Opportunity Is Not a Zero Sum Game

I’m going to start with the following premise:

Most organizations have a large number of unsolved problems.

In fact, most organizations have more problems than they have people with the focus, resources, and skills to solve. Hard problems create opportunity for people to be creative and demonstrate their skills. The hardest problems tend to require people from multiple parts of the organization buying into a solution. This means problems can create opportunity for visibility and career development. Problems have value.

I’ve been in multiple organizations where I’ve seen these hard, cross-organization problems attempted to be solved one of two ways:

  1. Form a committee that is representative of all the people impacted by this problem and come to an agreement through meeting after meeting. (This is “death by committee.”)
  2. Identify one single individual and assign him responsibility for the problem. Tell him to solve it as a “stretch” or “reach” opportunity to demonstrate his potential for career development. (This is “sink or swim.”)

I’m going to propose that the way hard problems in large organizations actually get solved is secret option 3:

Identify a small but diversely skilled group of people passionate about the problem space and let them have focused time to work on a solution. Sponsor and champion their work. Give them access to stakeholders and a feedback loop, and help them sell the solution.

What’s wrong with the wrong approaches

I’m not going to discuss the “death by committee” approach in detail. You would think it would be obvious to organizations that large committees fall victim to the diffusion of responsibility. The only reason I can fathom for why a company would take this approach is that the quality of the solution is less important than the perception of consensus in the organization. Basically, the organization values individual representation over contribution.

If we ignore option 1, the interesting question is “Why do companies do option 2?” Why is “sink or swim” still prevalent?

I was once in a meeting where I was asked to give feedback on a proposed solution to a problem. This problem had been given to a lone individual as a “stretch” opportunity. The individual wasn’t in the room when the solution was presented. (His manager was presenting it for him.) I pointed to some gaps in the approach and suggested more aspects of the problem needed to be considered. Later, his manager told me he hadn’t wanted to provide my feedback to the individual because it wouldn’t be giving this individual an opportunity to grow. The manager was concerned too much feedback would stifle the person’s development. He wanted him to figure it out on his own.

Separately, I’ve been in other conversations where people have said, “We need to give others in the organization opportunities so I’d rather we didn’t have so-and-so participate,” and “We keep going to the same 10 people. It’s someone else’s turn.”

Based on these comments and several experiences, I would argue the “sink or swim” approach survives because of two faulty beliefs and one sad reality:

Faulty Beliefs

  1. Opportunity is a scarce resource that must be doled out on an individual by individual basis via some sort of resource management algorithm.
  2. The way someone grows or develops is by being given a really big challenge with little guidance.

Both are false. More than that, both are harmful.

Sad Reality

  1. It’s really hard to align problems with the people ready to solve them.

This one is true.

Opportunity is not a scarce resource.

The sentence, “We need to give others in the organization opportunities,” implies an opportunity can only be owned by one person. The sentence also implies that there is a sense of unfairness with the same individual getting multiple opportunities. It makes the company sound like a zero-sum game, not a functioning organization aligned on values and behaviors.

I started with the premise that most organizations have more problems than people that can solve them. If problems are opportunities, this means opportunity is not scarce. If it is not scarce, there should be no problem with the same person solving multiple problems.

Recently, I was talking about the challenges of delegating effectively with a leader in a large organization. He complained no one had context to solve the problems he needed solved and he didn’t have the time to share context. As a result, he ends up either ignoring the problem or solving it himself. The supply problem was on the people side, not the problem side.

The real underlying problem is that the market for opportunity is inefficient due to lack of information. People with the right skills and passion aren’t aware of the opportunity or they aren’t visible to leadership. To deal with this market inefficiency, organizations should not implement some arbitrary Round Robin algorithm for managing opportunity.

They should describe the qualities needed in a person to solve a particular problem and do a broad search for people that have those qualities. In the delegation example mentioned above, I suggested that the leader look for people that are good context-seekers.

Unsurprisingly, an approach focused on qualities can yield more diversity in the distribution of opportunity as leaders are making decisions not based on who they know, but what they need.

A single person may not have all the qualities needed. This is why it is likely that a small, focused team will be required. It is more important to find the right team and provide guidance and empowerment than to worry about counts of opportunities. People can share an opportunity, and a person can have more than one opportunity in their career.

Opportunity without guidance is not growth.

When a person is given an opportunity without guidance or feedback, the organization is not growing her. They are testing her. “Sink or swim” is not a strategy for career development. It’s a brute force algorithm for identification of people that already have the skills and qualities. It follows a fixed mindset.

Real growth requires investment. Investment means aligning someone with a mentor to assist him in the work. The mentor needs to be an effective coach that doesn’t just point out flaws in the work, but is able to “think out loud” on how she might approach the problem. People learn how to reason about complex problems by being walked through how others reason about them.

If the organization wants people to grow, it does have to give them room to try new ideas but it also needs to set up basic guard rails. Guard rails can be in the form of clearly communicated and preferably documented, guiding principles or constraints. The guard rails can be early and often feedback sessions. They should not be in the form of seagull management.

Finally, and most importantly, when someone is offered a growth opportunity, failure has to be an option. If solving a big problem is really meant to give someone a chance to develop new skills, it has to be recognized they may not succeed. Regardless of the outcome, the effort still has to be recognized for the value it did provide the organization:

  • The person learned new approaches, built a new network, and/or developed new skills.
  • The organization learned the problem was harder than they thought.

If these things are not valued and failure is punished, the organization will have created an environment where individuals will be discouraged from taking on hard challenges.

A proposed solution to the market inefficiency

I’ve argued the real challenge in most organizations is there’s not enough people with the skills needed to solve all the problems, so it’s likely you will need to give people multiple opportunities to solve problems.

In How Google Works, Eric Schmidt argued the old saying, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” While on the surface, this is an argument to pile more and more work on a small pool of people, it is also another form of the idea that the greatest predictor of what people will do is what they have done. The challenge is how do leaders find all of the people in the organization that have solved and can solve problems. I argue it’s no different than other selection problems:

  • Create a bigger pipeline by publishing opportunities.
  • Publish a list of the qualities desired for each opportunity.
  • Allow self-selection or application.
  • If there are multiple responses, interview based on behavioral questions aligned with the desired qualities.

One final parting shot at “death by committee”

“Death by committee” can be a backdoor way to identify the small team of passionate individuals needed for a problem. With any group effort, there’s a chance that a few passionate people will step up and do the work while the rest remain bystanders or in the best case, reviewers. While this may solve the problem, it comes at a cost. There’s a huge inefficiency in having a roomful of people pretending to solve a problem. Even worse is the opportunity cost of all the problems those people could be solving.

Imagine all the problems that could be solved if we had the right people working on them.