Originally posted on shenandoah-studio.com, May 24th 2011

The whizzing sound that this guy just heard is the sound of the point going straight over his head and missing him by a long mile.

A brief recap: the article, “Of Champions and Cowards”, talks about large organizations and the tendency they have towards paralysis. Part of the article is devoted to discussing the proliferation of decision points that takes place, and I think that portion of it is correct. The more people that have to “sign off” on a change or a new initiative, the less likely it is that you’ll get anything done in the first place. Having internal “champions” for new initiatives with the authority to get things done allows large companies to combine their larger resources with some of the dynamism of small companies, and that’s a Good Thing. So no arguments with the “Champions” part of the article.

Where he falls down massively, though, is the part about “Cowards”. The writer opens the section well enough, discussing the tendency of middle managers to make “safe” decisions. He attributes this, accurately in my opinion, to the incentive structure that these people encounter in their day to day jobs. Put simply- making any change, even if it’s for the long-term good of the company, means taking a risk and going beyond your comfort zone. If that risk pays off, the average middle manager won’t see any benefit from it, and may even take flak from higher levels. (“If this new coding team can do the job for 30% less, why were you spending all that extra money for so long?!”) If the risk doesn’t pay off, the manager who makes the decision is the one who fries.

He then proceeds to lambaste the middle managers who make those decisions as “cowards”, and proclaims that they need to stand up, take risks, and do what’s right for the organization. To me, that’s a bit like criticizing the deck officers on the Titanic for launching half-full lifeboats. It’s technically true, but misses some fairly large underlying issues like the giant chunk of ice you just plowed into and the resulting large-ish hole in the side of the ship.

See, I’m a game designer. I have a very Skinner-box view of the world- you set up rules and strictures, which either reward or punish certain behaviors, and get more of the behaviors you reward and less of the ones you punish. That’s true for rats pressing levers in cages, it’s true for players sitting around and trying to figure out how to beat the other guy at Puerto Rico, and it’s true of how people behave in the world. (Whatever you do, don’t ask some of my ex-girlfriends what they think of this attitude…) When we talk about things like “corporate culture”, what we’re really talking about is the set of rules that we’ve established for people who work in a given organization. It doesn’t have anything to do with mission statements, vision statements, or empty platitudes like “we reward risk takers”- it has to do with what actually happens when people engage in those behaviors. Are they rewarded or punished?

From that perspective, criticizing middle managers caught in the incentive structure described above is like wondering why people don’t run around the office carrying scissors. Think about it: if you run with scissors, the very best that can happen is that you get away with it this time. The worst that can happen is that you trip, fall, and end up making the next “Journal of Emergency Medicine” as your admitting physician describes how they had to pry a few inches of steel from your eye socket. But from this author’s perspective, the problem here is courage. Get back here, you cowards! This company needs someone to run with scissors, and it might as well be you! Come on! Why aren’t you running!

The answer, of course, isn’t to heap scorn on those people who choose to follow a reward-punishment structure that your average graduate of the fifth grade (never mind business school) could understand. The answer is to change the rules of the game. Want your managers to take risks? Then for God’s sake reward them when they do, in a way they’re going to find meaningful. For some people that’s an “attaboy”, for others it might be a bonus, or more authority. Whatever you do, don’t be indifferent (no feedback) or criticize them for not doing it sooner (punishment). Similarly, when people fail, don’t automatically drop the Hammer of God on them. I’m not suggesting that you say, “Wow, you cost the company a few million! Way to be, dude!”. I am suggesting that you consider why they made that decision and whether it was reasonable in light of what they knew at the time. Ask what they learned, instead of what the hell they were thinking. You don’t need to reward failure, you just need to make sure that it doesn’t lead to automatic punishment when people take reasonable risks.

So- want people to take risks for your company? Reward it. And don’t automatically punish them when they fail, because if they’re not failing some of the time they’re not taking risks.

And let’s not hear any more about “cowards”. People become what your rules incentivize them to be. If you’ve made a machine for producing play-it-safers and then wonder why your organization is full of them, they’re not the problem. You are.