Okay.. Herbert Hoover and Ayn Rand tell us of the rugged individualist. More or less, its a western ideal. We question convention - even conventions WE helped create. We have free will. We make decisions and act accordingly. In our rational hearts, we make only appropriate, moral, and ethical decisions.
We want to control our environment and, in order to do that we must control ourselves - and perhaps even those “less intelligent than us”.
But we've learned a lot recently about the human brain and the psycho soup we call a mind. We now have significant data that leads us to scientifically understand that humans are more like highly suggestive, moody, erratic meatbags. And I understand that I, Jim Benson, fit that bill as much as anyone.
We also understand that we fall into some definable types. Some of us are introverts, some of us are gregarious, some of us are creative, some of us are INTJ, some of us are ADHD, some of us get depressed in the Winter. etc. etc.
And maybe all these deterministic blanket statements describe no one in particular - but rather describe common human states we all find ourselves in from time to time. We do know one thing, that whatever evidence we may find that our will isn’t as free as we’d like it to be - the opposite is also untrue - we are not some B.F. Skinner robots of behavioralism. We are neither John Galt nor walking computers.
We’re something very different. We are neither pre-programmed nor truly rational, we are influenced. We are complex emotional beings striving for clarity. And we go to work in the morning.
Why this matters to people and business...
Recently, I had the unique opportunity to see some beauty worked. Simon Marcus and Jabe Bloom at The Library Corporation decided that their staff needed a dose of entrepeneurialism. Why they felt this is not really important right now. What is important was that a large group of computer programmers who had worked their entire careers on legacy systems suddenly found themselves in a situation where they had to invent new products and then discuss those products with potential users.
And by potential users I mean strangers walking the streets of Washington DC.
TLC’s staff is as varied as anyone’s, and they have their share of introverts. These introverts had to talk to strangers on the street about products they just made up.
Jabe Bloom, TLC's CTO, knew that the coders would literally freak out if asked to do this - so he had to ease them into it. For a week leading up to the DC day, he gave his teams exercises that slowly helped them understand who their clients were, the sensibilities and needs of other people, what problems these people might be having, and then license to invent products that might solve those problems. From this, product ideas would be generated, refined, and then vetted (validated) with these on-the-street interviews.
What was important was that these programmers were ... programmers. They just wanted to code. This was a huge and frustrating distraction from their regular work - which really needed to get done. So they started the first exercises annoyed and angry. Jabe gathered comments along the way - after the first few days of this process he received some extremely negative feedback.
As the exercises progressed, they began to generate products for the participants. They created personas of their system users, affinity maps of attributes, and most important - real individual and team learning. Feedback became more positive.
By the time the group started generating real, tangible ideas - they had unprecedented clarity, not only into the exercise, but into their own clients and products. Perhaps for the first time ever, they had a deeper understanding of who would use their products and that those people were real. That clarity felt good, it was empowering. I don't mean “empowering” in the harmonically convergent woo-woo babble sense - I mean that in the actual "I now know how to really do my job" sense. They had more real power to write good code.
By the time these people did their exercise in DC, they were so into the game and their ideas, that the previously terrifying prospect of going out on the streets of Washington and talking to strangers was now merely .... terrifying.
Yes, it was still terrifying.
But they did it. Introverts and non-people-persons stormed the nation’s capital and got some real work done.
Because they had clarity and because there was a system that made those actions logical. That made those terrifying actions easier.
Our individual programming obviously runs deep, and circumventing it is not trivial. But we are not hopeless. No one is a trapped.
We can step outside our comfort zones, we can grow. And we can enjoy the experience.
Our brains have tendencies, some stronger than others, and many extremely rewritable. When we encounter stimuli, our brains record it and we are changed by it. The more that stimuli is repeated, the more our brains physically and operationally adapt to the new patterns.
We, as individuals, team members, and managers, all would do well to appreciate that thoughtfully created collaborative systems like TLC's can have radical impacts on the system participants. (Habits take longer to develop, of course).
After all was said and done, at about 10 pm on a Wednesday night we were gathered in TLC’s offices back in Inwood, West Virginia. I ran a retrospective with everyone in attendance. These people were exhausted and euphoric. The most successful applications will be further refined and likely built. People stepped way outside their normal comfort zones to make that happen. It was draining and beautiful to watch.
Simon Marcus, the COO at TLC, who started this whole process rolling, listened to everyone talk about what they enjoyed about the process and what they did not. He made it clear that innovation was everyone's job. And, by and large, everyone knew he was serious. The next morning they were at work, building a new process to harness this new power.
Simon and Jabe could have written off their programmers as stereotypical introvert meatbags and left the innovation to product development experts - but that's the normal way of doing things. Silo'ing innovation where it’s appropriate and turning everything else into a factory.
In the middle of all this, Jabe said to me, "you know, I thought I would get a ton of stupid ideas and maybe two good ones, but I've been overwhelmed by the number of really good - not just good but really good - ideas these guys came up with."
If Jabe and Simon would have silo'ed their innovation, they would have destroyed not only value, but people as well.
Photo of Jim Benson by Jim Benson
Photos of TLC staff by Jabe Bloom