Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, December 3, 2018
In the service of transparency, many leaders, when faced with a problem, say, “OK, now let’s all get together and solve it together.” But does that really work, and is it the best way to find answers?
Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, says traditional theory has been “the more eyes on a problem, the better the solution.” His research findings indicate that the always-on, persistent collaboration model, with constant Slack and Skype interaction, does not generally lead to the best outcomes.
I was intrigued by his research. Leaving unstructured space and time for problem-solving seems to be the anomaly in the startup world order. Go fast and break things has been the mantra of many startups (Facebook). When you have a problem, you apply the full-court press to it, involve all the teams and do not leave the room until you have wrestled the alligator in the room into submission. Bernstein says that with that mindset, more often than not, the alligator will win.
I have to confess, it used to be my nature. I would grapple with a puzzle relentlessly, and it would consume me. As I got older and smarter, I gravitated to what Bernstein calls the “intermittent group effort.” What he is saying is that you need to attack the problem and then retreat. Advance and fall back. Thrust and parry. It is the basic principle of the warrior and the military dance. You cannot find easy solutions to complex problems in one bold stroke, precisely because they are complex. It requires a complete rethink or new-think, not just a tweak.
The little problem, like what kind of coffee maker do we need in the kitchen, is simple. You convene and ask the whole team in one Slack interaction, collect the votes and get a Lavazza. The problem of how to price your product or what feature to work on next are the ones that need room to breathe.
I am a big fan of the weekend bike ride. As I have mentioned before, I ride alone, primarily so that I can talk to myself and chew on the problems of the past week. I actually talk out loud. I have a dialogue with all the parties involved. I reason and play each part, all without the immediate expectation of finding the answer.
My goal is to do a better job of framing the question in a new way so that I can offer it to the team at our next interaction.
I was at a fancy blah blah last week, and two very talented, famous litigators were discussing a thorny political problem. What I saw was fascinating. They each argued one side, and then they changed positions and each argued the other side. It was like a boxing match, and in the end, there was no winner per se, but the problem itself was more clearly exposed, and yes, a better solution (optimal was not available) was found.
That leads to, how big is the group that should be having intermittent interactions? Bernstein seems to come down on the side of three to four participants in a cohort. Further, by going with intermittent collaboration, the team avoids “rapid convergence,” which is a fancy way of saying, getting to the answer too quickly, before all the potential creative (and out-there) ideas have been exposed to the harsh sunlight and critical gaze of the group.
The study goes on to caution us, that by maximizing transparency, “we may come up with solutions that we are happy with (captive to past conclusions), but sometimes it is better to be dislodged from those.” So the collaboration puzzle comes down to one of balance. The dynamics of every group are unique, and the various members need room to implement their own processes, but Bernstein tells us that it cannot be “always on, always connected.”
As a CEO, I sometimes “let the woman lead.” I am not referring to a female, but rather the analogy is from dancing. If I can learn to follow, as opposed to lead, I may hear the music differently, and the solution that I need may simply come to me, softly and by surprise, while I am so intent on not stepping on “her” toes.
Rule No. 587
“Ride, Sally, ride”
— Lou Reed