Doctrinally approved solutions

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About a week ago I finished reading Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. I did not find it particularly novel as most of the research mentioned in it was familiar to me from other readings. However, it does  contatin some compelling anecdotal examples.

One thing that did struck me as interesting are the parts where the author describes some of the changes initiated in the U.S. army due to its initial failure in Iraq. The author describes how during the cold war the army was trained to fight the Russians in a one-off huge war where the strength of each army will tested in a predictable way. This meant that the army trained in a certain way:

One of the main ways the army did this was to require soldiers to essentially memorize checklists. In army terms, these are called “doctrinally approved solutions.” Military doctrine enables the army to manage its operations across a large organization. Because fighting the Soviet Army allowed for such a small margin of error, approved solutions detailed how to solve anticipated battlefield problems with precision and efficiency.

However, when the U.S. army reached Iraq, the “doctrinally approved solutions” (I love this term!) turned out to be irrelevant due to the ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty of fighting an insurgency in highly populated areas. So today, it turns out that training focuses on understanding the culture, the ability to study the terrain (both physical and in terms of the population) and on adaptive strategies.

In essence, from a rule based, top-down approach, making soldiers into memorizing cogs, the army had to turn into a creative machine that provides soldiers with a foundation and trusts them to use judgment and adapt to the situation in the field by connecting with local population, understanding the difficulties the specific context demands and leveraging learning and experimentation. Since the army started implementing this strategy its success in securing cities and defeating insurgents has risen tremendously.

I think this story has important lessons for every organization. If an organization as hierarchical as the army understands that using rules and turning people into cogs is not going to work, what does it say about modern organizations competing in highly competitive highly adaptive markets?

Yes, training people to think by providing them with the right foundation is harder than just drilling them to memorize pre-approved actions. This easiness has its price. It doesn’t work.

So, does your organization have “doctrinally approved solutions”?


Do you have to know where you are going in order to create something wonderful?


Joshua Prince-Ramus gives an interesting TED talk called: Building a theater that remakes itself. In it, he says the following:

Now, I believe that one really amazing thing will happen if you do this. I’d like to call it the lost art of productively losing control. You do not know what the end result is. But I promise you, with enough brain power and enough passion and enough commitment, you will arrive at conclusions that will transcend convention, and will simply be something that you could not have initially or individually conceived of.

And to remind you that here is an example in which architecture actually did something. But we got to that conclusion without understanding where we were going, what we knew were a series of issues that the company and the client was confronted with. And we took positions with them, and it was through those positions that we began to take architectural manifestations and we arrived at conclusion that none of us, really none of us could ever  have conceived of initially or individually.

Those few of you who regularly follow my blog (thanks by the way) know that lately I have written a lot about creativity and how it is the opposite of productivity as it entails purposeful loss of control. This is due, in part, to research I am conducting these days on the issue of knowledge creating teams.

Prince-Ramus saying resonates with these concepts and highlights an important facet of this. For years, the idea that we must understand the goal and the destination we want to reach before we set on the path. “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there” says the Cat to Alice. But as Alice’s amazing journey shows, and Prince-Ramus tries to convey, sometimes, the real creativity comes from not knowing what the final destination is. The creative process by definition is one that requires we reach a destination that we haven’t encountered before and while some people can envision it, the real innovative destinations today come out of a combination of minds that allows synergy.

So, do you always know where you are going or do you allow for some productive loss of control?


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Language matters!

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A few weeks back I wrote a post about the language we use in management. Describing a post in giving advice to leaders and managers I complained:

Just look at the language. I, the little employee, need you, the big boss, to take control. I cannot excite myself. I need you, my liege, to get me excited. I want you, my monarch, to impress me and set me up to win. You are on top. I am in the bottom waiting for your holiness to give me some autonomy.

Really? Are you serious? Has it turned 1900 and I haven’t noticed? Or maybe more like the 1200?

Language and words matter. They affect our thinking and more importantly our behavior. I was thinking about this issue while reading Tom Peters’ blog post about helping. He describes Edgar Schein’s new book Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help and some of the principles described in it. This is one of them:

PRINCIPLE 2: Effective Help Occurs When the Helping Relationship Is Perceived to Be Equitable.

In the comments to that post, you find a comment by Schein himself explaining what this principle means:

The reason a helping relationship has to be equitable is that all relationships work best when each party feels he or she is getting something out of it, not necessarily the same thing.

Peters is fond of saying, and I have taken after him, that one of the most important roles of managers is to help employees, or take hurdles out of their way (or as he calls it: Boss as CHRO—Chief Hurdle Removal Officer – see #125 here). I think Schein’s perspective completes that. It is not just help, it is equitable help. It is help that comes out of partnership and not out of hierarchy and control.

Language matters.


No more rules – the video presentation version


What do Seth Godin, Daniel Pink, Dan Ariely, Malcolm Gladwell, Lawrence Lessig, Barry Schwartz, Jonathan Zittrain and Philip K. Howard have in common?

Well, they have all given amazing talks in TED conferences and I recommended watching all of these talks. However, that is not the commonality I had in mind. What is common to all of them is that their ideas are all mentioned in a new presentation I created and called “No More Rules”. This presentation gathers many of the ideas I have been writing about in this blog for the last few months and puts them all together with new, exciting and even surprising concepts and examples.

I set out to create a ten minute presentation and ended up with a much longer one. And this is after limiting myself and leaving many examples and concepts out of it for the sake of time and clarity. I hope you would invest your time with me and allow me to take you through a journey of re-thinking about the way we use rules in the workplace and in the management of people.

This is the first time I am recording a narration of a presentation online and turning it into a movie. This may be obvious even to the untrained eye (and ear) who chooses to watch it. However, I had a lot of fun creating this over the last few weeks and hope you will enjoy watching it just as much as I did creating it and thinking about it.

If you do, the best way to reciprocate is to comment here, post about it and spread it in any way you can considering your relationships in the social media space and beyond. If you don’t, those methods are just as valid to teach me a lesson and vent your frustration. Anyway, I hope to engage you in a conversation.

Thank you for visiting my blog.


Why saying you are motivating someone else is wrong

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Paul Hebert from Incentive Intelligence wrote a wonderful post yesterday. Using his “writer’s block” he explained that sometimes, it is not a matter of incentives or motivation. Employees just don’t have the tools to do the job. He says that you could have paid him a big bonus for writing a post, but at the best case, that would only lead him to create a bad post and at the worst case to plagiarizing somebody else’s post.

Here is an excerpt:

Too often in business we look at poor results and assume it’s an issue of motivation. It sometimes is, but more often than not it is another issue. But it’s easier to assume it’s someone else’s fault and go from there … Most of our business leaders assume we’re all waiting to be motivated when in fact we’re waiting for them to do their job.  Yeah – I said it – Managers – do your job. Find out WHY stuff isn’t getting done. Do some research. Talk to someone. Come out of the mahogany office and bump against us unwashed masses and see if it really is a motivation problem. I’m guessing it is a tools problem. A training problem. A communication problem. It may not be a motivation problem.

I agree. Let’s take a step further. And this is in the line of what I wrote about a few days ago (and I think Hebert wrote something similar in the past). I think the conversation about motivating someone else or creating motivation in our employees is wrong. It is a use of language that implies a wrong relationship. It assumes dominance. It assumes control. But it is an illusion. I don’t think you can motivate someone else. People don’t have a button you can push in order to move them. Motivation is an internal state. It is someone’s understandings, desires, inner cravings and thoughts. And if someone doesn’t want “to be motivated” we can’t make him.

We might help someone understand himself better. We might support his internal process of acquiring self-confidence. We might create an environment where he feels motivated. We might help with providing the right tools or taking hurdles out-of-the-way.

But in the end – the motivation is his or her inner choice. The sooner we realize that and stop trying to push motivation down people’s throats and start pulling them with the right understanding, support, tools and processes, the sooner we will see the external results of their inner process.


What can we learn from eggs about teamwork, creativity and more importantly, rules

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I could not believe it. A prestigious program in the city that is the financial capital of the world. A class in the respected MBA program at NYU Stern. About 40 students, working in teams of five or six people, huddling over… an egg!

The objective? Build a device using an assortment of objects that will keep the egg from breaking when it falls from the ceiling. Besides the objects there were only a few rules to the competition. A time constraint. The criteria by which the device is going to be measured (does it work? Is it creative? Is it beautiful?). And that’s about it. The results? Five totally different designs that worked in totally different ways.

The idea behind this exercise was to learn about teams and teamwork. I was assigned as an observer of one of the teams and noticed subtle issues of communications, roles and how ideas are developed. Yet, with all the issues relating to teams in the exercise, I feel the real lesson I learned is totally different. It is about rules.

I believe in the concept of outcome management. Not telling people how to do things and instead telling them what the desired outcome is and allowing them to find their own way to reach it. A manger, instead of trying to dictate to people how to do things and creating lists of rules, should concentrate instead on other, more important activities. Concentrating on the purpose, the process, taking hurdles out-of-the-way and on people’s need for autonomy and mastery seems to me as a better choice. Surrounding employees with rules is not a recipe for phenomenal results.

When I think about the “eggs class” this is exactly the lesson that comes out of it. Our professor could have come to class, with a recipe, a cookbook or a script of how to create the device, and we would still see the teams struggling and notice different ways in which they worked together to follow the rules in order to create the device. But instead, she came only with a limited number of rules pertaining to the process, not to the content. And what was the result? Five different device, each ingenious in its own way, that a single person could not have thought about. Granted, some of the devices were better, some were worse, but I am confident that if you take the best part of each device, you could create a super device.

We think we know what the best way to do things is. However, we are never smarter than a group of people. We might know the best way for us, but we can never know what the best way for others is. We can help, we can suggest, but ultimately, it’s about giving them the freedom to find their own ways.

What is the equivalent of this idea in your organization? Do you have rules about content or rules about process?


BTW, if you are interested to see some of the pictures from the event, here you go.

Human dreams, #Linchpin, Gary Kasparov and “The Mechanical Turk”


In Linchpin, Seth Godin writes about “The Mechanical Turk”, a fake chess-playing machine constructed in the late 18th century. From Wikipedia:

The Turk was in fact a mechanical illusion that allowed a human chess master hiding inside to operate the machine. With a skilled operator, the Turk won most of the games played during its demonstrations around Europe and the Americas for nearly 84 years … Although many had suspected the hidden human operator, the hoax was initially revealed only in the 1820s by the Londoner Robert Willis

Godin uses this phenomenon to make a point about how simple tasks are becoming automated. And if we can automate them, one of two things will happen. Either we would not need people to do the task or we will pay them very little to do it (and it is already happening).

“The Mechanical Turk” was indeed a hoax, but he was just the precursor for what happened at the end of the 20th century when computers actually began to win against humans in chess games. This process is fantastically described, sometimes from a first person point of view, in Garry Kasparov’s review of the book Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind by Diego Rasskin-Gutman titled The Chess Master and the Computer. Reading the review reminded me of the messages Godin is trying to make so vividly, that I had to put the connection in writing:

The chess machine Hydra, which is a chess-specific supercomputer like Deep Blue, was no match for a strong human player using a relatively weak laptop. Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer was overwhelming. The surprise came at the conclusion of the event. The winner was revealed to be not a grandmaster with a state-of-the-art PC but a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the same time. Their skill at manipulating and “coaching” their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants. Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.

This is exactly the point that we need to remember. Computers, analysis, automation. They are all tools. Tools that should allow us humans to create something better. In the last 100 years, we used them to create more. Because in the state the world was, more meant better. And in order to use those tools best, we needed to lock ourselves behind rules and other mechanisms of control. But no more. Now, we need to leave the idea of more and make sure we allow people to create something greater. Not only more, but something new and meaningful and valuable. In the end of the review, Kasparov writes:

This is our last chess metaphor, then—a metaphor for how we have discarded innovation and creativity in exchange for a steady supply of marketable products. The dreams of creating an artificial intelligence that would engage in an ancient game symbolic of human thought have been abandoned. Instead, every year we have new chess programs, and new versions of old ones, that are all based on the same basic programming concepts for picking a move by searching through millions of possibilities that were developed in the 1960s and 1970s.

From Great to Good. From just more with incremental improvements, we need to move to different that makes a true impact on our lives. And the way to reach those dreams will not be found in productivity and automation. It will be found where dreams are often found. In the human mind. In humans’ creativity and freedom and aspirations. In letting go of the rules and of the control and trying to use the tools that we have to re-invent the game. The game of chess and the game of our world.


Management by reducing restraining forces

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I was reading an article by Daniel Kahneman titled Reference Points, Anchors, Norms and Mixed Feelings for a negotiation class I am taking, when I encountered this intriguing paragraph:

I find it encouraging that this prescriptive conclusion coincides with that of a very different analysis. In a marvelous essay, Kurt Lewin (1951) deduced from an analysis of behavior as dynamic equilibrium that it is more efficient to induce others to change their behavior by “reducing restraining forces” than by “increasing driving forces.”

Our thinking is so entrenched in the carrots and sticks and incentives thinking that we developed a bias towards “increasing driving forces”. We focus so much of our time trying to think of ways influence others by pushing them that we neglect to understand that pulling is also possible. We focus our attention on futile attempts to control and reduce heterogeneity. Listen to the language most managers use – How can we motivate people? How can we incentivize them? How can we make them act in the ways that we want?

Isn’t it time we develop a different kind of thinking and a different kind of language. One that tries to “reduces the restraining forces”. To help them gain autonomy and mastery and to reach a sense of purpose. To take hurdles out of their way. Unshackle employees and take off some of the stupid rules that surround them. Change the language to a language that is based on humanity and talks about shared purpose, partnerships and creativity.

What forces are restraining your people and what are you going to do about it?


Stupid Rules Contest

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Bob Sutton writes that it is time to do a “Stupid Rules Contest” at Stanford. This is where his idea came from:

I once met the CEO of a large bank in New England who explained to me how they had made things much better by running such a contest and taking the suggestions seriously. For example, they got rid of a rule that people waiting outside a branch could not be let in until official opening time.  They changed things so, if it was 10 or 15 minutes before opening time and, say, people were waiting outside in the cold, employees could open the door and let them wait in the warm lobby.

And I want us to take the idea one step further. Don’t do it once in a while or when the “time is right”. Do it every week. Do it all the time. Have a post-it area or a whiteboard somewhere on in your office or an email address where people can write-up ideas –anonymously or not – about stupid rules that need to be canceled, reversed or improved. It is not only a great crowd-sourcing idea, a great way to engage your employees and great way to let them feel that they are in control of their environment. It is also an imperative in today’s business world.

It is imperative today’s business world to be able to kill things. It is imperative to stop and ask why (sometimes ignoring the how). It is imperative to reflect and to challenge our assumptions.

Yes, it will start with the really stupid rules, but it is a mindset, a culture and an environment. It starts with rules about the shared kitchen, then it moves to rules about the work area and before you know it, people are changing how they interact with the customers and more importantly, the rules of their market.

This idea is a little scary. Because it implies loose of control. You know what, that is probably why it such a good idea.


From homogeneity to heterogeneity through loss of control


I was reading Jon Gordon’s blog yesterday:

We had a good laugh but Cary’s customer service was no laughing matter. I go there all the time and have bought hundreds of meals because I know when I go there I’ll get what I want. It’s no wonder that Aqua Grill has been open for 20 years while every week it seems another restaurant in my area has opened and closed.

Success is simple. Give customers what they want and they’ll come back. You don’t have to give away the house. In fact Aqua Grill and Pappasito’s cost a little more than their nearby competition but they are busier and more successful.

If it is so simple, why is it so hard? Why is it so hard to give people what they want? One word. Control.

Control is a way to deal with heterogeneity. To produce homogeneity. If I only give one type of dish, I can make more of it, faster. It is based on yesterday’s world of thinking – where productivity was king and we standardized everything in order to produce more.

Those days are gone.

We are slowly but surely moving away from a world of productivity and mass production, to a world of creativity and customization. And trying to use the same mechanisms of control that were used to stifle heterogeneity in a world where heterogeneity needs to thrive, is crazy.

But we still do. Maybe it is our human nature. Maybe it is just bad habits or our resistance to change. It does not matter. The rules, regulations and other forms of control, all these things that deny people their autonomy and freedom in the work place have an expiry date. We don’t that date yet, but they do.

Read this example Gary Hamel’s post in the Management Lab about unshackling employees where he explains how by letting local employees set the opening times of their bank branches (at night, during the weekend or whenever), a bank created not only engaged employees, but more business. Here is a little excerpt (read the whole thing, it’s worth it):

Blair summarizes the changes at BNZ with a telling anecdote. “I was walking by one of our stores on a Sunday morning with my kids, and my son said, “Dad, the doors on the bank are open.” And I thought, crap, someone forget to close the doors. But then I looked in, and saw that the entire store was open. No one is forced to roster on Sunday, but team members had come in from other branches in order to swap their hours. One mom was there working on Sunday because she wanted to take Wednesday off. And it hit me: no one at head office even knows when the stores are open.” Adds Chris, “The freedom to open when you want may not be the biggest thing we’ve done, but it’s the most symbolic in terms of telling our people, ‘we trust you, and we’re serious about empowering you.’”

It is the same process. Same hours for all branches. A mechanism of control that is supposed to create homogeneity that is supposed to lead to productivity. However what the bank realized is that by losing control and succumbing to the heterogeneity they enable creativity that leads to the customization that customers wanted.