Photo: by David Elikwu, in Nice

38: Trust the troops

Newsletter ๐Ÿ—ž Jun 28, 2021

Thoughts on leadership, experimentation and learning.


Steve Jobs was notorious for his focus. He was happy to kill 100 good ideas to be resolute about 10 great ones. He did just that with a major restructuring of Apple in 1997. Apple was full of great executors, but they were executing 'wonderfully' on all the wrong things. To narrow focus, Jobs axed thousands of nascent ideas and centered the company around a small selection of products. A decision that would make Apple synonymous with shipping excellent products, consistently.

That said, being the boss doesn't require omniscience. Jobs often got things wrong, and frequently changed his mind. There is more than one story of an Apple product Jobs almost killed years in advance, only to be won over by the conviction of his engineers. According to current CEO Tim Cook, โ€œhe would flip on something so fast that you would forget that he was the one taking the 180-degree polar [opposite] position the day beforeโ€. Many of Apple's most popular products today were completely antithetical to Jobs' product vision. That speaks less to his ability to be 100% right and more to his ability to hire great teams.

As a leader, you are expected to exercise sound judgment. You are not expected to always be correct. It's equally important at times to defer to the minds you've chosen to surround yourself with.



A recent situation at work reminded me of a historical anecdote I shared here not long ago - the development of Spartan warfare post-Thermopylae.

The biggest conduit to [Spartan] success was basic formation drills. They were the only Greeks that subdivided armies into platoons led by individual officers who could give their own commands. They taught their men to march to the sound of flutes and could change direction instantly without needing an individual general shouting at the top of his lungs. This made them incredibly versatile in battle, and their tactical superiority won them several notable battles. Individually they were weak but in units they became fearsome.

The decision to empower officers allowed small units to turn on a dime in the midst of battle. The two benefits were a clear and replicable line of communication and positive autonomy when the chain of power disintegrated. The troops could hold fast to the mission. They could be reminded of the goal and adapt to their circumstances.

Stretch beyond the need to be in control. Build teams you can trust, and empower their success.

You might remember the TV game show โ€œWho wants to be a millionaireโ€. The show, of British origin but with multiple global franchises, featured a series of multiple-choice questions that contestants could tackle to win escalating amounts of money. Occasionally a participant would be stumped and had the option to ask for help either by phoning a friend or asking the audience.

As you might expect, calling your most intelligent friend makes a huge difference - they'd get the right answer 65% of the time.

But what about the crowd? The interesting part is that the studio audience isnโ€™t selected based on intelligence - it could be anyone. Young or old, with varying levels of education and intellect. How often do you think they got it right? A whopping 91%.

This doesn't mean you should enlist strangers off the street to tackle your complex business problems. It's simply a reminder that we should:

  1. have a great team with aligned values and incentives; and,
  2. trust the troops.

Moments of magic

A selection of my notes from The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath

3 principles to bolster pride:

  • Recognize others
  • Multiple meaningful milestones
  • Practice courage
  • We dramatically underinvest in recognition - 80% of managers say they regularly express appreciation but less than 20% of employees agree
  • Effective recognition is personal, not programmatic
  • Surface milestones that would have gone unnoticed

3 strategies to create moments that knit groups together:

  • Create synchronized moment
  • Invite shared struggle
  • Connect to meaning
  • Strangers who performed a painful task together (submerging hand in ice water) bonded more. Hazing could be an example of this.

People will voluntarily participate in struggle if:

  • The work means something to them
  • They have autonomy in carrying it out
  • Itโ€™s their choice to participate or not
  • When inviting your team to take on a demanding task, ensure the objective is deeply meaningful.
  • Purpose trumps passion.
  • Learn to cultivate purpose.
  • There's a study by Adam Grant exemplifying the importance of narratives - personal benefit vs meaning. They split lifeguards into two groups. One group read stories of lifeguards who benefited down the line from skills acquired on the job. The second group read about other lifeguards who rescued drowning swimmers. Lifeguards in the โ€œmeaningโ€ group subsequently signed up for 43% more hours. Supervisors who didnโ€™t know what each group had read surveyed their behavior in the following weeks. Helping behavior in the "meaning" group increased by 21%. There was no increase in either hours or behavior by the "personal benefit" group.


Make a mess

Alexander Fleming saved up to 200 million lives with the invention of Penicillin, winning the Nobel Prize in the process. The moment that sparked the groundbreaking discovery came on his return from a two-week holiday in Suffolk. There on his bench by the window was an accidentally contaminated staphylococcus culture plate.

Upon examining the mold, later identified as the Penicillium genus, he noticed the culture was preventing the growth of staphylococci. To date, penicillin has become the most widely used antibiotic in the world, effective against diseases like meningitis, diphtheria, pneumonia and scarlet fever.

Fleming himself said โ€œI certainly didnโ€™t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the worldโ€™s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did.โ€

David Perrell ascribes this to operating in 'open mode', I.e. investigating the open dish rather than discarding it.

Taking a step back, why not just start leaving open dishes everywhere. Experiment for the sake of experimenting. Let your bacteria cultivate passively and return to see the effects. In many ways, this is similar to my current writing process. It's also evocative of what James Altucher coined 'idea sex - as a shortcut to the countless experiments it might take to reach a significant outcome, multiply existing knowledge to arrive at the unknown.

Change the variables. Experiment wildly. Make a mess.


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If you have any thoughts on leadership, experimentation, or learning, Iโ€™d love to hear from you! Reply via email, leave a comment or send me a tweet!

Iโ€™d also love any thoughts on what I should write about next.

Read on for this weekโ€™s recommendations >>

Street dancers performing on a busy street in Nice: A photo by David Elikwu
Photo: by David Elikwu, in Nice
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Reading list

Books Iโ€™ve read/seen/will impulsively buy and add to my โ€œto readโ€ shelf on Goodreads. Recommendations from newsletter readers are always welcome:

  1. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell - read. I was gifted a copy of this while at Google a number of years ago. Re-reading it this week has surfaced a lot of great thoughts. Iโ€™ll share some notes soon.
  2. Of This Our Country by various authors - seen. A beautiful collection of essays from writers in the diaspora and on the continent, about the wonderfully complex county we call home - Nigeria.
  3. Range by David Epstein - impulsively bought. This book has been popping up everywhere recently, and itโ€™s about time I read it. For anyone struggling with being a Jack of all trades.

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