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What’s a Vote (It’s not the guy on second)

“Lord Nelson has a vote.”

“No Baldrick, Lord Nelson has a boat.”

                                               — Blackadder

 

In Blackadder’s London, some people may have a boat, but it seems that virtually no one has the vote. Today, of course, voting is a considerably more common occurrence than it was in Britain in the late 1700s, even if the results are not always quite as comic as they are when Rowan Atkinson gets his hands on the process. What, though, is a vote? We’ve determined that it’s not something in which one can sail, even if the process may sometimes leave people feeling a little seasick.

At root, voting is merely one of the six methods that a group can use to make a decision and move forward. Voting, or majority rule, is popular in large part because voting to make decisions is an obvious and central part of the larger culture of United States and other democracies.  In other words, it’s a culturally normative behavior.

Voting systems rely on several tacit assumptions: members of the group understand the issues; members are able to argue with one another effectively and resolve questions around the issues; members have developed a solid communications and social structure; members of the group will support the final decision reached by the group.

In small groups, these assumptions are often, though not always, valid provided that the group membership has developed fairly strong, trusting relationships with one another. As groups get larger, member connections become thinner and even the boundaries of group membership may become somewhat diffuse: it’s easy to see the boundaries of a specific department in a company, while it’s much harder to define the exact boundaries of a group such as “Red Sox fans.”

When the assumptions that underlie voting are violated, the voting system starts to break down in various ways. The most common, and obvious, breakdown is that the debate moves from a battle over ideas to a battle over votes: I don’t have to come up with good ideas so long as I can sell my ideas better than you can sell your ideas. Alternately, perhaps I can call the vote by surprise so your side won’t have enough people there, lock your allies in the restroom while the vote is being held, or otherwise take away your ability to influence the outcome of the vote. There’s a reason why many organizations have explicit rules requiring quorums and prior announcements of when a vote is going to be held, as well as rules specifying who gets to vote.

Claiming that the vote was rigged in some way is often a variant on the voter suppression approach: it’s a way of not facing the unpleasant reality that maybe most of the people didn’t like my ideas. In a large group, it’s particularly easy to perceive a vote as rigged if you happen to be surrounded by people who are voting as you are. This creates a false sense of unanimity as the local echo chamber reinforces the idea that “everyone” supports your view. This makes the actual result all the more shocking. The fact that sometimes a vote can be rigged does complicate this issue; fortunately, the larger the scale of the voting process, the harder that is to do.

Losers of a vote may also try to protect their ideas by consciously or unconsciously sabotaging the majority result: if the decision turns out to be “wrong,” even if because some members of the group kept it from working, then the losing party in the vote can claim that the group should have chosen their option instead. This behavior manifests in small groups fairly often, and can sometimes force the group to reconsider its decisions. Sometimes, though, the behavior is purely a means of saying, “see I was right all along!” even as the entire group fails. I worked for a startup or two many years ago that failed in part because of this type of behavior. For some people, being right was more important than being successful.

Depending on how the voting rules are set up, a majority rules system can degenerate into a minority rules system. Minority rule is another group decision making method, although frequently a dysfunctional one. In minority rule, the group adopts a decision supported by, as the name would imply, a minority of the group. Sometimes this is due to railroading the vote and not giving anyone a chance to object, sometimes minority rule is the result of each person assuming that they are the only ones who have doubts about a course of action, and so not speaking up. Sometimes, minority rule can result from a plurality voting system in which only a single vote will be held and multiple choices leave one option with more votes than any single one of the others, although less than half of the total. Some systems allow for subsequent rounds of voting with only the top finishers or have some form of preferential balloting in order to avoid this problem. Minority rule can also result from voter suppression or indifference.

Voting systems can also break down as individual people try to deal with the choices in front of them. Groups may move through a series of votes in order to reduce a large set of options down to a smaller number: in a sense, the group is sorting out its priorities and feelings about the different choices, making a series of decisions on potentially superficial criteria in order to reduce the decision space to something more manageable. At any point in this process, not all members of the group will always like the set of options that the group is considering. Sometimes this is because the group has already eliminated their favorite option; sometimes, it’s because members may not want to accept that other options are infeasible, impractical, or otherwise unavailable: members of a jury get to vote on each individual charge, but not on anything that wasn’t part of the court case, regardless of their feelings on the matter. Sometimes the group as a whole simply didn’t know about or care to investigate particular options that some members feel strongly about. In all of these cases, and others that you can probably imagine, individuals are left with a menu of choices that they might not like.

Group members may drop out of the process as their favorite options are eliminated, particularly if their only interest in the vote is a particular decision or outcome; depending on circumstances, this could represent a form of tunnel vision, as those members forget about the larger goals of the group and become stuck on one specific outcome. This can also be a form of trying to prove the majority wrong, as discussed above.  In some cases, other group members may become more invested later in the process, either because they didn’t care much which option was selected so long as they have a voice near the end, or because they realize that the vote isn’t going the way they expected.

The problem at this point is that, all too often, everyone involved in the voting process is totally focused on the choices and the process, not on the point of voting: it’s to make a decision that lets the group select a course of action that will, at least in the opinions of enough members, advance its goals. Which goals get prioritized is, in a very real sense, a consequence of the voting process: each decision, that is, vote, that the group makes is implicitly or explicitly prioritizing some goals over others. That’s it. A vote is nothing more than a decision making tool. That decision will have consequences of course, but so does not making any decision. Some voting systems allow for a non-decision, or “none of the above,” choice, which can force the group to go back and reevaluate the options. That can work well in situations where the decision is low urgency and the cost of redoing the process is low. Other systems, such as US Presidential elections, are designed to force a decision within a specific time frame. The implicit assumption is that it’s better to make some decision than no decision: no matter what the outcome, someone will become president.

In a small group, members might refuse to support any of the available options. If enough members make clear their unwillingness to support any option, this can force the group to reevaluate its decision space. However, this really does depend on how many group members feel this way: if it’s a small enough minority, the group will go ahead anyway. Holdouts who then refuse to support the outcome will often leave the group if they disagree deeply enough, or may be forced out by the rest of the group.

In a large group, it’s much easier to avoid supporting any of the available choices. This is particularly true with a secret ballot voting system: secret ballots make it easier for people to vote as they wish, but also make it easier to disengage from the moral consequences of a bad group decision. The larger the group, the less any individual feels responsible for the overall outcome. Thus, a group member can vote for an unlikely outcome, write in an outcome not on the presented list, or not vote at all, and simultaneously feel like their action is disconnected from the final result. This disconnect makes it easier to not feel guilt over a group decision that hurts other people and also not feel guilt over profiting from a group decision that they might have refused to support. This is particularly true in the plurality/minority rule systems discussed earlier. Arguably, though, all members of the group share in the responsibility for the decision and subsequent actions that result from it, particularly if they are in a position to benefit from those decisions.

Ultimately, voting is a tool that enables a group to make a decision, sometimes whether or not members of the group want to make a decision at that time or whether or not they like the (available) options. Sometimes what counts is that the decision be made and the group move on. Voting is thus a very powerful tool. As with all power tools, improper use may result in injury to the social structure of the group.

What’s a Vote?

“Lord Nelson has a vote.”

“No Baldrick, Lord Nelson has a boat.”

                                               — Blackadder

 

In Blackadder’s London, some people may have a boat, but it seems that virtually no one has the vote. Today, of course, voting is a considerably more common occurrence than it was in Britain in the late 1700s, even if the results are not always quite as comic as they are when Rowan Atkinson gets his hands on the process. What, though, is a vote? We’ve determined that it’s not something in which one can sail, even if the process may sometimes leave people feeling a little seasick.

At root, voting is merely one of the six methods that a group can use to make a decision and move forward. Voting, or majority rule, is popular in large part because voting to make decisions is an obvious and central part of the larger culture of United States and other democracies.  In other words, it’s a culturally normative behavior.

Voting systems rely on several tacit assumptions: members of the group understand the issues; members are able to argue with one another effectively and resolve questions around the issues; members have developed a solid communications and social structure; members of the group will support the final decision reached by the group.

In small groups, these assumptions are often, though not always, valid provided that the group membership has developed fairly strong, trusting relationships with one another. As groups get larger, member connections become thinner and even the boundaries of group membership may become somewhat diffuse: it’s easy to see the boundaries of a specific department in a company, while it’s much harder to define the exact boundaries of a group such as “Red Sox fans.”

When the assumptions that underlie voting are violated, the voting system starts to break down in various ways. The most common, and obvious, breakdown is that the debate moves from a battle over ideas to a battle over votes: I don’t have to come up with good ideas so long as I can sell my ideas better than you can sell your ideas. Alternately, perhaps I can call the vote by surprise so your side won’t have enough people there, lock your allies in the restroom while the vote is being held, or otherwise take away your ability to influence the outcome of the vote. There’s a reason why many organizations have explicit rules requiring quorums and prior announcements of when a vote is going to be held, as well as rules specifying who gets to vote.

Claiming that the vote was rigged in some way is often a variant on the voter suppression approach: it’s a way of not facing the unpleasant reality that maybe most of the people didn’t like my ideas. In a large group, it’s particularly easy to perceive a vote as rigged if you happen to be surrounded by people who are voting as you are. This creates a false sense of unanimity as the local echo chamber reinforces the idea that “everyone” supports your view. This makes the actual result all the more shocking. The fact that sometimes a vote can be rigged does complicate this issue; fortunately, the larger the scale of the voting process, the harder that is to do.

Losers of a vote may also try to protect their ideas by consciously or unconsciously sabotaging the majority result: if the decision turns out to be “wrong,” even if because some members of the group kept it from working, then the losing party in the vote can claim that the group should have chosen their option instead. This behavior manifests in small groups fairly often, and can sometimes force the group to reconsider its decisions. Sometimes, though, the behavior is purely a means of saying, “see I was right all along!” even as the entire group fails. I worked for a startup or two many years ago that failed in part because of this type of behavior. For some people, being right was more important than being successful.

Depending on how the voting rules are set up, a majority rules system can degenerate into a minority rules system. Minority rule is another group decision making method, although frequently a dysfunctional one. In minority rule, the group adopts a decision supported by, as the name would imply, a minority of the group. Sometimes this is due to railroading the vote and not giving anyone a chance to object, sometimes minority rule is the result of each person assuming that they are the only ones who have doubts about a course of action, and so not speaking up. Sometimes, minority rule can result from a plurality voting system in which only a single vote will be held and multiple choices leave one option with more votes than any single one of the others, although less than half of the total. Some systems allow for subsequent rounds of voting with only the top finishers or have some form of preferential balloting in order to avoid this problem. Minority rule can also result from voter suppression or indifference.

Voting systems can also break down as individual people try to deal with the choices in front of them. Groups may move through a series of votes in order to reduce a large set of options down to a smaller number: in a sense, the group is sorting out its priorities and feelings about the different choices, making a series of decisions on potentially superficial criteria in order to reduce the decision space to something more manageable. At any point in this process, not all members of the group will always like the set of options that the group is considering. Sometimes this is because the group has already eliminated their favorite option; sometimes, it’s because members may not want to accept that other options are infeasible, impractical, or otherwise unavailable: members of a jury get to vote on each individual charge, but not on anything that wasn’t part of the court case, regardless of their feelings on the matter. Sometimes the group as a whole simply didn’t know about or care to investigate particular options that some members feel strongly about. In all of these cases, and others that you can probably imagine, individuals are left with a menu of choices that they might not like.

Group members may drop out of the process as their favorite options are eliminated, particularly if their only interest in the vote is a particular decision or outcome; depending on circumstances, this could represent a form of tunnel vision, as those members forget about the larger goals of the group and become stuck on one specific outcome. This can also be a form of trying to prove the majority wrong, as discussed above.  In some cases, other group members may become more invested later in the process, either because they didn’t care much which option was selected so long as they have a voice near the end, or because they realize that the vote isn’t going the way they expected.

The problem at this point is that, all too often, everyone involved in the voting process is totally focused on the choices and the process, not on the point of voting: it’s to make a decision that lets the group select a course of action that will, at least in the opinions of enough members, advance its goals. Which goals get prioritized is, in a very real sense, a consequence of the voting process: each decision, that is, vote, that the group makes is implicitly or explicitly prioritizing some goals over others. That’s it. A vote is nothing more than a decision making tool. That decision will have consequences of course, but so does not making any decision. Some voting systems allow for a non-decision, or “none of the above,” choice, which can force the group to go back and reevaluate the options. That can work well in situations where the decision is low urgency and the cost of redoing the process is low. Other systems, such as US Presidential elections, are designed to force a decision within a specific time frame. The implicit assumption is that it’s better to make some decision than no decision: no matter what the outcome, someone will become president.

In a small group, members might refuse to support any of the available options. If enough members make clear their unwillingness to support any option, this can force the group to reevaluate its decision space. However, this really does depend on how many group members feel this way: if it’s a small enough minority, the group will go ahead anyway. Holdouts who then refuse to support the outcome will often leave the group if they disagree deeply enough, or may be forced out by the rest of the group.

In a large group, it’s much easier to avoid supporting any of the available choices. This is particularly true with a secret ballot voting system: secret ballots make it easier for people to vote as they wish, but also make it easier to disengage from the moral consequences of a bad group decision. The larger the group, the less any individual feels responsible for the overall outcome. Thus, a group member can vote for an unlikely outcome, write in an outcome not on the presented list, or not vote at all, and simultaneously feel like their action is disconnected from the final result. This disconnect makes it easier to not feel guilt over a group decision that hurts other people and also not feel guilt over profiting from a group decision that they might have refused to support. This is particularly true in the plurality/minority rule systems discussed earlier. Arguably, though, all members of the group share in the responsibility for the decision and subsequent actions that result from it, particularly if they are in a position to benefit from those decisions.

Ultimately, voting is a tool that enables a group to make a decision, sometimes whether or not members of the group want to make a decision at that time or whether or not they like the (available) options. Sometimes what counts is that the decision be made and the group move on. Voting is thus a very powerful tool. As with all power tools, improper use may result in injury to the social structure of the group or potentially some members thereof.

 

Phoning in Culture Change

What is a phone? That seems like a pretty simple question. After all, doesn’t everyone know what a phone is?

Well, yes, in a sense. Pretty much everyone knows what a phone is, but not everyone knows the same thing. For older people, the default image of a phone is a rather bulky object with a handset connected by a cord to a base unit. How far you could walk from the base unit depended on how long your cord was. One of the most striking features of these old phones was that if you positioned the handset correctly, you could make it look like a pair of Mickey Mouse ears.

To many people, however, a phone is a small object that you can put in your pocket and carry with you. You can make calls from anywhere. You don’t need to be in, or even near, your home. These people may not even recognize an old-fashioned phone. Now, you might well be thinking, “Well of course. Young people are used to cell phones and don’t use landlines.” True enough; what’s particularly interesting is that when you ask them why mobile phones are often called “cell phones,” their answers are usually unconnected to anything having to do with reality. One person told me that mobile phones are called cell phones because “they’re small,” like a human cell.

What do we do with a phone? Again, the answer depends. For many people, phones are used to make calls to other people. For my teen-aged daughter, that’s crazy talk. Phones are used to text friends, read email, listen to music, check the weather, and play games. Talking? Why do that?

What is particularly interesting here is that when we talk about phones and using a phone, we might think we’re all talking the same language, but we’re not. In fact, we may be speaking very different languages, even though we’re all using the exact same words. As should be obvious, and ironic though it may be, this effect can make communications just a bit tricky: after all, it’s not just phones that experience this little multi-definitional condition. However, since the point about communications is obvious, we won’t discuss it further. Instead, we’ll look at the more interesting question of why this sort of thing happens.

Fundamentally, what we’re looking at is a cultural shift in process. Over time, the meaning of a “phone” is changing, and that new meaning is moving through the population at different rates. Just because culture is shifting, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to change for everyone at the same time! Cultural propagation takes time. Now, to be completely fair, in a very real sense the exact meaning of a phone probably isn’t going to make that much difference to anyone. However, when the cultural shift is around how work should get done or around the strategic direction a business is taking, this cultural propagation effect can make a very big difference.

One of the problems with any significant organizational change is that major changes typically involve altering the underlying ways in which people work. In fact, we may even be changing the basic principles or reasons beyond why the work is being done in the first place! In other words, what we’re changing is the culture. As we’ve just seen, that’s a lot easier to say than it is to do. One of the big reasons why cultural change is so difficult is that it takes time to propagate; even worse, though, is the fact that those areas of the company where the culture hasn’t changed constantly pull back on the areas where the change is occurring, further slowing down the change. In other words, doing things the way we’ve always done them remains very attractive for a very long time. The old ways are like a comfortable old jacket: no matter how threadbare it may look, we don’t want to get rid of it. Let’s face it, there are people who not only resist smart phones, but don’t even carry mobile phones at all.

Avoiding the cultural propagation problem isn’t easy. It requires doing something that many people seem to find incredibly difficult or at least sort of silly: telling a good story and then living up to it.

That’s right, we start with a good story. Businesses create stories all the time. It’s human nature: we tend to organize information sequentially and we instinctively use a narrative structure to make sense of events. The culture of a business is expressed in the stories the business tells about itself and about key figures in the organization. If you want to change the culture, first you have to change the story. Once you’ve got the story, then you have to live up to it. Senior people need to make the story real: they need to demonstrate the values and message that they are promoting. Then, even as they travel around their business telling the story, they also have to be patient while it propagates. If you can’t live up to your story, few people will believe it and your cultural change will fade out as it propagates. Sure, you may see temporary successes, but the pull of the old, comfortable, believable story will stop your change process. At best, you might have a few small areas temporarily speaking the new language.

It’s only when you tell a believable story and make it real through your actions that everyone ends up speaking the same language. That’s a successful change.

Silly Goose Choices

The graylag goose has an interesting behavioral trait: when it sees its egg sitting outside its nest, it will quickly run to the egg and attempt to roll it back into the nest. This is an automatic process for the goose, and it can be quite persistent about it. Give it a soccer ball and it becomes even more persistent: to the goose, that soccer ball looks like nothing so much as a very big egg, and that egg belongs in the nest. This is known as a fixed-action pattern: when the stimulus is provided, the behavior unrolls automatically. The stronger the stimulus, as with the soccer ball, the stronger the resulting behavior. Of course, that’s a silly goose. What about people?

The other day, my wife and I went to lunch at a local restaurant. On the wall near the “Please wait to be seated” sign this particular restaurant has a wall of really quite excellent photographs. Like most people who come to this restaurant, we stopped to admire them while waiting for someone to seat us. Since it was a quiet day, we had an unobstructed view. After a couple of minutes, a woman came and seated us. An hour later, on our way out, we paused again to look at the pictures. After about two minutes, the same woman came and offered to seat us. Even though she’d walked past us several times while we were eating, indeed, had seated us an hour before, seeing people standing and admiring the photographs was apparently the only stimulus necessary to trigger the seating behavior. Arguably, since we had just eaten, the stimulus was now ever so slightly bigger.

Okay, so this is a mildly amusing story, but does it have any further significance? In fact, yes, it does. Fixed-action patterns like this one play out in businesses all the time. You can identify them in your company with a little effort: they’re the behaviors that come out automatically in response to some predictable trigger. For example, a customer complains; what happens? Or you find a bug in the software; what happens? Sales are not going as well as planned, or perhaps they’re running better; what happens? Every organizational culture develops its fixed-action patterns, although the details will vary from business to business. The key thing about them is that they become so automatic that no one really thinks much about them any more; when the appropriate trigger occurs, people just react.

For example, at one software company, shipping a product triggered a very unfortunate fixed-action pattern. As soon as the product was out the door, everyone would gather together and look at everything they had not accomplished: the features that did not make it in, the bugs that did not get fixed. As each person tried to show how seriously they were taking their product post-mortem, the focus on the negatives only grew. Ironically, it didn’t matter how much customers liked the product: like the woman at the restaurant, the stimulus triggered the behavior. While the restaurant was just funny, and caused no harm, the pattern at the software company led to a steady decline in motivation: it’s hard to be excited about your work when you “just know” that every release will be a disaster.

Fortunately, these fixed-action patterns don’t have to be bad. A conscious effort to build a pattern of celebrating successes and focusing on the positives of a release can build excitement and momentum that will launch a team into their next product. The trick is to pay attention to the patterns you want to have, and then create the new patterns. Don’t worry about getting rid of old ones; if you focus on the new patterns long enough, the old ones will fade away. Unlike with geese, where the fixed-action patterns are genetic, for people the patterns are built into our organizational culture. It may not always be easy, but, unlike the goose, people and organizations can change.

In other words, the patterns you have are the patterns you build. You get a choice, so don’t be a silly goose.

A Disunity of Crisis

“We have an army.”

“We have a Hulk.”

— Loki and Tony Stark, “The Avengers”

 

I promise, no Captain America: Civil War spoilers here. I can make that promise because, as of the time of this writing, I have not yet seen the movie. The basic story line, though has been rather hard to avoid.

When it comes to power, the Marvel Superheroes have it in spades. They fly, they can withstand impacts that would turn a normal human body into jelly, shrink, climb walls, turn into an indestructible green creature with serious anger issues, and on and on. Given an alien invasion or an assault by a mad AI, the Avengers have everything it takes to defend the world. They do really well, except when they have a disagreement. Granted, it makes for a much more exciting movie when the Avengers are all pounding on one another, as they do in Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and, of course, in Civil War (I hope that wasn’t a spoiler for anyone).

The problem here is that the Avengers, as a group, really have no effective methods for making decisions. Sure, when the crisis actually hits, they fall into their specific roles and do their things really, really well. And, since they are all insanely powerful, they are successful. But that same lack of structure for decision making is also what leads them into trouble as well: they simply have no agreed upon mechanism, or social structure, for resolving differences and coming to a decision without getting into a fight.

Imagine for a moment what this might look like in a business or a, even worse, a government. At least in a business, when people refuse to cooperate it may be possible to fire them. Sometimes, that’s even the right thing to do. But when you can’t remove a recalcitrant person or group, and you have no agreed upon methodology for making and implementing decisions, eventually your options become pretty limited. The Avengers get to this point very quickly and, to be fair, that’s what we’re all paying to see.

So how do groups make decisions? There are really only a few ways of doing it.

Some organizations work on a purely hierarchical basis: someone is in charge, and that person makes the decision. The organization has rules that clarify who is in charge when and who the bigger boss is. Military rank is an example of this, as is many a corporate hierarchy. Sometimes the person in charge might request input from team members, sometimes they might make the decisions without involving others. This approach can work very well, but does suffer from some drawbacks. Most notably, team members may resent not being part of the decision making process, particularly if they bring their own particular expertise to the table. They might also have knowledge and expertise that is worth considering.

Decisions are also often made through voting. Voting feels good and nicely democratic. It has the potential to get people involved. Of course, for a voting system to be effective, people have to be able to argue productively and debate the issues honestly. The Avengers, as a rule, are still struggling with the productive argument concept, preferring to rely upon trial by combat. Being fictional, the consequences to them tend to be minor. More broadly, though, when a voting system lacks an effective means of agreeing upon facts and applying logical, reasoned analysis to a problem, then that system is effectively saying that ignorance is equivalent to knowledge and expertise. If you find yourself having trouble telling the difference between expertise and ignorance, just ask your doctor for help next time your car is making weird noises, and your auto mechanic next time you are. Sure, you might get lucky…

For voting systems to work effectively, participants need to go to the hard work of building consensus. This doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with the ultimate decision, but it does mean that everyone agrees to the process and agrees to support the outcome. Consensus is difficult exactly because it is hard for people to accept a decision they personally don’t like, particularly if they expected that the result would be different. And, of course, sometimes the result of a decision making process really is so awful as to be unacceptable. Having some sort of final method of checking or validating a decision before implementation can be very helpful for preventing such situations! Otherwise, the system can break down over fighting about whether the decision is worthy of being fought over (this is a separate topic all by itself). Granted, the process can also be revised for future decisions, provided the social structure is strong enough to handle that. Changing the process while it’s running, on the other hand, tends to be seen as invalidating the decision that results from that change; yes, there are counter-examples, which is part of why this process is difficult. Overall, though, one might imagine that if the loser of a voting based decision process kept trying to change the rules in order to find some way to claim victory, then that victory, assuming it even happened, might well be seen as illegitimate. It would be like deciding that the winner of the baseball game should be based on number of hits versus number of runs.

Decision making can also become non-functional, as when one or two people simply make the decision and present it as a fait accompli or try to rush everyone else into agreeing. Sometimes, people will agree to a decision and then go off and do their own thing anyway; Tony Stark has a habit of this behavior and it did cause a bit of trouble in Age of Ultron. In the real world, as in the fictional one of the Avengers, this sort of behavior is also symptomatic of a group that is really more of a group of people wandering in the same direction than it is a cohesive team.

Ultimately, part of what makes the Avengers fun to watch is that their efforts to work out their problems will quickly degenerate into a dramatic battle from which they will recover just in time to save the world. When you’re a fictional character, there’s no real reason to do the hard work to avoid a bad outcome. In the real world, doing the hard work to develop effective methods of decision making, and avoid the dysfunctional ones, is generally a better way to go.

Move Along, Nothing to See Here

“So why was the customer release such a disaster?”

“Bob changed the code without consulting anyone.”

“So no one knew what he did?”

“Oh no, we knew. The rest of the team wasn’t willing to confront him.”

Sometimes things are not as they seem. In this case, the original question was around helping a company understand why they were having trouble shipping working software. Managers at the company had many theories. Talking to the folks who are, as it were, in the trenches, revealed the real problem: they were so conflict averse that no one was willing to say anything when one team member made arbitrary changes to the code. Even the nominal manager wouldn’t say anything because, after all, this was supposed to be a “self-directed” team. Better to blame mysterious bugs in the code than actually address the fact that the team couldn’t direct itself out of a paper bag.

In an eerily similar situation, I was speaking to a senior vice president at a mid-sized family owned business. He’d been with the company for decades, and was telling me angrily about how one of the other VPs had very rudely failed to attend an important presentation he was giving.

“When did this happen?” I asked, trying desperately to remember which presentation he was referring to.

“1987!” was the reply.

“1987?” I repeated rather stupidly, thinking I must have misheard him.

“That’s right.”

“You mean, 24 years ago?”

“Yes!”

Yes indeed. This senior executive at a respectable firm was steamed about something that happened over two decades ago. When I later had a chance to delicately ask the other person about the incident in question, he didn’t have a clue what I was referring to. The two were at very different points in their careers at that time, and, well, it should have been over with. It wasn’t, though, and this was causing tension and difficulties getting business done: the least little thing quickly became a cause for major argument. In this case, the problem appeared to be exactly the opposite of the first scenario. Where the first scenario was an almost fanatical devotion to avoiding conflict, the second scenario appeared on the surface to be an equally fanatical desire to engage in conflict.

In the end, of course, both of these scenarios are fundamentally the same:  employees at both companies are refusing to engage in productive debate and neither group has effective methods of ending an argument and coming to a decision. The first group deals with the situation by avoiding any sort of conflict altogether; the second, by hauling out old, irresolvable, issues in order to avoid dealing with anything that might actually matter. Considering that there’s no fire, both groups manage to blow an awful lot of smoke. They also manage to make every decision so unpleasant that everyone involved would rather just move along and decide that there’s nothing to see rather than address the issues.

When it comes to getting productive work done, being able to argue effectively is critical. Effective arguing, in turn, requires agreeing on what you‘re arguing about and having an agreed upon and acceptable method of decision making.

Oddly enough, one of the most common causes of ongoing arguments it that each person is actually arguing for something different. They all think they are arguing about the same thing, but, since no one ever bothered to check, they don’t realize just how different their visions are. In one case, the resulting struggle almost ripped the company apart; the fighting didn’t end until I sat both sides down and managed to get each one to state what they were actually talking about. At that point, they realized that they were not nearly so far apart as they’d thought. It was, quite literally, one of those, “Why didn’t you say so?” “Why didn’t you ask?” moments.

Of course, even if you’ve agreed roughly on the vision, if the method of decision making isn’t accepted by everyone, the argument never ends; it only takes breaks, reemerging to haunt meetings rather like Dracula emerging from the grave. Because we live in a democratic society, the natural instinct of most organizations is to call for a vote to end a discussion. Unfortunately, voting does not end discussions: voting prolongs discussions. When the vote is called before everyone is ready to commit to the outcome, all that happens is that the losers focus on winning the next vote. If that means undermining the project to prove their point, they’re willing to do it.

Before voting, therefore, it pays to check for consensus: not unanimity, but a simple verification that each person present feels that they understand the choices, they’ve had their questions answered, had their opinions heard, and can support whatever outcome the group chooses. Only then can you vote.

As much work as it may appear to be to reach consensus, it’s less than paying the price of ignoring issues or letting them return like zombies, sucking the brains out of your organization.

Enter the Manager

The story is told of the late martial arts master and movie star, Bruce Lee, that one day he came upon one of his students arriving early at the dojo.

“Why so early?” the master asked.

“I need a good hour to limber up enough to throw high kicks,” replied the student.

“And how long does it take you to prepare for low kicks?” asked Lee.

“Oh, those are easy,” said the student. “A short warm-up, at most, is all I need.”

“Practice your low kicks and forget about the high kicks,” advised Lee.

In response to the student’s shocked expression, Lee added: “Focus on your strengths and they will overcome your weaknesses.”

In making this comment, Lee contradicted a piece of common wisdom in both martial arts and business. Of course, just because something is labeled as “common wisdom” doesn’t mean that it’s wise or accurate; it may just be common. In this case, the persistent belief that the way to success is to focus on weaknesses is a both extremely attractive and subtly destructive.

The idea that if we could just take each person and “fix” each of their weaknesses we would end up with a team of super performers is highly alluring. The problem with this idea is that strengths and weaknesses are sticky: they reflect the complex facets of each individual. Bruce Lee’s student had a body that was not suited to stretching in a certain direction, and no amount of exercise was going to change that. What made Bruce Lee a skilled instructor is that he recognized that one size does not fit all. You must teach the actual person in front of you, not the theoretical person or the ideal person.

The simple reality is that each person has their own unique profile of strengths and weaknesses. A tall man with long legs may find head-high kicks relatively easy, while trying to get low enough to execute a hip throw would be extremely difficult. For the short person, however, the opposite is likely true. In a business environment, each particular profile may not be so obvious, but it exists just the same.

Now, I do get asked if there’s ever a situation in which everyone has the same profile, the same set of strengths and weaknesses. In fact, there is one group where this is true: the clone army in Star Wars. Because they are all identical, with identical profiles of strengths and weaknesses, it might not matter whether one fixes their weaknesses or builds their strengths. That said, their primary weakness, being unable to shoot straight, seems to be unfixable.

Star Wars aside, in the real world we’re dealing with individuals, not clones. No two individuals are identical, which is an important component of building successful teams: a baseball team that was comprised entirely of excellent pitchers and no outfielders would be at a serious disadvantage. Because each person is unique, not everyone will be able to do the same things: when we assume that every weakness can, and should, be fixed, we are implicitly saying that we’re dealing with clones, not individuals. In reality, each member of the team has different strengths, enabling the team to tackle a variety of different problems and develop different, innovative solutions.

You don’t get that by focusing on weakness. Rather, the secret is to build strength and figure out ways to render the weaknesses irrelevant: in other words, get away from the cookie-cutter approach to management and pay attention to the people in front of you. For example, at a certain service company, one sales team had an amazing “opener” combined with an equally amazing “closer.” The first guy was remarkably good at opening conversations with complete strangers and getting them interested, but couldn’t finalize a deal to save his life. His partner, on the other hand, was terrible at making those initial calls, but given an interested prospect, could close almost every deal. Individually, they were mediocre performers, together they were incredible! Rather than try to force to closer to become an opener or the opener to become a closer, their manager let each one develop their strengths and created a situation in which each one’s strengths overcame the weaknesses of the other. The team really was greater than the sum of its parts.

The reason this works is quite simple: people’s strengths and what gives them a real sense of accomplishment and satisfaction for a job well done tend to go together. When it comes to employee engagement and effective goal setting, we know that people engage more deeply and passionately with goals that are personally meaningful and personally rewarding. Attempts to fix weakness generally fail because the person doesn’t find success in that particular area personally rewarding. Focusing on strength, on the other hand, means that you are always encouraging people to build up the things that they most enjoy, and that enjoyment motivates them to constantly work harder. When you “reward” someone by making them do tasks that they don’t find satisfying, you are destroying their motivation: instead of success being associated with a sense of accomplishment and enjoyment, it becomes associated with drudgery. Also, on a purely practical level, a ten percent gain in something that is already strong yields a much larger actual return on the time and energy invested than a ten percent gain on something that is weak.

It’s also worth noting that, as psychologists Gary Locke and Ed Latham point out, the high performance cycle of business is triggered in part by people feeling personal satisfaction and gaining increased self-efficacy from accomplishing challenging goals. This requires, however, that the goal be personally relevant as well. Building and developing strengths are almost always personally relevant goals, whereas goals focusing on weaknesses are generally imposed on someone. This latter, of course, reduces people’s sense of autonomy in the workplace, increasing stress and reducing motivation, thus short-circuiting the high-performance cycle.

Building strength also increases an employee’s feelings of competence, another key element of effective motivation. When people work hard and can see real success, they feel more competent. When you work hard at something and see little gain from that effort, a common result when focusing on weakness, your feelings of competence and self-efficacy are decreased. It’s hard to feel competent when you’re working extremely hard at something at which you simply never do well, and feel little sense of accomplishment in even when you do manage something that isn’t awful.

Another interesting side effect of focusing on strengths versus weaknesses is that people generally feel happier and more energized when they are recognized for doing well at something they are passionate about. When people are constantly being praised for working on weaknesses, the praise feels hollow or pointless. If you simply don’t value the result, doing it well doesn’t feel particularly praiseworthy. On the other hand, praise for excelling at something you love is highly energizing. Granted, it’s important to understand how each employee likes being praised: publically or privately, but that doesn’t change the basic point that praise for excelling at something you love is more valuable than for excelling at something you hate. The former builds feelings of competence, while the latter undermines them.

A team of clones may look like a great hammer, but not every problem is really a nail. A team with a variety of strong performers is capable of shifting and adjusting to meet each challenge in front of them. With practice, the team almost instinctively adjusts to put the right combination of people in the right place at the right time.

It is exactly for this reason that the best managers, like Bruce Lee and other master instructors, focus on developing strengths, not weaknesses.

 

I’m Not!

In Monty Python’s classic comedy, “The Life of Brian,” there is a scene fairly early in the movie when the people of Jerusalem have decided that Brian is the Messiah and are standing waiting on the street outside his window. Brian’s mother screams out at the crowd, “You are all individuals.”

The crowd replies: “We are all individuals.”

A pause, and then a lone voice yells out, “I’m not.”

This is typical Monty Python absurdist humor, but it makes a very serious point. What is standing outside Brian’s window is not a group of individuals, it’s a mob. A mob is a group in which individuality is lost is the urge to conform to the group. As the movie progresses, we see the mob do various ludicrous things as they follow their unwilling prophet. Brian’s followers are, of course, convinced that they are acting according to his instructions and executing his desires, no matter how much Brian screams to the contrary. This being a Python film, the sequence of events is absolutely hilarious.

In a business, not so much. Unfortunately, the tendency for a group to lose individuality in the service of a charismatic leader or a particularly enticing corporate vision is not restricted to comedy. At one large software company, the dynamic became quite extreme: employees were expected to arrive at a certain time, eat lunch at a certain time, visit a certain set of restaurants, leave at a certain time, and so forth. No deviation was tolerated. The mantra was, “We’re a team. We do everything alike!”

Sound fanciful? I wish it were.

The problem is that a team that loses its individuality is not a team, it’s a mob or a rabble. It can be a very disciplined mob or rabble, sort of like the Storm Troopers in Star Wars, but it’s still a mob. Like the Storm Troopers, it’s very good at dealing with routine situations, but isn’t very good at dealing with the unexpected: new tactics from the rebels or, if you prefer, new competitors or existing competitors adopting new strategies. The other problem is that when a group focuses on homogeneity, it loses its ability for the strengths of some to compensate for the weaknesses of others: the Storm Troopers, for example, cannot successfully shoot the broad side of a barn.

At a different high-tech company, the only engineers hired matched a very precise and very limited profile. Not only did you have to solve a certain set of puzzles, you had to solve them in just the right way. Alternate solutions were not tolerated. This created a team that was very good at creating intricate, convoluted algorithms, and a user interface that was equally intricate and convoluted.

None of these situations are as extreme as that portrayed in Life of Brian, but then again, they aren’t as funny either.

Later in the movie, we see the opposite end of the spectrum: the members of the People’s Front of Judea are so busy drawing insignificant distinctions between each of their positions that they are not functioning as a team. Rather, they are a horde. Each person is operating according to their own individual needs and goals, with no actual concern about the goals or strategy of the group. In a horde, everyone is a hero, entitled to their share of the plunder and devil take the hindmost. Cooperation is almost accidental, and the group is likely to break apart at the slightest disagreement: the People’s Front of Judea can’t even quite figure out why the Judean People’s Front broke off, but is quite happy to yell, “Splitters!”

At a certain manufacturing company, each department was totally focused on doing its own job. None of the departments considered how their actions or decisions affected the others. Within each department, much the same thing was happening at an individual level. Rather than figuring out how to work together, they spent their time blaming one another for the inevitable failures. Fixing this issue saved the company in question several hundred thousand dollars a year.

The challenge, of course, is to find the middle ground, where the individual and the team are in balance. While it’s extremely difficult to find the exact middle, anywhere in the general vicinity works pretty well. Peak performance occurs when people are committed to the goals of the company and the team, and are also free to pursue their personal goals and work the way they want to work. Is it easy? No: less than one team in five ever gets there. However, it sure beats a horde or a mob of people chanting, “We are all individuals.”

Solving Yesterday’s Problems

Once upon a time there was an employee working on a knotty biotech problem. Weeks, then months, passed with no results. The employee’s manager decided that the employee clearly wasn’t working hard enough, fired him, and hired someone else.

Weeks, then months, passed with no results. The second person was also clearly not working hard enough and was swiftly replaced.

The next two people didn’t work hard enough either.

The fifth person got lucky: someone in a different lab was working on a similar problem and figured out that the process was fatally flawed. No one had noticed. Everyone, especially the manager, assumed that it must be correct. The manager, in particular, was unwilling to even consider the possibility that the problem could be the process, not the people, until it was shoved in his face.

In a slightly different example, I was conducting a leadership and negotiation exercise with a group of would-be managers. As part of the exercise, they were each given various items and told to obtain various other items. Naturally, everyone started trading back and forth. Some items, though, simply could not be found. As a result, the people who needed those missing items started hording the items they did have: they wanted to make sure they had leverage to get other people to give them the items they needed.

At the end, there were a number of very frustrated people complaining that the exercise was unfair because items were missing.

“I needed an apple, and there were no apples,” complained one irritated individual.

When I asked him why he hadn’t just gone down to the cafeteria and bought an apple, he just stared at me.

One woman complained that no one in the room had willow leaves. I asked why she didn’t just walk outside and pick some off the tree.

Again the stare.

Because each person was visibly presented with a bag of items, everyone immediately jumped to the assumption that all the items were present and that they could be obtained through trade. Even when that failed to work for everyone, no one questioned the basic assumption. Instead, those who couldn’t find what they needed assumed that people were withholding items and responded by withholding their items. Instead of engaging in brainstorming or problem solving, they just glared at each other. Unlike the biotech manager, the option of firing one person and hiring another was not available. This was probably fortunate under the circumstances.

In both the lab and the exercise, the people involved had become so focused on the results that they weren’t thinking about how they were trying to accomplish those results. Indeed, the process had somehow achieved the status of holy writ, to the point that no one even thought of questioning it.

Results are important, make no mistake about that. However, it’s equally important to think strategically about how to accomplish those results. By mindlessly assuming that only one path exists or one way of working exists, the different groups trapped themselves in failure.

The more difficult the problem being solved, the more important it becomes to pay attention to the process. Assuming that there is only one process or blindly believing that everyone has to fit a certain image or work a certain way reduces the likelihood of success and can even lead to the results not being accepted. The lab manager could have made something of a name for himself if he’d been the one to publish the identification of the flawed process! The groups looking for the items could have all succeeded if they’d stopped to revisit their assumptions and seek out alternate means of accomplishing their goals.

If you’re trying to solve yesterday’s problems, then ignoring the process is frequently a great way to go about it. By the same token, it would be very easy to win the lottery if you could only buy based on yesterday’s paper. Unfortunately, the first option is actually available in business.

The more complex the problem, therefore, the more important it becomes to stop and look at what you’re trying to accomplish, how you’re trying to do it, and why you’ve chosen to do it that way. If you want to think strategically, it helps considerably if you don’t limit yourself to preconceived notions about how the problems must be solved. The more hidden assumptions you can overturn, the more likely you are to accomplish your goals.