5 Dangerous Ideas for Corporate American Leaders velocityconf

Some people lead with the idea that some things are certain and absolute. Others assume nothing, besides change, is certain and lead from the idea that the ground beneath them is in a constant state of flux. John Allspaw, SVP of technical operations at Etsy.com, spoke in depth about this topic in his session, "PostMortem Facilitation: Theory and Practice of 'New View' Debriefings," at Velocity NY yesterday.

Patterns and Anti-Patterns

There are many ideas and concepts that leaders, due to a combination of sex appeal and perceived universal applicability, try to apply without nuance within large organizations. Given enough time, all patterns become anti-patterns and regardless of the irony that one of these ideas/patterns would be “I can learn the basics of leadership by reading top tip lists on the internet,” here is a list of some of the most dangerous ideas for leaders in corporate America.

Dangerous Idea #1 - "There is a specific cause and solution to every problem" 

Applying the lens of linear causality in complex environments is false to the extent that it is genuinely laughable. Aside from mathematical proof to the contrary (see Gödel’s theory of incompleteness), what so many people fail to remember is that complex systems operate within environments that affect the complex system, in spite of the boundaries you put between them.

Allspaw gave more than a dozen real world examples combined with several decades of academic research that support the idea that typical Root Cause Analysis methods like “5 whys” exercises and post-mortems are in fact counter productive. Allspaw credited the work of Sidney Dekker, professor at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, and summed it all up when he said "You can either 'learn and improve' or 'blame and punish'. You can't do both.”

Dangerous Idea #2 - “Processes and tools fix problems"

It's reasonably well known that tools don't fix problems. It is somewhat less well known that processes don't fix problems either. It doesn't matter how well known either of these ideas are because, in this scenario, being forewarned does not correlate with being forearmed.

Being aware of these conceptual pitfalls and being able to fight off the process/tool reflex are significantly different things. Whatever the muscle is that helps corporate architects restrain the process/tool reflex, it is a muscle that obviously doesn't get much exercise (given how often enterprises look to processes and/or tools to solve problems).

Dangerous Idea #3 - "I can't be responsible for things I don't control"

This one is a classic that keeps coming up again and again: "I can't be responsible for things I don't control.” I remember when I used to think this way. My version was “Responsibility without control equals failure.”

I was in my early twenties when I would say this. I was duped by the easy arithmetic "responsibility - control = failure." This is not only a false idea, it fundamentally caps what a person can accomplish either for their enterprise or for their own career.

There are a number of specious assumptions inside this statement, starting with a fundamental misunderstanding of what responsibility means at work. Taking responsibility for something does not mean you get canned when something goes wrong. I'm not sure what company you work in, but people have to exhibit some pretty extreme buffoonery to warrant firing in a corporate America where HR and legal act as the governing body on talent decisions. Responsibility is not a binary thing.

When this idea last came up in a meeting, I immediately asked “Why not?” and pointed out that I’m responsible for a large amount of things I don’t control. If someone from executive management asks me to look into a problem that's closely related to my job function but I don’t have absolute control over, I’m not exactly sure of what my verbatim response would be, but I know it wouldn’t be “I’m not in control of that, so I’m not responsible for it. Go ask someone else.”

Whether the thing I’m being asked to look into is good, bad or neutral, I’m quite happy to be of service and own the communication back to executive leadership. Helping others -- whether they are in executive management or not -- is in everyone’s job description. Even if it isn’t there, who would want to be the one defending the right to specifically not help your coworkers?

Dangerous Idea #4 - "If you can't show me a definitive ROI, it isn't worth doing"

It appears that many companies have forgotten the real purpose behind the development of a business plan. The purpose is more closely aligned with the owner or project team being able to demonstrate a well thought out plan to create value, rather than a precise prediction of the future. Of course it’s the job of others to poke holes in it to see how the idea holds up to scrutiny, but the hole-poking process can all too often become the litmus test for prioritization or much worse, permission to proceed.

There is no such thing in this world as a bullet proof plan and anyone who tries to sell you one is either lying or naive. Given enough time, ROI centric decision models always end up the same way -- totally depressing. The win-lose paradigm even goes so far as to cost human lives. ROI analysis activities should inform business decisions, not drive them.

Dangerous Idea #5 - "A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players."

Some people in corporate America, frustrated by its talent ecosystems, are fond of quoting Steve Jobs when he said, "A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players.” While a focus on quality hiring is a good thing for enterprises of all shapes and sizes, people within corporate America wish to apply Jobs' view without context, which often ends in teams and enterprises drowning in unintended consequences.

The "small gifted team" idea has so many holes, it’s difficult to know where to start. How can you hope to apply this idea as a new leader within an existing large organization? Is the answer to just start firing away and shed yourself of anyone not up to your standards? How can you hope to gain the level of followership necessary for large changes if you start things off with a culture of shame and fear?

Of course you shouldn’t aim to have "a giant team of B and C players,” and most people can also agree that great talent inspires great talent. A better aim that looks past the “simple solution” is one that focuses on creating an ecosystem of talent and culture of collegiality and continuous learning.

A large team of continuous learners can run circles around a small team of players who consider themselves “A+ players” because continuous learners are self-accountable and are always in a state of improvement. Some will say that the A+ players will make the big breakthroughs, and I will agree that this is sometimes true. What is also true is that unbiased outsiders with less “knowledge” are just as, if not more likely, to make the bigger breakthroughs (spoken to in-depth within "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" by Thomas Kuhn).

Good Ideas Work At Scale

Almost all of these dangerous ideas point to a bigger truth. A team of self-accountable individuals who are motivated by a purpose bigger than profit or individual glory and placed within a positive environment of learning and collegiality, will find ways to succeed regardless of the obstacles placed in front them. This is the reason the first P in PPT (people process and technology) is People. Enterprises with strong cultures of continuous individual and organizational learning put people, time and iteration on their side in the battle to sustainably solve problems. It’s not an easy answer, but at least it has a shot at working at scale.

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