The whole is greater than the sum of the parts
Adam Grant is super cool.
He spends his life looking at the human side of organisations and understanding how and why certain scenarios emerge. Adam exists in a world where the truism is that any organisation is really just a collection of individual units called humans. These macro-units of an organisation can get sick, be inspired, take leaps of faith, and choose whether or not to collaborate. The choices of the individual unit can influence the parent organisation. And so too the organisation can influence the individual. Adam’s work spans great books such as Give and Take and Originals, as well as the Work/Life podcast, and naturally his deep dive into the world of organisational psychology at The Wharton School.
I follow Adam on LinkedIn and Twitter for his tidbits of inspiration in which he manages to capture quite profound ideas in concise format. The other day, Adam shared yet another insight about judging job/college candidates based on the “obstacles they’ve overcome” as opposed to their accomplishments alone.
It sparked some interesting responses which I couldn’t help but jumping in on including an exchange between Paweł and myself about the short and long term costs of doing as Adam suggests. Paweł and I continued our conversation in DMs on the side which inspired me to write this post.
The subject of our discussion pivoted from just recruitment to any process where the cost of any short-term action must be balanced against the long-term ambitions of an organisation marked out in a strategy and influenced by stakeholders. It’s impossible to have every individual contributor (IC) in a company know the expanse of the strategy or even evaluate every decision against it unless you’re a small startup. So as businesses grow we can distil the organisation-level objectives into bitesize metrics. Now each team can focus.
Marketing need to engage with 20 new logos in the automotive industry. The operations team need to maintain specific SLAs. The sales team need to hold the line on discount to maintain profitability. And if that wasn’t enough to provide focus, sometimes we throw in compensation for meeting set targets for each metric.
This is great as a way of containerising the company’s direction and accounting for spending, but sometimes it falls woefully short. Positions like recruitment might have a metric on how many heads they must interview within a set timeframe to limit costs. This in turn would incentivise making making recruitment decisions quick and not necessarily with consideration. I’m no expert, but Adam is, and if he’s suggesting we might get better results by taking a bit more time over recruitment then we have to ask ourselves if the metrics are correct.
This is just one example of which there are many. I’ve seen an operations team in a tech company which were responsible for introducing new innovations. Except the operations team primary focus was to keep the lights on at all costs, why? Because they were paid on it. The metrics drove the company’s innovation strategy into the ground as the ICs were smashing their goals by not even attempting to introduce new technologies as the lower risk option was to keep the existing ones.
Matthew Syed absolutely nails this in one simple graphic in Black Box Thinking on page 203:
He describes this as an abstract way but if you take this quite literally it still works…
The goal of the company is to climb to the top of the mountain. Now some of the company will actually do the task, these are the ICs on the ground. Others in the company will be providing some support from off-mountain - maybe with prepping equipment, connecting with customers that want to put something on top of that mountain, sourcing intel on the terrain, etc…
The team of ICs that are climbing the mountain though don’t need to know all of this background activity. We need them focussed on the task. But mountain conditions are treacherous - visibility is poor, terrain is unmapped in some areas, the ground is variable in condition, and the weather can change in minutes. Even worse is the communication is patchy on the mountainside means we can’t rely on giving advice every time they encounter a decision point. So we send out the team with a simple metric - keep climbing until you can get no higher. Off the team go.
After some time, comes a break in the weather pattern. It’s been a while since you’ve communicated with the team so you’re excited to see how they got on. They gladly report in that they’ve made it to the top. And in good time too! Hurrah! Except after some analysis and as the weather clears some more, you realise they’ve only made it to the top of a small peak, the Local Maximum on the much larger mountain of Innovation Change. The simple metric got them so far, but it discouraged them from taking the initiative of crossing the ravine and discovering the much larger peak which was the real goal of the expedition.
Bring this back into the business world. In all of this flurry you’ve burned unneccessary time and resources to be the champions of a comparitively small objective, all the while your competitors may well be nearly at the peak of the much juicier goal in the lucrative taking-things-up-mountains industry.
Could different metrics have encouraged a more innovative outcome? Could this have been solved by including your ICs into the strategy more?
Not long after finishing this post, Paweł added some more insight from his perspective about the team on the mountainside and how they were incentivised. What if the team were goaled to climb against time?
Well it just so happens that Paweł had written a blog post about this a few months ago which also included a mountain climbing analogy - go check it our here.