How To Keep On Building Great Organizations

I’ve worked with numerous startups and talked to a lot a CEOs about organization and management. They are all trying build the perfect machine: an organization where everything is there to ensure growth — charts, missions, IT, processes, culture, etc. But let’s not fool ourselves: the core asset of any organization is its people.

We try to build a machine, where processes make sure that everything is functional even if the players are changed. “No one is irreplaceable”, one say. And it could be true at a given moment.

But there is a big flaw in this belief. Let’s discover why with the help of the Red Queen Effect.

Red Queen Effect, Or The Reason Why An Organization Is Never Built

The Red Queen Effect was proposed by the evolutionary biologist Leigh van Valen, and is based on Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass. In the book, The Red Queen, a representation of a Queen in chess, is speaking with Alice, constantly running but remaining in the same spot:

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Leigh Van Valen explains that since every improvement in one species will lead to a selective advantage for that species, variation will normally continuously lead to increases in fitness in one species or another. However, since species are coevolving, improvement in one species implies that it will get a competitive advantage on the other species, and thus be able to capture a larger share of the resources available to all. This means that fitness increase in one evolutionary system will tend to lead to fitness decrease in another system. The only way that a species involved in a competition can maintain its fitness relative to the others is by in turn improving its design. (source)

For instance, when the prey is improving its defense (rabbits running faster), the predators end up developing a better offense (foxes running faster, wolves running longer…) and it keeps on going. In a nutshell, the Red Queen Effect states that evolution is a non ending process since species are tied to each other.

Translated into management, it highlights the limits of the notion of equilibrium found in the traditional approach to economics. Competition is not a state or a situation, but rather a process of discovery in which disequilibrium is an inherent characteristic of markets. Thus, competition is considered as a state of continual rivalry for firms whose actions are designed to put them ahead of their rivals (source).

Bottom line, the Red Queen Effect suggests that organisations will try to stand out continuously (and so will their competitors) and to obtain a new competitive advantage they need to innovate.

This co-evolutionary approach shows that any organization need to be improved overtime. And to improve the machine, we need talented, creative people.

How To Leverage People To Make Sure The Machine Is Always Improving

I believe we all have 3 temptations, which, if overcome, lead to a far healthier organization, able to grow and bloom.

1. We have a hard time taking the perspective of the others

There will be disagreements, even conflicts. Some are bound to the misalignment of interests. For instance, sales would like to have always more features in a product so they can fulfill every clients’ desires. But the product team needs to find the good balance between usability and more globally to prioritize the roadmap taking into account every wishes & constraints.

Others, conflicts can arise after a shared experience lived differently by different stakeholders. It may come from misunderstandings of what’s been said (between what the speaker thinks he said, what he really said, what’s been heard and what’s been understood, there is always quite a way), or even by tensions created by the unsaid.

Takeaway: it is always very helpful to try to understand one’s incentives, wishes, constraints, and frustrations. Most of conflicts disappear once everyone around the table understand the perspective of all others’. We should not start by judging a situation before making this exercise. We would miss too much information.

2. We’d like to have perfect colleagues, bosses and subordinates

Sometimes we do the job of understanding one’s perspective. And even if it help us to explain the situation, it doesn’t remove what there is: your colleague, boss or subordinate fuck*d up something. You wish they were different. You wish they have more time, more know-how, and more network. You wish they were better negotiators, better managers, better speakers.

But people can’t be perfect generalists. Even polymath are not amazing at everything they do. Da Vinci was a painter, a writer, a poet, a musician, an urbanist, an architect, a botanist, etc.

But let’s be honest. His botanical skills wouldn’t make him eligible even to a footnote in a book for specialists. And most strengths lead to a drawbacks. Most perfectionists have a self low esteem (or at least lots of frustrations, focusing on what they could have done better).

This demand on others are also a recurring error in recruitment: looking for people that don’t have any skill missing instead of selecting the one with the strongest skills really needed.

Takeaway: we need acknowledge our own flaws such as the limitations of others and to focus on people strengths to build the best organisation possible. Otherwise you will build an organization where whining is the norm and where everyone is an average generalist.

3. We tend to focus on our own mission, not on contribution to the company

Todo lists are almost as annoying as managing inboxes. It always adds up. One step forward, two steps back. So we try to be more and more efficient (when we should be more effective, or even do something radically different). And the more we do this, the more we get focus on our mission. Our productions, our deadlines, our KPIs. And this can be very rewarding (finishing the todo lists!!) and matches what’s expected from a particular position. Yet, doing so we forget to ask ourselves the most important question in a company: how can I maximize my contribution toward the company’s mission? This might be by helping our colleagues or bosses, thus making a detour to our own mission. Or even to accept not doing something that’s expected (like answering emails or phone calls as fast as possible) to focus on something that truly matters (innovating in doing something, focusing on one particular project, etc.)

Takeaway: the good executive can’t only be judged by how fast he crosses out items in his todo list. He needs to ask himself continuously: how can I maximize my impact?