game, game. repeat.

On Commitment

Sat 01 February 2020 #Leadership

Imagine you have a team of 5, a leader plus 4 others. The leader chooses not to contribute ideas, preferring to select from the ideas of his team. The team members are equally persuasive and generate equally good and viable ideas, but the ideas are as opposite/orthogonal/different as they can be.

The team has decided to make decisions together and fully commit to those decisions, so all their creative, persuasive, and intellectual energy operates in concert. They recognize that to do otherwise, to decide individually what to do and then work individually to accomplish their individual goals will lead to everyone spending tremendous energy to…cancel each other out and go nowhere. It is better to be wrong together than to be right separately, because being wrong together offers the prospect to progress and learn, and eventually move in the right direction together, with great energy and speed.

Each time this team gets together, they have 4 opposing ideas. Each team member argues passionately for their idea. And then the leader picks one. As previously mentioned, the team members are equally persuasive and their ideas equally good, so 25% their idea gets picked. And 75% of the time it does not get picked. So, 75% of the time, they must commit to decisions they initially argued against. 75%. Most of the time.

So it turns out that being an effective team member means getting really good at engaging your full passion around decisions you initially argued against. But what if you know the decision was wrong? Then of course, you’ll work to undermine the decision and move the team in the ‘right’ direction. And of course, so will the other 2 team members who feel the same way, with different ‘right’ directions in mind. And guess what, the team is back to moving forward much, much slower or not at all. Oops.

Man. Committing to 75% of decisions I fought against is hard. Can we make this easier? How about fewer ideas? If we had a team with fewer members, or with members that think alike, my ideas would win more often.

Indeed, that would be easier, but I’d bet on the team with a greater diversity of viable options to outperform one with fewer ideas to choose from. I would expect ideas that have to run a difficult gauntlet of criticism and strong alternatives to outperform ideas that were not so well challenged. The battle is where the value comes from, not the ‘winning’ of the battle. It’s the opposite, in fact…if everyone values winning and everyone loses most of the time, everyone will be frustrated and unhappy most of the time and that won’t lead to the team doing its best.

When my wife and I argue about what’s the best thing to do to guide our son towards a happy, fulfilled life, there is no winner or loser in our arguments. It’s not a zero sum game, except if we turn it into one by playing politics for our individual gain at the expense of our son and our family.

As it turns out, commitment gets both more important and harder as you climb the organizational ladder.

It’s more important because any even slight difference between leaders projects down into the company and manifests as bloody unwinnable battles. They are frustrating and expensive, with hours wasted and hard earned trust lost.

It gets harder because as you climb, you encounter a more diverse set of roles, personalities, perspectives, and ideas. You aren’t surrounded by people that think like you anymore. It also gets harder because, you were probably expecting the opposite–your dreams of advancement always included having more control, of finally being able to do the things you know are right, but you were never in a position of sufficient authority to mandate them. Well, sorry to disappoint you, the CEO isn’t either.

Sure, the CEO could mandate $10K laptops for everyone, or double the brand budget, or say all languages and frameworks are permitted in our codebase. They have the authority to do all sorts of things. But, it turns out they don’t exercise that authority because they are constrained by a desire to help the company succeed, and it turns out that giving everyone everything they ask for won’t do that. Even giving herself everything she wants won’t do that. Instead, she has the unenviable job of making the final choice, rejecting 75% of her team’s ideas, and rallying them behind the idea they must commit to. The leader has a hard, hard job. The team members have a hard job. Commitment is hard. Real commitment is really hard. But what’s the alternative?