into one another. If you have established trust, it will help to draw out conflict and create constructive outcomes. If you create successful conflicts, it will strengthen the bond of trust.

This One Neat Trick Made Alexander the Conqueror of the Known World

Alexander conquered the known world with a simple innovation. It didn’t require a complex new technology; we would call it a “process change.” Instead of giving men shields to protect themselves, the Greeks overlapped their shields to form an impenetrable barrier, a technique they called a “phalanx.”

In these phalanx formations, a soldier’s shield was (according to Gerard Butler) intended to cover himself and the man to his left. The success of the entire formation rested on each individual, but the responsibility of each individual extended to only one other person. It was a manageable, achievable, even simple goal. What’s more, each soldier was able to give up some of his own shield with the knowledge that the man beside him was shielding him in turn. (Unless you were on the far right–that guy was kinda screwed.)

I’m sure someone has taken this idea somewhere, slapped it on a posted and put the word “TEAMWORK” under it. But this isn’t just “teamwork.” “Teamwork” was taking down a mammoth thousands of years earlier. The phalanx was something a little different. Instead of being something abstract like “teamwork,” it was a very simple, practical invention based on two rules:

  1. Each man covers the next man’s weakness.
  2. Covering the man next to you is as important as covering yourself.

If you could apply this technique to a culture–the culture of your immediate team at work, or of your entire company, or of an entire nation–a culture of covering the person to your left–could that culture benefit as much from its resulting unity as an ancient Greek phalanx?

For it to work, there is a hiring issue and a management issue.

The hiring side depends upon hiring a diverse set of people–not just “diversity hiring,” but hiring people with very different perspectives and strengths within the context of the core set of skills necessary to a team. This requires complementing working skills (such as project planning) with social skills (such as empathy).

The management side depends upon horizontal management methods, which is to say peer management. Rather than being responsible only upward, I am also responsible sideways to and for one or more people. Their success is my success.

There are a few possible approaches that I have not personally had the chance to test or observe in a business environment. One is the “linked chain” approach that is seen in some less-formal organizations: Each individual reports to one peer and is reported to by another. (This is a way of placing responsibility for communication on one individual in the relationship; it doesn’t mean the reportee won’t also be asking for help from the reporter.) Instead of seeing these people as higher or lower in the hierarchy, they are peers who are responsible for one another. In a managed organization, the chain can be more effectively “linked” by pairing complementary skill sets, so that one’s strength can cover another’s weakness. By virtue of linking, additional skill sets can quickly be brought in by the rest of the team, especially on larger teams.

Have you had any experiences trying to develop “phalanx” structures in your organization? I would love to hear about it in the comments.

Start With Trust

At the very core of your nation, your tribe, your company, is the need for trust.

Humans are perhaps surprising in that, on the whole, they reward personal trust. In Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner tell the story of a bagel salesman who operated on an honor-code business model, and generally managed to make a profit. If it had been impossible to trust people, even people he didn’t know, his business would never have been sustainable.

What do you need to make trust work?

  1. Trust must be personal. This means trust is a part of a relationship. It is expressed with object and subject: I trust you. It isn’t a nebulous faith in the goodness of human beings but a specific faith the goodness of that single person. And the consequences of breaking that trust are likewise personal, even before they are professional. Someone you trust doesn’t want to violate that trust out of fear of disappointing the truster and irrevocably damaging the relationship, not out of fear of professional consequences (even though they will also naturally exist).
  2. Trust must be explicit. It must be unequivocally communicated. The trustee understands that trust is being placed in him by the truster. The scope and limitations of the responsibility are understood.
  3. Trust must be unhedged. Hedging your bet on someone isn’t really trust. If your employee knows you have a backup plan or a failsafe specifically planned in case she violates your trust, she knows that your trust isn’t real. This doesn’t mean having no Plan B in case something goes wrong that is beyond your employee’s control, it means specifically preparing for the employee to fail you.
  4. Trust must be reciprocal. Entrusting a task or responsibility to an employee means that they are also entrusting you to remain consistent in your trust. You must take that trust as seriously as you want the employee to take your trust. Subsequently reassigning the responsibility without clear reason and consent, making changes without involving the employee, or otherwise shifting the sands beneath his feet will erode his trust and make it difficult to execute on your trust in him.

Above all, you must first trust yourself. Trust your own knowledge and instincts when hiring people. In fact, choosing good people is the one and only area in which you truly need to trust yourself, and the absolute most important skill for a leader to master. Choosing your people well is what makes trust possible, and trust is what makes good business possible.

(This post is part two of a series.)

Partnering Up: The Four Things People Need

It’s possible to make everyone who works with you a literal partner, with a share of your company and all the commensurate benefits and dangers. But not only does that likely sound unappealing to you, it’s probably not appealing to most of the people who would work with you.

What most people want isn’t literal ownership. Most people don’t care for the risk and the inconsistency. What they want is actually fairly straight-forward.

  1. Trust. When you are working with a partner, you trust her. Yet in so many environments, employees are treated with suspicion. It’s easy to find reasons to worry that your employees are stealing from you, or wasting time you’re paying them for. The sad irony is that treating your employees with suspicion not only undermines your relationship with them, it actually encourages them to do the very things you’re trying to guard against. Start with trust–which is a form of dependence–and you will be rewarded with a healthier business.
  2. Humanity. The average person wants to be treated like a human being, equal in substance to everyone else. The fact that one person is the employer and another the employee isn’t a matter of quality or even of mastery. It’s a matter of role. If you are suited to be a leader, it’s better for you to lead; if you aren’t suited to be a leader, you have something equally valuable to contribute that your leader can’t. Leadership requires the humility and courage to be equal even to interns and entry-level employees, and to hold their investment in your firm as dearly as you hold your own.
  3. Community. I may use this interchangeably with another word: context. But for now I want to emphasize that the community of co-workers, leaders, and in the larger sphere suppliers and customers, is critical to the ability of each individual to work toward the good of the whole. A business is not just a place of employment, it is a clan, a tribe, a nation. You must be bound not just by function but by myth and identity and culture, or you will not hold together.
  4. Mastery. Each person wants to be a part of that community not just in the abstract, but by bringing mastery to it. This means each individual is the best at something, is constantly challenged to expand her ability, and is poised to contribute in a way that no one else in the company–perhaps no one else in the world–is able. Perhaps just as importantly, it means each individual’s contribution and domain is recognized, respected, and rewarded.

Throughout all these, there is a common undercurrent: respect. At each stage, you are establishing and building respect for the people working with you. And they in turn are growing in their respect for you.

It’s not difficult to understand, but it’s more difficult than you might think to accomplish. Fortunately, I’ve put these in a specific order to help you work toward each. Start at the top and work your way down. Once you get to the bottom, start over again. Make it a regular exercise, and let me know if you don’t see improvement.