Parting the Waters

How the Old Testament can sometimes be as handy as the HBR when rallying teams around your vision of the promised land.

Little did I know, as an altar boy growing up in Colorado, that I would eventually find myself teaching corporations to love the Old Testament. But, as it happens, the Decalogue (aka The Ten Commandments) have worked their way into nearly every high-level strategic engagement we’ve had the pleasure of being part of lately. How? Well, it all started while we were working with a tech company in the communication and collaboration space (who shall remain nameless for the sake of our NDA). The brief: help us figure out how to do a better job of helping people understand each other.

See, we’d been workshopping our way toward a new vision for the brand — a new rallying cry that was meant to drive everything from hiring decisions to the product roadmap. But when we started hammering at that vision with a broader array of doers within the company, we found that after the head-nodding stopped, the hands went up. Everyone got the big idea, but no one could agree on how to act on it. Or rather, everyone had their own (domain-specific) idea of how they might be able to bring it to life.

What was missing was a clearer, more defined code of conduct that laddered up to the vision without adding undue complexity. Nobody wanted some elaborate decision tree to determine whether something was going to get them fired or promoted. They just wanted some simple rules of the road that everyone could get behind and act on. Basically, not The Book of Exodus per se. Something a little more…tweetable.

So, we broke up our workshop group into five teams of 6 and gave them fifteen minutes to talk amongst themselves. The aim: come up with your own ten commandments for operationalizing the vision. Of course, because literally no one in the room could actually remember all original ten, we had to scramble to dig them up on Wikipedia (does that mean we’re going to hell?). For the rest of the heathens out there, here they are:

I am the LORD thy God.
Thou shall have no other gods before Me.
Thou shall make no graven images or likenesses.
Thou shalt not take the LORD’s name in vain.
Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
Honor thy father and thy mother.
Thou shalt not kill.
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Thou shalt not steal.
Thou shalt not bear false witness.
Thou shalt not covet.

Wait. That’s eleven, right? Interesting. And that first one isn’t really a commandment, is it? Plus, it sounds like someone might be overcompensating a bit with all the ALL CAPS. Also of note: not all the commandments are punative. Some are positive. Amidst all the thou shalt nots are a few thou shalls. As in: Honor thy father and mother and remember the Sabbath day. Both good. I’m still not totally sure about the ‘graven images or likenesses’ bit. I mean, no Michelangelo? Come on…

Anyway, after a quick stroll through Moses’ backstory, we got back to work. And it was fascinating to see how quickly people grokked it. Surprisingly, there were a ton of similarities bubbling up, table-to-table. Every single group kept it to ten. But when we when we gathered them all together, winnowed out the duplicates, and combined the super similar ones, we still netted out at around 15. Maybe this is where we should’ve brought out a certain clip from History of the World Part 1.

Again, in the interest of protecting our NDA, let’s just say they spanned everything from simplifying the user’s life, to creating more delightful experiences, to experimenting more. And, interestingly, none required all-caps. Good. And none were punitive. All were positive. But still there were way, way too many to keep in your head. And a lot of them were pretty high-level still. A bit too open for interpretation.

So, how to simplify? With those fifteen (and the reams and reams of notes from our earlier sessions that day), we went back to our studio. After killing a few Post-It Notes and going back-and-forth with our client lead, we ended up chiseling things down to ten. Then, five. Why five? Because, honestly, ten commandments is still way too many to hold onto (unless you’re a Rabbinical scholar). What were those super-pithy five?

People Before Technology.
Simplify, Simplify, Simplify. (with a strikethrough on the second two)
First Earn Trust.
Try, Fail, Repeat.
Get Better Together.

Combined with terse single-sentence explanations, experimental definitions (like ‘your silos should be invisible to me’) to clarify how customers would experience the commandment, and operational definitions (like ‘management is not your mama’) to codify how teams would act on it, people were off to the races — checking in periodically with management to make sure they were on the right track and, eventually, even going so far as to rewrite the way they test NPS to make sure they were nailing it for customers. Pretty soon, all the head nodding turned into actual, concerted doing.

So, what makes a good commandment? It should give an organization a clear benchmark — something to measure decisions against. Is this simplifying? Am I earning trust? Or am I just trying to get this feature out? It helps define a larger set of laws, not just a manager’s whim.

It should be applicable to the day-to-day — something that is meaningful to the rank-and-file in heat of the moment. Is this feature meeting a real human need? Or is it just technology for technology’s sake? Am I really risking failure if I greenlight this idea? Or am I playing it safe or phoning it it? It helps codify the vision in a personal, granular way.

And, lastly, it should rally people to a higher purpose — something that demonstrates a commitment to, well, goodess. Is this us being our better selves? Are we really in this for the right reasons? Or are we just reacting, doing whatever it takes to hit our numbers? It helps inspire action and fuel deep ownership of the outcome.

Which, truth be told, shouldn’t really feel like a miracle.