Innovation Team

Dominate or Innovate: Nature Offers a Model for Both

Innovation Team

At a workshop this past week in Napa (rough, I know) with a group of high-performing CEOs, one of them asked me this question: “Tell us a little bit about the tension between the hierarchical leadership the military is known for and the need to be flexible and creative?  How do you balance the need for command-and-control with innovation?”

My first thought was: terrific question. And my second, a millisecond later, was that there is no tension in the military, not really. Maybe frustration on the part of some, but no real tension, because innovation, while some consider it an espoused value, is more of a trendy term that gets bandied about in commanders’ conference rooms; it’s a patina of modernity spread over a hard crust of regimentation and formalization. But innovation, real innovation, is far from being part of the military marrow.

The defense industry certainly produces innovations in weapons systems and other technologies. Indeed, it is this kind of innovation that people generally refer to when they talk about innovation in the military, but the military decidedly does not innovate when it comes to patterns of thinking (about the world), acting (in the world), and relating (to each other). That is to say, innovation isn’t a part of the culture. Sadly, at least in my mind, our patterns (or habits) of thinking, acting, and relating to each other in the military appeared at least as far back as the mid-17th century, during the reign of Frederick the Great. Frederick held that discipline was paramount (and I might agree, though I define the term differently). And while a student of The Enlightenment, he was also an adherent of the Newtonian worldview. Society, then, and its protectorate, the Army, was a machine one controlled by imposing—from the top, naturally—a few immutable laws. Food, clothing, and shelter were all that Frederick needed to keep his unruly and often illiterate troops in line.

Times have changed, weapons have changed, even certain variables—like the unruly and illiterate conscripts—have changed, but the system that governs people in the military remains largely unchanged, fixed in place (and time) by a rigid, and I dare say antiquated hierarchy. Hopefully, this comes as no surprise, then: hierarchies don’t foster innovation, they stifle it, just as they stifle change and evolution.

One of my first classes at Oxford was not about complexity, per se, but what leadership means in a complex environment and how one might go about leading in such an environment. The professor was Keith Grint. Keith is a well-known leadership scholar who has spent decades studying leadership and teams, to include elite military teams, and has lately turned his attention to the problems leaders solve, whether tame or wicked, and how in complex environments—the home of the wicked problem—a clumsy solution is sometimes the best we can hope for.

When I stepped into the lecture hall, he looked up from what he was reading and said matter-of-factly, “Are you David?” I looked over my shoulder to see if there was someone else in the room. Alas, we were alone—he was talking to me. When I looked back at him it was with a mix of suspicion and wonderment. How did he know who I was? Was this some sort of professorial prescience? Did my academic reputation, or complete and total lack thereof, precede me?

“Yes,” I said, “I’m Dave. How did you know that?”

He held up the piece of paper he’d been reading that had my picture on it in the top left corner. “You gave us your bio when you applied here,” he said. What he left unsaid—but the look on his face shouted—was, “Maybe we made a mistake in accepting you.”

I laughed. “Right,” I said, “why do you ask?”

He did not mince words. “Did you ever wonder why your small teams are so successful,” he said, “but your larger organization is a mess?”

I arched my eyebrows and nodded. “I’ve been wondering that for about 25 years,” I said.

Needless to say, I enjoyed my time with Professor Grint just as much as I’ve enjoyed reading much, if not most, of what he’s written over the years. His take on his question to me, in a nutshell, and at the risk of over-simplifying, is that the small, nimble, high-performing SEAL team has a different value system than the much larger U.S. Military. And I agree—to an extent.

Specifically, our small SEAL teams value egalitarianism, or equalitarianism as some say, while the larger military decidedly does not it (even though you might find individual leaders who do). In our small teams, we don’t recognize rank, and we call each other by the names our parents gave us or the nicknames our teammates saddled us with. And in the best of these teams—not in all of them but in the best of them—the most junior man is expected— indeed required—to speak his mind and help solve what Grint and others have termed wicked problems, particularly if he senses that the team, in classic groupthink fashion, is about to lemming it off the cliff.

In the larger military and even in the larger SEAL organization—the parent of those small teams—it’s not that way. Rather than egalitarianism, it’s rank that rules. “Respect the rank not the man,” we were told as young SEALs. It’s a ludicrous assertion, one I knew then and one I was reminded of until the day I retired, even during the now-famous bin Laden raid.

I say all this as a prelude to the answer I gave those CEOs. My experiences—in the SEAL teams, in academia, and in the business world these last six years—fundamentally shape and determine the way I see the world and how I interpret it. Those experiences shape the narrative that is Dave Cooper, just as surely as your experiences, the good, the bad, and the ugly, shape yours.

“If I put five people in a room and give them a task,” I said, “some interesting things will emerge. One is a culture—our shared and integrated set of beliefs, values, assumptions, behaviors, and artifacts, those man-made things, like narratives or t-shirts with company logos on them, that reveal something about their makers and hence the culture. The other thing that will emerge is a hierarchy.”

So, hierarchies are natural. That we must agree on, but just because it says “natural” on the label, doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Evolution doesn’t work that way, and many, if not all, of our natural psychological mechanisms evolved to solve certain problems, like problems of survival or reproduction, problems that might not be as prevalent today as they were 30, 60, or 100,000 years ago. Hierarchies, then, fall into this category of evolved psychological mechanisms. They help us solve problems.

Our hierarchies are generally of two types: prestige hierarchies and dominance hierarchies. In the former, expertise is valued; in the latter, it’s rank and status. Inside of a SEAL team (usually six to eight men) or troop (three teams) we operate predominantly from the former—the prestige hierarchy. Each operator possesses the basic skills of a SEAL but also possesses a specialty—lead jumpers, lead divers, lead climbers, and so on. These individual skills, and the influence that comes with those skills, come to the fore when needed and blend into the background when not. And while the team is flat and otherwise behaviorally integrated (a form of team-ness or wholeness), there’s always one guy in charge, a team leader, so designated because of his skill, experience, and tenure (the least important of the three attributes).

But outside of that SEAL team in the larger SEAL organization and in the U.S. Military in general, our tendency—that is to say our patterns of thinking, acting, and relating to one another—favors the dominance hierarchy. In such hierarchies, rank and status are paramount and, for some, count for more than even group performance. And the exercise of that rank (e.g. “Do as I say.”) elevates the perception of status and also provides the authoritarian brain with a nice shot of dopamine to both reward the behavior and ensure it continues. It’s aggression by other means, but that’s a much longer story.

For our purposes, hierarchies do one thing exceptionally well: they create distance—and distance crushes the kind of communication necessary for innovation, creativity, learning, and adaptation. First, vertical distance develops between the top of the hierarchy, the big boss, and the bottom of that hierarchy, and between the various departments in a hierarchical organization—the all-too-familiar stovepipes or what some refer to as a “communication wheel.” The hub can communicate with groups on the wheel via the spoke, the communication pathway, but those groups rarely communicate with each other to solve problems collectively.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, hierarchies create psychological distance between people in the organization based on, among other things, expectations and beliefs of how relationships based on rank and status work in a class system. Ultimately, communication—real dialogue and an honest and open exchange of conflicting views—founders or is held in its mediocre place by a vortex of formalization that spins out only conformity and a sometimes-pathological risk aversion. Communication suffers, dialogue suffers, and problem-solving (i.e. innovation) suffers or is non-existent.

Furthermore, the amount of information resident in an exchange between two people in a rigid hierarchy is what we call a low-entropy exchange, if only because those conversations are often one-way (i.e. top-down) and responses back up the chain are guarded, lest the messenger’s career be killed. And this low-entropy state acts as a negative feedback loop, tamping down aspects of organizational health, like psychological safety, mutual respect and care, the exchange of diverse—and conflicting—points of view, commitment and engagement, and responsibility, accountability, and ownership. In my lifetime, the regimentation and formalization of the military hierarchy have contributed significantly to our strategic losses in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Yet our elite teams are incredibly successful, as Professor Grint noted. Is it because there is no hierarchy? No, that hierarchy still exists, but what that successful SEAL team or troop does is not only flatten the hierarchy but change the nature of it. Again, there is little or no recognition of rank, the team is egalitarian, and they expect operators to speak up and help solve problems. Yet there are those times when the boss, the team leader, pulls rank and says the team is going one direction and not the other. And there is no telling that team leader when the right time is to pull out that rank card and slap it down. There’s no handbook of pure logic nor one of perfect knowledge. The best team leaders respect the input their teammates provide—a high-entropy state that, to the authoritarian, is messy and frustrating—and they recognize that the future is always, always provisional. Some team members may agree with the team leader and others may disagree, but they all commit.  And together they execute the mission and gather the feedback, from each other and from their environment, that suggests they are on the right trajectory or not. If they are, they exploit their position. If they are not, they make a change. At all times, they explore for new ways, or are open to new ways, of thinking and acting that might prove beneficial now and in the future. And those times when that team leader pulls rank will be few. He feels no elevation in status simply because he exercised his positional authority.

If you want to be successful and innovate, I told the group of CEOs, nature offers models that can help and hinder. The better answer, or model, in this case, should be self-evident if what one seeks is innovation (and its cousins learning and adaptation). And if it is, then perhaps we see the tension exists not between command-and-control and innovation, but between status-seeking and group performance, between a need to achieve for self-centered reasons versus a need to achieve for the sake of the group and for the sake of achieving great things.




Verge Team Assessments

Initial Conditions: Your Onboarding and Integration Process

Verge Team Assessments

I remember one of my first classes at Oxford. I sat enthralled while Professor Boulton (Embracing Complexity) lectured us on the abiding concepts of complex adaptive systems (CAS). As a former USN SEAL and budding molecular biologist (at least in my youth), I knew a bit about complexity, at least enough to say, “It’s all very complex.” But what Professor Boulton offered was new; it was exciting. It was deep and seemed to get at the essence, the marrow, of what this welter of existence was all about.

I approached her after class as any good former SEAL would—sheepishly. I managed to say that I enjoyed her lecture and that complexity, as a discipline, had fascinated me for some time. Combat is, after all, rather complex. But I’d always seen it as more of a metaphor, I told her. She looked up at me, patted me on the shoulder, and said, “It’s reality. Get used to it.”

The memory of that encounter still makes me chuckle. But Professor Boulton was right: the world is complex, and I’ve gotten used to it.

And in that world of complexity, we tend to stick, ironically perhaps, to a few simple concepts to explain what we mean by complexity and complex adaptive systems, like the fact that complex systems (our bodies, our companies, our planet, “and beyond”) are systemic. We are interconnected, interdependent, synergistic—the sum of our parts times a whole lot more.

Complex systems are also path-dependent, meaning history matters. Where we came from matters because it has a say in where we’re headed. It gets a vote. Our history, like our genetic history, to some extent fashions our trajectory into the unknown. But history isn’t deterministic, nor are your genes. The timing and sequence of events, life’s avalanches and earthquakes, that come down the pike and bash into our historical patterns of thinking and acting (i.e. the way we’ve always done it)—this interaction of current events and past habits shapes our future, for our planet as well our companies, our bodies, our minds, and our cells. These systems are multi-scalar, too. What happens at one level, unlike Vegas, doesn’t stay there but occurs in a similar fashion at numerous levels, from the infinite to the infinitesimal.

And complex systems are emergent. Astonishing features seemingly pop into existence and fundamentally—and qualitatively—change the nature of a system. Stuff happens. Emergence renders for us an uncertain world, not random, not chaotic, but not predictable either. Just up in the air. To fully recognize and come to terms with this aspect of complexity is to embrace humility. If we’re honest with ourselves, our elegant solutions are rarely elegant for long. And sometimes the best we should hope for is a workable solution, even a clumsy one.

And change within a complex system, at least radical change, is episodic. It is true that we are constantly changing, always in the process of becoming, never fixed. But the significant changes wait for tensions to build up and then the system tips and is forever altered, its equilibria punctuated and unable to turn back. Hard to un-bake a cake no matter how hard the pull of nostalgia.

Systemic, path-dependent, emergent, and episodic— c’est la complexité. Such is complexity.

But I left out sensitive. Complex systems are also sensitive—to both local context and initial conditions (some equate the two). The way the future unfolds is not just related to our history, but to the myriad features and relationships, the interconnections and interdependencies, in our local environments. Think of this initial context (or conditions) as a substrate: if it is dense in nutrients and opportunities, the population stands a good chance of flourishing. If not, well, then the population doesn’t stand a good chance.

Your onboarding process for your company is your initial condition for your new employees and execs, or one of them anyway. To what degree do you set the conditions to increase their odds of flourishing, and to what degree do your new hires fend for themselves? For many, onboarding is an afterthought. The new guy gets shown around and then he or she is on their own. These companies view onboarding the same way the Spartans looked at the Agoge. You have to fight to survive. Battle tested, bruised and beaten, you join the ranks of the elite. Welcome to the club.

Sounds cool to some, I suppose. Until you consider where the Spartans are today.

We refer to that initial condition inside organizations as “onboarding and integration.” By phrasing it that way, it hints at the importance of socialization. It’s not only about welcoming someone to the team, but it’s also about integrating them into the fabric of the cultures (yes, plural) of your organization. It’s about starting them off not only on the right foot but putting them, first and foremost, on the right path, the right trajectory, to success. When you recognize how deeply interconnected and interdependent we are in our teams and organizations, in our worlds, then you grasp the extent to which what one of us does affects us all. The onboarding and integration process marks the beginning of this awareness for many: Here’s how I create value for you, and you for me.

We can give you the information to build a proper onboarding and integration program, and then drop the mic and walk away. A lot of consulting firms can do that—a lot actually do. But such initiatives likely won’t work, at least not for long. Our mission is to give you that information—for free. And then we partner with you, using our knowledge of complex systems and how they change, adapt, and thrive, and our understanding of coaching and the psychology of goal-setting and goal-flourishing to help you, with all of your knowledge and experience, build a program that will make the Spartans wake up in their graves and take notice.


Verge Keynote

Shaping and Constructing Culture: aka Leading in Complexity

Verge Keynote

You’ve heard this before, I’m sure: “Changing culture is the hardest thing you’ll ever do.” Aside from the fact that such a statement is debatable, it does beg the question: What even is “culture”? How do we define it? Do we accept the biologist’s definition, the sociologist’s, or the anthropologist’s? Take your pick; I like them all. But if you pull out what’s similar and what’s generally agreed upon in most of these definitions, you’re left with a workable definition of culture, something you can use: culture is a group’s shared and integrated beliefs, values, assumptions, behaviors, and material objects (or artifacts). Culture, as a form, is a pattern of relationships between and among people in a group.

You can do the same thing with leadership, by the way. There are 90-some-thousand books out there on leadership, yet no one, neither business gurus, academic icons, nor military gods, can agree on a definition. I suspect there’s a good reason for that, though those authors seem not to know it. For one, leadership is highly contextual. And what counts as leadership in one context might not in another. The command-and-control leadership philosophy backed by government bureaucracies and their armies the world over would likely prove an abysmal failure in a fleet-footed business bent on generating, not consuming, capital.

Because contexts matter and are continually shifting and changing, like Heraclitus’s river, what counts as leadership will also have to shift and change (although I contend strong character should remain a commonality). It’s for that reason that leadership will always resist being precisely defined. But we know this: leadership from a position of character involves influence, occurs in groups of people, and is aimed at striving, struggling, and even fighting in some respects, to achieve the group’s shared goals.

Notice that nowhere in those ingredients for leadership is listed rank or position or title. They are indeed tools of influence, but they are not in and of themselves leadership. And if they are your only tools, good luck. Best to go work for the government.

What interests us, though, is the nexus between culture and leadership. And that nexus falls squarely on one word used in both descriptions: group.

The group is both the culture and the leaders (yes, leaders). Culture influences leaders, just as leaders, to include those with and without titles (and it’s important to understand that), can and should influence culture. And those leaders should influence the culture in what direction? Toward the achievement of its shared goals, naturally.

Viewed through the lens of complexity, culture and leadership (and strategy and performance as well) are not separate entities but form the warp and weft of a single integrated organizational narrative, a tapestry, a web even, a story of who the organization is, where it’s been, and where it’s headed. And both are emergent properties of their local context. Yes, you heard that right. You can literally do nothing, and yet both of these psycho-social phenomena will arise unbidden. Groups form, and out of those interrelated and interconnected groups culture and leadership comes forth. If you’re fine with leaving the attributes of these powerful phenomena to chance, though, then read no further.

But to pull on just one of those emergent threads for a moment, leadership is the primary tool, skill, process, and system not only to shape a high-performing culture but to actively construct the vessel in which that culture is contained and in which it flourishes. And that in a word is an awesome responsibility.

In our minds, a high-performing culture is synonymous with an adaptive culture. And it is the leaders’ (plural) responsibility to construct that culture, monitor it, and, when the leaders feel they are on the right path, to jealously guard that culture against all intruders foreign and domestic (to borrow the language of defending the constitution).

To do that, fill your organization with some hearty proactive problem solvers, particularly those who feel strongly that the problems they face are best solved by committing to a search for truth through spirited dialogue. It’s learning that emerges from the discussions and productive conflict, and it is to learning that you must commit. You might not celebrate failure, but you have to do more than tolerate it; you have to learn from it, and to do that you’ll need to ensure that feedback, to include the good, the bad, and the ugly, is the coin of the realm. (Incidentally, honest, bottom-up feedback is what’s missing in the command-and-control style of leadership.)

On top of that, adopt a favorable view of human nature—or at least a positive view of the people in your organization. Get this: people generally set out to do good—they want to do good—and they can and will change if you create a psychologically safe place for them to do so. But don’t just adopt a favorable view of people, root out those who don’t harbor that same view. They will only, in some subtle ways, “train” their subordinates and peers, and perhaps their leaders as well, to display the kinds of poor traits they accuse people of in the first place. This particular kind of negativity is insidious, and there’s no room for it in a culture set on reaching the stars.

Next, add a healthy dose of optimism to your organizational diet. Put it in your morning coffee. (Everybody else seems to have a recommendation for what goes in your coffee these days, optimism is mine.) I’m not saying you should become a Pollyanna, not at all. Optimism simply means that the team believes they can manage and even influence their internal and external environments—at least to some extent—and that in the face of change, even radical change, they can remain resilient and even reinvent themselves if necessary.

Remember, too, that while history matters, and that while living in the moment is a powerful personal practice, you must orient your teams toward the future. To do that, commit to open and truthful communications. Cast off the old communication wheel, where subordinates communicate with the leader but not with each other, and create a communication web where everyone can, at least in theory, talk freely with everyone else. Such a practice affords many things, not the least of which is an ability to anticipate events on the horizon, both those that pose as threats and those that pose as opportunities. To not only survive in a complex environment but to succeed in it, to flourish, the quality and quantity of interactions inside an organization will directly correlate to engagement, innovation, and performance.

And if you can commit to that last piece, which isn’t easy, that also means you have to commit to diversity. You have to go all in. And I’m not talking solely about a healthy mix of men and women and a blend of ethnicities. That’s important, but I’d encourage you to go deeper and expand your notion of diversity and what it is. Go beyond the color of skin and sex and bring together people with different skills sets, different levels of education, and different cultural backgrounds. Sic that group on the issues that confront you right now. Why? Because diverse people see and interpret the world in diverse ways—and cognitive diversity is a wonderful thing. If you can integrate and weave together into your organizational narrative the threads of their insights, you stand the chance of creating solutions that are far more powerful than what any one person (you for instance) could have dreamed up, or far more powerful than what any homogenous group (the exec team or the marketing team) could have summoned.

Lastly, people in high-performing, adaptive and sustaining cultures understand that the world is only growing in complexity. Swear off the traditional, linear, causal view of the marketplace (and the world) in favor of systemic thinking and complex mental models that boost learning and performance. Think of your organization like your brain. Your people are your neurons (all 85 billion of them!), each connected to scores of their brother and sister neurons, all interconnected and interdependent, and all with the ability to change and adapt. What might emerge if you were actually to create such an organizational model? Try consciousness.

If you want to lead, then this is your charge.