Editor’s Notes: The CEO talks about Minimum Viable Alignment, how a great company cultivates thinking, but also aligns stakeholders. “I am not afraid of discussion and debate. There are times when I will censor certain ideas, suspend certain discussions, and postpone certain debates. But I will do so only when I believe they interfere with this principle of (Minimum Viable Alignment)”
Minimum Viable Alignment.
Last weekend, I wrote this piece. It’s about freedom and democracy, about the need for debate, and the need for everyone to have and to express their individual opinions on how to solve the problems we face as a society.
Democracy makes no sense unless you believe in individual thinking. By empowering individuals to think, to debate, and to decide for themselves, we assume that we’ll arrive at better ideas, than by merely giving control to “the experts.”
In the same way, free enterprise makes no sense unless you believe in individual thinking. Every new company is disagreeing with the market, otherwise the market would already be doing what it is doing.
Fractally, within each company, the same principle applies. Which company will outperform: the one that has one thinker at the top, followed by a hierarchy of doers blindly following instructions… or the one that has thinker/doers all the way down, from the top to the bottom, constantly debating and discussing, how to do everything better?
My belief and experience tells me that, as long as hierarchical control is maintained, so as to prevent chaotic anarchy, a single thinker, no matter how superior, cannot outperform a company full of many empowered thinkers, capable of aligning around both centralized and decentralized decisions…
If you believe this, the next natural question is: how can you encourage everyone at your company to think? And, if you empower thinking, how do you prevent chaos?
Thinking involves disagreement. But disagreement implies misalignment. If a great company cultivates thinking, but also aligns stakeholders, how does it hold together?
The answer is a concept I call Minimum Viable Alignment. Everything is up for debate, but to an decreasing extent from the bottom-up: the company’s day-to-day operations are up for more debate than its strategy, which is up for more debate than its core values, vision and mission…
Debate at the lowest levels signals the kind of divergence that is inherent in great thinking. Debate at the highest levels signals misalignment which can be resolved in one of three ways: 1) modifying the structure or the strategy as necessary, 2) debating them until there misalignment resolves naturally, or 3) prompting the resignation of misaligned team members.
A great company maximizes debate on direction while maintaining the alignment required for execution velocity.
This principle is just as relevant to governing a nation as it is to governing a company… Indeed, it is the American principle, the principle inherent in the concept of Liberty, the principle present in The Constitution itself, which is designed to encourage the maximum divergence possible within the limits of the law.
At national scale, Minimum Viable Alignment means non-violence — respecting the rights of your fellow citizens to their property and persons — and loyalty to The Constitution itself. Indeed, it is to “preserve, protect and defend The Constitution of the United States” that we swear our oaths of loyalty. Other than that, we are free. Free to think as we wish, say what we wish, do what we wish… It’s as simple as that.
A great company should not be what I call a Corporate Isolationist. Corporate Isolationism is bad for America. The vast majority of companies — from the top to bottom — have become Corporate Isolationists. Corporate Isolationists try to keep themselves, and their companies, out of trouble, by keeping quiet and staying disengaged. They say as little of political import as possible, and what they do say, they ensure is politically correct.
The principle of the “Separation of Church & State” is intended to prevent the establishment of any Official Religion… not to prevent churches from speaking out politically. In the same way, the principle “Separation of Commerce & State” is intended to prevent the establishment of any Official Monopolies… not to prevent professionals from speaking out individually…
I want Invisible to set an example for free speech in corporate America. Indeed, we have committed ourselves to transparency, to being the most public private company ever. My desire as CEO is for everyone at the company, all the agents, all the partners, to feel free… to feel free to engage in any discussion or debate… to say what they think about any subject… about politics, philosophy, economics, history, art or literature… to express themselves as fully as possible… to read, to write, to create in all forms… and to express what is on their hearts and minds… without fear of social or economic reprisal. I not only want them to feel free, I want them to feel encouraged, and, indeed, to have the courage to speak up, about any issue they care about!
If a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? If we have a sacred and constitutionally protected right to free speech, but we don’t use it, are we free indeed? No, we are not. Our politically correct and fearful society — including its institutions, especially its corporations — has made it increasingly unsafe for citizens to say what they think, to take contrarian positions and to disagree in public.
I am not afraid of discussion and debate. There are times when I will censor certain ideas, suspend certain discussions and postpone certain debates. But I will do so only when I believe they interfere with this principle of “Minimum Viable Alignment.” Just like “innocent until proven guilty,” the presumption should always be “free to speak until told otherwise…” This is the principle of the 10th Amendment, and I believe it will work as well inside a company as inside a society.
In corporate America, it works the other way: “you are NOT free to speak unless your company gives you permission.” To me, this is abominable, and dangerous. I do not grant my team their rights… They entrust me with the discretion of limiting their expression by the minimum amount necessary to maintain alignment and execution velocity. If I were to limit their expression any more than the minimum, that would be an act of tyranny, and if I was recalcitrant, they would be right to leave, not to obey.
Minimum Viable Alignment for a nation will obviously be more expansive than Minimum Viable Alignment for a company — as it naturally should. A company is an incarnate Point Of View. Irreconcileable misalignments certainly result in decisions, usually mutual, to part ways. But historically, at our company, we’ve kept those to a minimum, and they have been focused on misalignments either over our core values as a company (Ownership, First Principles Thinking, Excellence, etc.), or specific disagreements on strategy and tactics.
Nobody has a “right” to work here… we work together by mutual agreement, because of an alignment of interests, abilities, values, vision, strategy and methods… Everybody has a right to exit... And the company has a right to fire anybody who is misaligned or underperforming… All of these choices are fundamentally discretionary and cannot be regulated. But by laying out a principle, like Minimum Viable Alignment, we can create a framework for making those decisions. It is in our best interests to follow this principle.
Everyone who knows me, knows that I express myself in as many ways, through as many mediums, and on as many subjects as I possibly can. I believe that ultimately, that is good and healthy, both for me, for the company, and for society at large. Indeed, that’s part of The American Dream, as I understand it. So naturally, I want my fellow co-workers to also have the courage to exercise their liberties as fully as possible, and, in so doing, to feel secure in our commitment to this principle of Minimum Viable Alignment…
I fully expect that most of my business partners disagree with me on most things. In fact, I would find it shocking if they didn’t. But I also hope that they disagree with each other and the world on most things. My fear is that, while they probably diverge more than average, there is still far too much consensus. But again, my hope is that, by empowering and encouraging expression, in the long run, free speech will result in more independence of thought and action.
What is the point of automation, if it does not free us to use our minds, be creative, to solve problems and to express our divergent visions for a better world?