In 1944, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), America’s wartime intelligence bureau, published a pamphlet on ways to sabotage the enemy. In addition to destroying buildings, vehicles, infrastructure, and their economy, the guide included dozens of instructions for reducing the efficiency and productivity of organizations.
Ironically the sabotage tactics may seem painfully familiar to anyone working in an organization today. Despite best intentions, most organizations are guilty of dysfunctional tendencies. Large organizations can seem practically destined to evolve into slow moving bureaucracies. Even in places where the pace is fast and talented people fill the ranks, there is a tendency to become bogged down and consumed by internal priorities over “real” challenges and opportunities.
Why does this happen and how can it be avoided?
Winning companies develop cultures that are “too strong” and “too aligned.” This improves their efficiency and hones their ability to compete in established areas of business; but it makes them incredibly vulnerable to change, less capable of dealing with uncertainty, and increasingly indifferent to customer demands or the challenges of new competitors.
The most nimble, innovative, and customer-focused organizations today fight these tendencies fiercely, on multiple fronts, by building dynamic, highly responsive, and feisty cultures.
That’s a hard thing to do. It is a challenge to build the structures, processes, and mindsets necessary for feisty cultures. But it is even harder to find and keep the kinds of people needed to make those cultures come to life.
Because feisty people are hard to appreciate, hard to spot, hard to work with, hard to love, and hard to lead. They can also be the best thing that ever happened to an organization. And in a world in which change, innovation, and risk are the new certainty, you can’t get enough of them.
The Risk of Avoiding Risk
General James Norman Mattis is the 26th US Secretary of Defense. In a very controversial administration, Mattis is respected by everyone who has ever met him, served under him, and worked with him.
Mattis stood out as a military leader for a number of reasons, including his humility, his ability to relate to soldiers, and his appreciation for nuanced perspective. But he was most prized for his innovative strategic approach. This was based on a keen understanding of the real nature of risk and the dangers of conformist thinking.
Combat is risky. Combat in Iraq, where General Mattis served most of his career, was even more risky because it was conducted in the midst of a civilian population where the enemies were not always easy to spot. The war in Iraq was volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Qualities that can be likened to how it is to run a business these days.
When confronted by these situations, the natural human inclination is to do what we can to minimize risk and prevent the unexpected. The military has these same inclinations.
Mattis’s strategic approach is almost the opposite. He believes that by trying to avoid or minimize risk, we actually undermine our chances to succeed, increase the likelihood of catastrophic failure, and impede our ability to seize opportunity and produce significant wins.
To counter that, Mattis instructed his troops to use force as a last resort; develop relationships and engage locals on a personal level; avoid heavy armor, high speed transportation, displays of strength, and reduce reliance on technology over direct experience and observation.
Certainty is Weakness
Most organizations confront risk, confusion, and uncertainty in the same way. They keep decision-making near the top, act in lockstep, and increasingly rely on technology to interface with the world.
While none of these stances may seem unreasonable on their face, they are not that different from the OSS guidelines for hampering organizational effectiveness. They make the organization less nimble, responsive, and innovative. They serve to confirm and reinforce rather than challenge the opinions that the organization already believes in. They distance the organization from the customer and market, and dilute the insights and influence of customer-facing employees.
Combined, this creates massive organizational conformity. The culture may be strong. The organization may be efficient and aligned. The people may be good team players and passionate believers in the mission. But, like the Titanic, the entire enterprise may be headed straight for an iceberg.
Disrupting vs. Disruptive
General Mattis’s solution was to seek out people who are, by nature and temperament, unable to fall into line. He wanted people who reject groupthink, speak up and push for what they believe in, and embody real diversity of thought and perspective.
Mattis describes these people as off-putting, upsetting, and contrary. Imagine how difficult it must be to tolerate, let alone embrace, such oddballs in the military. Well, I can assure you, it’s awfully difficult to do it in the corporate world as well. The very qualities Mattis values are the ones that organizations – which seek predictability and certainty – try to squeeze out.
But the distress and upset feisty people cause should not be viewed as disrupting (meaning something that jams the gears and impedes progress) but disruptive. Your competitors and reality will introduce new ideas, new priorities, new perspectives whether you welcome them or not. Feisty people who see the world differently disturb the equilibrium and compel others to respond accordingly.
Feisty people also tend to be purpose-driven. However, there’s a reason why feisty people are so willing to stick up for what’s right, even if it means going against the group or their boss. It’s because they feel compelled to. Such people are often considered contrarians or complainers when the forces of conformity try to squash them. But if you tap that sense of purpose, you are also tapping a powerful passion. That’s what starts to turn your contrarians into dynamos who can generate great energy and torque.
Feisty People are Your Difference Makers
You can design and foster a feisty dynamic culture, and you can put in place organizational structures and priorities that support feisty behaviors, but you still need to handle and manage feisty people appropriately if you’re going to succeed.
This may be the most difficult challenge of leadership today. Feisty people get in the way. They put up their hand with another question when you’re ready to move on. They come at you from left field with an observation or idea that seems counter to the direction you’re trying to push toward. They openly complain when you are not doing what they see as right or good.
If you think feisty people are a detriment to your organization and want to get rid of them, then it’s time to question yourself as leaders. You have to be extremely patient, persistent, and perceptive to get the most out of what these people have to offer.
If there is one true enemy, it is conformity. Conformity represses feisty impulses. It drives out feisty people by making them seem unruly, chaotic, and more trouble than they’re worth. It improves efficiency and hampers innovation and value.
In a world of uncertainty, conformity convinces you that everything is okay – right up until that moment your big successful organization steams straight into that iceberg at full speed and sinks.