Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Role Models

Been a while since my last blog (my apologies - I actually wrote one and deleted it... very long story), but I'm up slightly early this morning and figured now would be a good time. My wife and I had a great conversation last night, after attending an event at UCLA where I spoke in front of a small crowd of around 100 people, and I think this conversation got my mind going sufficiently to write a post.

I went to USC across town - and was sure to make
many jokes about this classic rivalry :)
The event was supposed to be focused on entrepreneurship where I would share experiences with the start-up community around UCLA / LA in general with lessons learned from Riot's early days, but in a very fun turn of events the tickets that the school had allocated were almost all gobbled up by League of Legends players from UCLA.  I always love the opportunity to connect directly with our players and this was a very cool and intimate setting where I got to directly answer questions to the group about anything they wanted to talk about. The event ran for an hour and afterwards, I spent over another hour more talking to each person individually who wanted to line up for pictures, shake hands, ask additional questions, or ask questions on the best way to apply to Riot, etc.

It had been a while since I had a chance to sit down for a prolonged period of time with so many different LOL players and it was a fantastic experience.  But what was also very interesting was that this was the first time my wife had actually had an opportunity to directly hear the stories from League players talking about how meaningful the game is to them and how appreciative they are of Riot's efforts.

A couple cool highlights as examples:
- One woman (Vivian, you rock) made Tryndamere and Ashe dolls and wrote a thank you letter to Riot to thank us for making her favorite game and she actually apologized (no need!) for not being able to spend any money in the game (because she's a student without much money!) and she said she wanted to find a way to express her appreciation.  Wow!
- One engineering student highlighted that the game is how he and his brother who live across the country from each other now keep in touch and have been able to remain close despite the distance
- An exchange student from China mentioned that the game was how he has been able to assimilate into Western culture and meet great friends at UCLA.  It's a shared language that helped him bond with people from completely different backgrounds.

Hearing these stories like these are enough to make even the toughest Barbarian King as weepy as Amumu. We LOVE these stories at Riot and constantly try to collect them because of how motivating they are to all of us.

But what my wife wanted to talk about and highlight was how amazed she was about how genuinely inspired people were and how cool of an opportunity it is to be able to potentially positively impact people's lives around the world even in some small way.  This led to a conversation about the importance of role models where we each reflected on the role models that we have, or that we seek and those individuals who helped shape our perspectives on how we view the world (oftentimes unbeknownst to them).

Amumu is always weepy
I wanted to take some time this morning to highlight some of the people whom I have never met who inspire me, and why I think having role models is very important.  I'll start with the latter first.

I often ask people in interviews who their role models are.  Why?  Because I think this can tell you a lot about the person.

- Do they have role models?  If they can't think of any, that's a big flag.  Do they not take the time to reflect on what values they aspire towards?  Do they not admire anyone's accomplishments?  Are they too cynical or jaded to be inspired?  Any of these are sufficiently worrisome to want to probe deeper around that particular concern.  I have encountered many people whom I concluded didn't have any role models because they were too busy being impressed with themselves to take the time to admire others.  This suggests that they are not humble, self-aware or that interested in pushing themselves to learn about different things or challenge their own assumptions.

There are possible valid reasons to not have any role models (of course), but the key is understanding the rationale.  One example I'll highlight is that it is often hard (but clearly not impossible) for aspiring woman entrepreneurs to find women role models who are extremely successful at building businesses while being sufficiently attentive to their families (this is a sufficiently large topic for books, let alone a tiny blog - and yes, society and guys in general need to do more here... topic for another day).

- Who are their role models?  Common answers are various celebrities because their persona embodies a particular ideal (musicians often do this well), parents or grandparents oftentimes cited for work ethic, balance or achievements both professionally and/or at home.  The more rare answers that I have heard are often stories of inspiration oriented around certain peers with admirable qualities that are subtle, such as a friend who exhibited great courage in a situation where she stood up against something she believed was wrong in the face of very strong social pressure, etc.  People admiring politicians and military leaders are also remarkably rare these days, which makes me sad and seems to be a reflection of our dysfunctional system.

There is no right answer clearly, I am mainly looking to understand what the person thinks is inspirational because I think that often is a window into their character and values (which of course is a strong predictor of future behavior) - and that's one of the primary things we're trying to evaluate.

I have had many role models throughout my life.  Some famous, most not.  I have also been inspired by a great many people, but would stop short of allocating the title of "role model" to them.  I am often inspired daily by the great actions or work of the many talented people at Riot, but I label someone a "role model" when it is their persona and value system that inspires me rather than an individual action.  The dictionary defines a role model as "a person looked to others as an example to be imitated" - and this passes the sniff test for me because many of my role models have done exactly that - I wanted to be more like them.

Here are two examples of people who I have referred to as role models:

Yes, I am a badass
Colin Powell - Colin Powell is an amazingly accomplished individual who overcame a huge amount of adversity in his life.  He was born in the 30's in Harlem, NY (tough time and tough neighborhood) and he was fortunate enough to stay out of trouble and join the military.  In the military he was wounded by a booby trap and later survived a helicopter crash.  Pretty formative and tough
experiences.  He became a 4 star general, later became the first black chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and all the while all reports say he stayed a "regular guy".  He apparently declined running for President despite his enormous popularity because he didn't want to deal with all of the crap associated with that (I read his "didn't have the fire in the belly" comment to mean, "there is too much BS to deal with and I'd rather solve problems directly") and later became the secretary of state.

But beyond his impressive career accomplishments despite his humble beginnings, the thing that resonated the most with me was his values and outlook on the world.  My mom gave me a plaque listing "Colin Powell's rules" when I was 13 years old and I still have it on my desk today.  His 13 rules are:

1. It ain't as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.
2. Get mad, then get over it.
3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.
4. It can be done!
5. Be careful what you choose. You may get it.
6. Don't let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
7. You can't make someone else's choices. You shouldn't let someone else make yours.
8. Check small things.
9. Share credit.
10. Remain calm. Be kind.
11. Have a vision. Be demanding.
12. Don't take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

From my perspective, these relatively simple rules are truly profound.  Without going into detail and analyzing each one, I'll instead leave them as is and let you take away what you will from them.

Matt Markis - Matt is not famous (at least not yet), but among those who know him, he is one of a kind.  Matt is one of the most humble, genuinely nice people who truly cares for others that you will ever encounter.  It is no wonder that he is now a Psychiatrist who helps people for a living.

I met Matt my freshman year of high school during hell week for football.  And my first encounter with him was essentially me being a complete douche.  Ages 12-14 were not great years for me - I was essentially a "shit head".  Being rude to people for no reason, thinking I was cool and doing a bunch of practical jokes that while oftentimes clever (at least I'll give myself that), they were completely destructive, harmful and often hurtful to other people - and I didn't even realize it.  I was completely in my own world.

Matt is the best at delaying gratification of
anyone I have ever met
So, back to how I met Matt.  I attended the middle school that fed into the high school, which meant I knew a lot more people that Matt who went to a different middle school.  So naturally, Matt was hanging with his friend Adam who also attended that same middle school because they didn't really know anyone else.  So I saw Matt sitting against a wall near the football field trying to find shade against the > 100 degree heat.

So, figuring that I would go meet the new guys, I walked up to them and asked, "Hey, do you guys like rap?" This was 1994 - gangsta rap was in full effect.  They looked at me, paused, shrugged a bit and said "yeah" - to which I replied, "losers!" or something like that and ran off.  I guess I thought I was really cool.

Wow - way to go me.  Matt and Adam were like - "who the hell was that douche"?

Over the next several months, Matt and I were not friends.  But he never held that initial meeting against me and over time as we played football together and had some of the same classes, we got to know each other better.  And I in particular started to notice something over time.

Matt was always calm, patient and easy going.  He was always on time for practice.  He always made every work out session.  He got great grades in school.  He got along with all different types of people and was never judgmental.  He was ridiculously consistent and he did this with a seemingly natural ease that simply emanated from him.  Matt was cool and people liked him for who he was.

In a nutshell, Matt wasn't a "try hard".

He just was who he was and it was great.  Matt had the most quiet confidence of anyone my age who I had ever encountered and it had a profound effect on me.  There was some inflection point where I realized, "wow, I want to be like him", where I genuinely didn't worry about trying to being perceived as clever, funny or cool - and it was far more impactful to ACTUALLY be those things because you ARE them and not because you had to TRY to be them.

I don't know exactly what clicked for me or how it did, but somehow I started to relax and change over time.  I started noticing subtle things other people did that I thought was neat and I'd compliment them.  Like, "Ray, I thought you did a great job with noticias (news) in Spanish class today", and other random comments - but they were genuine.  It was like my whole view of other people and the world was starting to shift.  I started to really appreciate lots of "different types" of people for who they really were, where as before I simply failed to take the time to notice.  This different perspective changed my behavior naturally over time in dramatic fashion (but of course still made mistakes as we all do).  I was still the same person, but the insecurities which caused lame behavior simply started to melt away - and I grew more self-confident which continued to generate more positive momentum for this change.  This gave me the confidence to stand up to a lot of situations - like defending people being bullied by other guys on the football team and fully embracing my hardcore gamer side publicly.  (Why, yes, I DO play D&D - why don't you?).  Later on Matt and I were both voted by our teammates to be co-captains of the football team (along with some other great guys) and we both reached the rank of Eagle Scout together (Matt really helped motivate me to not quit scouting despite all of the other pressures to stop participating).

I realized it takes a lot of hard work, self-reflection and discipline to actually be who you aspire to be day in and day out and that if you really want to change, you CAN change - but it takes time.

Somehow, by Matt being Matt, he changed this for me and it is a gift that I will forever cherish and he didn't even intentionally give.

Some of the homies - check out my afro!
Matt and I went on to become best friends and were roommates in college.  We shared many great adventures together, enjoyed many warm summer nights, philosophical debates, trials, tribulations and amazing times.  Matt is a great friend to this day, and this blog reminds me that I need to do a better job of staying in touch with him and many of the other great relationships that have been built over the years.

It is difficult to stay in touch as we all get older, have families, time-consuming careers, etc - but I will forever cherish how Matt and many of my other friends have challenged me, inspired me and helped me to become who I am today and who will help shape who I will continue to evolve to become in the future.

Let's all do our friends, loved ones and any role models that we may know a favor and let's let them know how meaningful they are to us.

And if you don't have any role models, ask yourself why that is and spend some time thinking deeply about who the person is that you want to be.  When you find that, it's likely that you'll notice some things about other people that you haven't seen before.

Marc "Tryndamere" Merrill


Thursday, June 6, 2013

Values as a Foundation

It's been a while since my last blog - my apologies for that!  It's been fun for me to see some comments on Twitter and elsewhere asking for additional blog posts; to continue my tradition of thinking out loud, maybe I can get into a more regular routine by posting shorter entries?  I fear those types of entries may be less compelling, but, to reference my previous entry re: goal alignment, I would say that the goal of my blog first and foremost is to serve as an outlet for my personal thoughts - so that is what I will attempt to do this morning.

It is 4:40am on Thursday June 6th and what is on my mind?

A couple things are happening that are interesting:
Hail Queen Ashe!
- My wife is due to give birth to our first child (boy!) in less than two weeks.  I am quite excited about this - I was the one twisting her arm for us to get rolling with starting a family, and she's been a champion (hah!).  Being a father is going to be quite an interesting journey and I'm very curious about the upcoming lessons and experiences; I've heard they are unlike pretty much anything else in life.
- Riot has continued to grow and take on more and more challenges.  While rapid growth is not exactly new for us (we went from 60 people to ~1,000 in roughly 3 years since launching League of Legends) many of the challenges are of a slightly different nature than many of the previous challenges because they relate to scale at unprecedented levels for the company.

What do these two events have in common?  They both:
- Have many unknowns associated with their futures
- Over time require more and more "letting go" from their creators
- Will only make their parents proud if the decisions they make are driven by strong values

Having a child and scaling a company may seem like an odd pairing, but I think the common attributes above are worth exploring a bit.

Why?  Because they both largely deal with lots of uncertainty and:
- Uncertainty causes fear
One of my best friends is a fire fighter - THAT is courage
- Fear can have many negative implications on human behavior
- Courage occurs only in the presence of fear (absence of fear is not courage - acting in the face of fear IS courage)
- Values are the thing that help people find the courage to overcome fear and do what is right

As I transition into becoming a father, it will be natural for me to be afraid for my child and to start planning for their future.  I will care deeply about his security, health, well-being, education, etc.  Naturally, I feel the same types of feelings for Riot for this is extremely common among entrepreneurs.  As you can see here there are many references to company's being "the babies" of their founders, and I know my co-founder Brandon feels the same way.

One of the current major focuses for the leadership team at Riot is "institutionalizing" the values of the company throughout the organization.  One of the primary reasons that Riot has been able to grow well is because the company has (to date) done a great job staying true to our values and actually having the reality of day to day operations reflect these values, rather than having them just be inscribed on the walls with lofty statements that are essentially ignored.  With this link I am not attempting to pass judgment or call out a very successful company whom I have a lot of respect for, I am merely pointing out the type of thing that is the number one issue which keeps me awake at night and causes me to come down into my basement to write blog entries like this during the wee hours of the morning.  This is the issue that causes me the most fear when I think about the future of Riot, and this is likely the same cause for concern I will have as I think about my son and his future.


Doing the right thing for players is our guiding beacon
Riot has largely been successful at building a values-driven company culture oriented around serving our players because we have a crystal clear mission statement: To be the most player-focused game company in the world - and this has been our guiding principle in the face of ambiguity, uncertainty and fear of the future.   In a nutshell, this crystal clear message helps orient Rioters towards decisions that do the right thing for our players over and over and over.  If we ever do the wrong thing for our players, it is most likely due to a flaw in execution, rather than the fact that the company is being motivated by something other than serving our players well (and while better, is still not good enough).  It has been nice to be recognized for our efforts here with various awards, but the best reward by far and away is actually seeing delighted players at events like this:

The League of Legends Season 2 World Championships was a historic event

Or seeing the "Thank you Riot" posts around the internet or that we get in personal interactions with players.

But, insert scale into the equation - IE - League of Legends being the most played online game in the world with tens of millions of players playing the game each month, and it is quite an amazing challenge to continue to deliver upon our promise to all players around the world day in and day out.  Ironically, our success has actually been our biggest challenge, because it takes time to create the service infrastructure necessary to carry out our mission in the far corners of the globe as effectively as our players need.  Again, we've done a pretty good job here overall, and while we've had our bumps in the road, we wouldn't be seeing the numbers we are seeing if players didn't see value in the service we are providing them. And in other news, we fortunately believe we are close to getting permanently over the hump from a service technology perspective - but we all know that "soon™" isn't good enough either.

Building effective infrastructure to support scale requires effective leadership and while great leadership is always difficult to come by at any level, it is a more familiar experience for many to lead small teams than it is to lead hundreds.  The leadership skills necessary to be effective "at scale" are different than those to be effective "in the trenches".  Both are necessary, and it has been an interesting challenge to personally grow to be capable of succeeding in this regard, especially because the way leadership success is largely achieved at scale is premised upon the ability of growing the leadership capacity of others to effectively achieve the multitude of initiatives we must accomplish.

(As a side note, on this topic, I think the Jesuits do a great job of teaching authentic leadership values as summarized by their motto, "men and women for others".)    

Finally, today's "amazing" becomes tomorrow's "expectations".  As Riot continues to create amazing experiences, we can't be simply satisfied by these or think "we've won" or "done enough".  The expectations of our players are not static - and thus, we must dynamically adjust to deliver value to them.

"Duh, everyone has one"
Just think about that smart phone you have with you.  Just a couple years ago these were the most magical devices on earth and now if your phone runs out of batteries, or doesn't have "X, Y or Z" features, "it sucks".  Good example of how quickly we become accustomed to new and amazing experiences.  What's the next amazing product or service Apple will provide?  The incremental improvement from the iPhone 5 to 6 likely won't be earth shattering.  Thus, one thing we continually challenge ourselves to become better at is to ensure that we stay abreast to what our players expectations are, and we come up with ways to exceed those expectations - over and over and over.

So what does all this have to do with values?  It means that in order to reliably deliver on our company's mission, at scale, as time goes on - IE - across the entire world, day in and day out, across every service we offer - from League of Legends, to the League Championship Series, to experiences we will offer in the future - it means we need the same elements that have enabled Riot to achieve what it has to date present in all aspects of the organization.

We believe those "elements" are the values of the organization that guide our decision-making.  Hence why the leadership of Riot is very focused on further defining the "who we are", the "how we work" and the "what we do" to help contextualize the nuances that we believe distinguish us as an organization from others and then ensuring that our key internal systems reflect and reinforce those values.  I'm now extremely confident in Riot's ability to institutionalize its values to help the company culture remain strong for years to come - but to be honest - for a period of time, I had some doubt.  We were expanding in many directions simultaneously, everyone on our leadership team was extremely busy and focusing on different areas, and many of us felt a looming shadow.  We hadn't quite succeeded at defining the problem we sensed well enough, and that ambiguity caused some fear and uncertainty for a time.

The answer?  Go back to our roots.  Our values.  Define them.  Live them.  Institutionalize them.  When the foundation is solid, we have the strength to deal with the unseen challenges that loom ahead.  We will have the courage to face down the difficult decisions, Rioters will remind themselves about their deep understanding of the company's values and they'll do the right thing.  Hopefully, by being proactive here we will avoid major culture crises that face many companies, but we can never assume we're out of the woods and we must remain vigilant.      

My current perspective is that it would be wise to take a similar approach with my son.  But how?

Religion has often served this purpose well for humanity, as a grounding mechanism to align communities around shared values.  Yet neither my wife nor I are religious (although we were both raised with religious traditions and values of different faiths), and although we respect and appreciate the values that exist in many, one question we have is how to effectively transfer the strong values we share into our child in the absence of an easy to lean on framework that is so often provided by religion.

Einstein is win
Such is a question that will likely take years for us to answer however - and it may be one that we never answer fully.  But, I take assurance in that by identifying the problem, we can continue to make progress on a solution - and I believe that understanding and defining the problem is the most important to step to problem solving.

As the great Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

The role of the leader is not necessarily to be the person who comes up with the solution, but you have to be darn sure you are the person with the wisdom to choose the right answer since you are accountable for the outcome of the decisions.  When you have trouble understanding what the "right" answer is, go back to your roots.

Go back to your values.

My wife and I aspire for our son to have sufficient courage to do the right thing in the face of challenge and adversity.  If we mean that as much as we think we do, then we had better do a good job of raising him with strong values.

Wish us luck!

 Marc "Tryndamere" Merrill

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Importance of Goal Alignment

Another early morning (5am this time), another blog post - a trend that will continue?  We shall see.  What's on my mind this morning?

One of the central themes that has been continually reinforced to me throughout my life  through a myriad of experiences is the concept of "goal alignment".  This is a related topic to my last blog post titled "The Importance of Swimming Upstream", in that one of the most frequent "upstream" causes to many interpersonal arguments or organizational scenarios that have poor results can be traced back to a lack of "goal alignment".

What do I mean when I say "goal alignment"?

First, the definition of goal: the result or achievement toward which effort is directed; aim; end.
Now the definition of alignment: a state of agreement or cooperation among persons, groups, nations, etc., with a common cause or viewpoint.

So when I refer to "goal alignment", I am referring to a state of agreement or cooperation among persons, groups, nations, etc, with a common cause or viewpoint striving to achieve a particular end.

It should be fairly self-evident as to why this is a fundamental and important concept that is central to any type of effort which requires diverse teams and large numbers of people.

My perspective on this subject have primarily been formed by a diverse set of experiences throughout my life.  On the micro level, I was exposed to both effective and ineffective teams through experiences on sporting teams, boy scouts, school projects, role-playing groups such as Dungeons & Dragons, or through playing MMO's (you learn a lot of useful skills from gaming to all you eye-rollers out there.)  It is often from these type of experiences where people develop an intuitive knack for this skill.  One interesting phenomenon is that business schools often focus on a group learning model because teamwork is so fundamental to business, whereas law schools do not - and I would assume that therein lies an interesting opportunity for leaders in the legal field since law firms are businesses too, but alas, I digress.

On the macro level, my perspective has largely been initially shaped by my educational background and subsequently by my experience building a global & successful organization.

At the University of Southern California, I majored in Political Science and minored in Psychology.  I was undecided for my initial two years, because I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do and I dabbled in a great many subjects, such as Physics and Philosophy.  I was an "OK" student who seemed to always do just enough to get some A's but mostly B's.  I spent a good amount of time "socializing" and a lot of time gaming.  But I have always been fascinated with human motivation and wanted to understand why people do what they do.

On the micro level I was interested in questions like:
- What drives altruism?
- Why would "normal people" commit violence?
- What drives addiction?
- What is love?
- Etc

On the macro level I wanted to understand:
- Why would a normal population of humans follow despots and do terrible things?
- What drives people to sacrifice themselves for a cause such as suicide bombers or Kamikaze pilots?
- Why do people follow leaders in the first place?
- Etc

I learned a lot of interesting things through my studies, some of the most important takeaways being:
- The power and importance of values and their impact on individual decision-making and behavior
- The power of ideology at the macro level and how this shapes values (and thus drives behavior)

The quick summary is that our values are one of the most important and fundamental motivators of behavior.  In short, at the micro level, people do what they think makes sense in accordance with their values, most of the time.  Most exceptions come through exceptional circumstances like being intoxicated, psychosis, etc.  This may sound extremely simple, and it is.  Policemen, as an example, often believe that the simplest explanation is most often right through centuries of experience tracking down bad guys - if the husband had the most motivation to kill his wife, he probably did it.  Scientists are familiar with the same concept, and it is a form of reasoning known as Occam's Razor.  For those not familiar, it's worth taking a moment to read about.  

Thus, at the micro level of the individual across all of humanity, if we believe this to be the case, then we can conclude that people do what they are doing because they think the act makes sense.  Read that again and then think about the implications of that on how you see the world.  This means it can be assumed that every individual, including those in groups whom you cannot relate to all, such as jihadists, communists, religious zealots, democrats and republicans - they all believe what they believe and are acting rationally.  Yes, this means that suicide bombers go through a rational decision making process to determine that it makes sense to strap a bunch of dynamite to their chest and blow it up on a bus full of Israeli school children.  Their decision making process is informed by their values (family, god, love of their culture, etc), their social circumstances (many of the strong personalities they know admire are extremists) and sometimes by extrinsic rewards.

Now what are the implications of this?

This means that if you want to adjust human behavior consistently and permanently, then you need to address their values.  Ruh roh - that sounds difficult.  Well, that's because it IS difficult.  People form their values over many years, are creatures of habit and we have these pesky laws of physics which remind us that objects need force applied against them to adjust their state and trajectory.  In short, humans are notoriously resistant to change.

So if you're a leader of a government institution, business, organization, or otherwise want to accomplish something that you cannot do by yourself, how can you do this?  What "force" can change people's trajectory?  Well, there is a massive amount of literature on the subject of change, so we clearly can't even scratch the surface here.  But what we can do is cut to the chase and tie this back together to "goal alignment" and why this matters.

And this is where ideology comes in - or - put a slightly different way, the power of ideas.  And this is where true leadership shines.  Great leaders authentically represent a particular idea and inspire people (oftentimes, even extremely diverse populations) to act in accordance with the goal that the leader wants to accomplish by relating the goal to the population's values and getting them to contextualize the goal within their personal frame of reference.

There are numerous examples throughout history of leaders who excelled at this.

Ghandi was a tremendous leader who exemplified the ideals he espoused of non-violent protest and inspired hundreds of millions of people to succeed at creating a self-governed India.

Martin Luther King Jr. fought against the status quo of racial segregation and drove the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

John F. Kennedy inspired the United States through a time of national crisis in competition with the USSR and is largely credited with leading the efforts to successfully put a man on the moon - and let's talk about this for a moment, because this is a great example of leadership.

I mentioned in the previous entry that "a problem well stated is a problem half-solved".  When you apply that concept to the challenge of leadership, some leadership responsibilities quickly become apparent.  Leaders must:

1. Identify the right problem to solve (ie. set the correct goal.)
2. Clearly communicate WHAT the goal is and WHY it is important
3. Own the responsibility of execution and inspire confidence that the goal is achievable

JFK did all of the above when he kicked off the Space Race.  He identified that we need to put a man on the moon.  He clearly communicated the goal to the nation and why it was important, kicking it off with his "We Choose the Moon Speech" and he took responsibility for execution by funding the Apollo program and ensuring the team had the support they would need to succeed with the best and most credible scientists on earth.

The ability to organize people around clear goals is one of the central characteristics of effective leaders at the macro level.

Leaders have followers.  Being the boss does not make you the leader, it makes you a manager, and there is a massive difference.  People WANT to follow leaders and a leader derives their power and authority because it is granted to them by their followers and they are inspired to action.  Managers by contrast, derive their power and authority from an organizational hierarchy that gives them the ability to punish and reward those individuals that they are responsible for.  Both management and leadership are critical (and I'll likely write more on the subject another time), but understanding their differences and where and how to apply each of the practices is critical to accomplishing big hairy audacious goals or BHAG's such as putting a man on the moon.

Why would people want to follow other people?  It's simple.  It's because they believe in where they are going.

That's it.

Stated more eloquently, we can say people most often want to follow leaders because of the values or ideals that their persona, ideas or actions represent.

Whether it is at the group level, the department level, the organization level, the municipality, the state, the country or the world level, the same principle holds true and the reality is that many of the best leaders, are NOT managers!  They are team members, moms, passionate volunteers, etc.  Ideas don't need to be massive in scope - small acts can often be the most powerful.  They inspire people with their actions.  "I want to be as great to my children as Sally is to hers".  Many notable musicians inspire millions because they authentically "represent" a particular cause or value system.

On a personal note, I was deeply inspired by someone who later became my best friend in high school because of his quiet confidence, general friendliness and commitment to his values.  He didn't need to try to be like everyone else and he didn't need to "try hard" - he just was an honest, hardworking, generally nice person with quiet confidence.  I wanted to be like him and his presence and daily behavior changed my life.

But leaders all have one thing in common: they can cause a group of people to act.  There are many people with great ideas who don't do anything with them.  A lot of people have great ideas, but few make them a reality.

Brandon Beck and I founded Riot Games in September of 2006 and our mission was to be the most player-focused game company in the world.  This mission has been our guiding principle which informs our strategic decisions and inspires all 800 of us around the globe to work our butts off to try to figure out how to delight gamers around the world with the best gaming experience and service possible.  THAT is what drives the individuals at Riot and this is one of the key reasons we have been able to seemingly come out of nowhere to create the biggest game in the world with our first game.  Riot has a nearly insane zealousness for doing the right thing for our players - the company's ideology is aligned with the values of all Rioters, which in turn drives our behavior.   Our audience recognizes this and appreciates for what it is - a genuine, values driven approach to do the best thing on them.

It is shocking to me that this is something that is rare in the professional world.  The organizations that do this most effectively have managed to effectively execute the steps I listed above, where they clearly communicate why they exist (the problem they are trying to solve), what they do to address that problem and then they assure operational execution aligns with these goals.  A great example of an organization that does this well is the United States Marine Corps.  You probably all instantly assume a number of things the moment I mention them - such as discipline, effectiveness, toughness, honor, etc.  Why don't all organizations function this effectively?  Many businesses and governments suffer from demotivated and dissatisfied workers.

I assume that the non-profit world does a better job here of creating passion driven organizations where employees are intrinsically motivated, but why?  Organizations are fundamentally driven by purpose.  Why have so many leaders failed to align people and get them engaged in the goal of the company, organization or team?

Well, it's simple really.  Because they failed to do this:

1. Identify the right problem to solve (ie. set the correct goal.)
2. Clearly communicate WHAT the goal is and WHY it is important
3. Own the responsibility of execution and inspire confidence that the goal is achievable

Leaders at all levels of organizations have this responsibility.  And the reality is we are failing at this as a society.  We suffer from a critical shortage of effective leadership throughout all aspects of society and our leaders fail for different reasons; one of the most common reasons is their inability to execute.

Fixing this means first developing a better understanding of what effective leadership is and why it's important.  Consider this tiny blog entry a tiny step in the right direction, but hopefully we'll make some progress at codifying best practices at Riot that we can share more broadly as time goes on.  In the meantime, for those interested, I suggest you start reading what Harvard Business Review has to say on the subject.

At the end of the day, the bottom line is that the way you drive meaningful change with humans is by getting people aligned on a particular goal and inspiring them to take effective action.  This happens by getting people to appreciate why the goal is important and inspiring confidence in people that it CAN be accomplished.  This requires authenticity, commitment, creativity, a willingness to challenge convention and many other elements.  Hopefully this post will inspire a couple of you that leadership is a subject worth learning more about and will ultimately inform some of your action in the future.

"All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem."  - Martin Luther King, Jr.

- Marc "Tryndamere" Merrill

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Importance of Swimming Upstream

Well this is unexpected... today would seem to be one of my typical early mornings (woke up at 4am), yet instead of hopping on League of Legends, reading Reddit, working out, or engaging in one of my usual pre-sunrise activities, I have decided to start a blog.

I have considered starting a blog for quite some time now.  The concept has always seemed somewhat sexy to me: a place to collect my thoughts, to share my ideas with the world and to get feedback from random denizens of the internet.  Clearly exciting stuff   0_o

What spurred me into action?

Although several times prior I have "fantasized" about starting a blog, the most recent singular causal event would have to be the conclusion of the elections around the nation this past week because watching the experience unfold was such a wonderful reminder of just how silly our current political process is.  Yes, silly. (And special shout-out to my wife for breaking the "silence" that "normal people" like us conclude is the polite and most rational option for fear of offending people or coming off as abrasive - she has instead been diving headlong into debates).

Why do I use "silly" to describe our process for selecting our representatives to govern us?  Because I fundamentally believe that this media-frenzy spectacle that succeeds in capturing a large amount of attention from the world is actually ignoring the issues that matter more.

So that begs the question, what issues really matter then?   I need a term for these issues, so let's call them "upstream" issues.

But to understand and appreciate "upstream" issues, we need to explore what issues were being discussed first and then contrast that with what I believe matters more.

This presidential election was fairly standard as American elections go:
- There was a Republican candidate (Romney) and a Democratic candidate (Obama).
Trolls LOVE the election process
- Total campaign spending estimated to reach $6 billion
Hundreds of millions of dollars was spent on TV ads, ~88% of which were negative
- The campaigns started well over a year ago and many agree the process is far too long
- Americans continue to be polarized with both sides pointing the finger at the other with many debates turning ugly

The primary platform for each candidates can be summarized as below:
Obama's platform was:
- Taxes: extend middle class tax cuts & tax the rich more
- Abortion rights: yay pro choice
- Gay Marriage: yay gay marriage
- Immigration: documentation / path to citizenship
- Medicare: support medicare more
- Healthcare: attempt universal healthcare
- Defense: cut defense budget

Romney's platform was more comprehensive, but he attempted to simplify his message and focus it on jobs.  And at the end of the day, his message didn't resonate with people, he came off as wishy-washy, he let himself be positioned as a corporate bad guy and he lost.

Now I'm not even going to debate the merits of each platform.  That is not the point of this post.  Sure, I can talk about why we're spending too much and why more taxes aren't the answer, but the point of this post is to highlight what is missing and what we are NOT talking about - because that is FAR more important in my opinion (IMO).

Both candidates, and virtually every election around the country was focused on coloring between the lines.  Staying within the usual frame of reference for the average person.  Clinging to the familiar.  They were talking about issues.

They were NOT talking about the PROCESS by which we actually solve the problems and address the issues.  And THIS is where our focus should be until we FIX it.

Let me walk through an example to explain why this is important, and highlight what is missing when we skip this step and move straight into discussion about the details (as my anecdotal experience suggests most political debates devolve quickly into):

Topic: Education!
Background facts:
US primary schools (highschools) underperform vs. the rest of the world despite spending more money per head than other countries.
- Contrast this result with the fact that US Universities are world class and largely considered the best in the world
Goal: To achieve world class status with our primary school education system
It's a fairly safe assumption to assume the vast majority of people in the US are aligned with the goal that we want our education system to be world class and effective.  Thus, we can assume that we have goal alignment, that we want our children to learn and perform well in school.

How to achieve this?
We should explore and openly discuss the best way to accomplish our clearly defined goal, yes?

Well, we don't.

In places like California (where I happen to live), there is largely the assumption that the only way to help schools perform better is to increase funding to them, as exemplified by prop 30, which recently passed in California and will have the effect of raising taxes on the "wealthy" and where there is no guarantee all of the proceeds will go to schools.

Per the step above about the goal, I would wager that the 46% of the people who voted against prop 30 still share the goal of wanting education to be great.  So why would someone vote against something that would increase funding for schools?  They probably voted against it because they have a perspective that is informed by different information which forms their opinion that this proposal is not the most effective way to address the issue (which again, they likely ALSO want to solve because they are aligned on the goal).

This is really where politics starts to get interesting, and where "upstream" issues start to matter.  Oftentimes, the devil IS in the details, and once you achieve goal alignment, the next step should be a focus on understanding the "upstream" causes of the problem you are trying to solve.

So if we want to solve the education issue in our state, country, county or local school, what should our approach be?  Should we just throw money at the problem?  Maybe money is part of the solution, but it is not THE solution.

The solution is a PROCESS.  We should solve the problem the same way we solve virtually every other tough problem humanity has ever faced:

Step 1: understand the problem.  There is an old adage  that "a problem well stated is a problem half solved".

Step 2: understand key metrics to establish a baseline and measure progress

This has more steps - but you get the point 
Step 3: create and implement a solution

Step 4: measure the impact and results of the solution

Step 5: Evaluate results

Step 6: Iterate and start back at step 1

The key issue that I want to highlight with this blog post is that our current political system BREAKS THIS KEY PROBLEM SOLVING PROCESS.

The more dependencies exist across different types of government (federal, local, state, etc) and the more layers of bureaucracy (meaning, the more government bodies that have responsibility over the area) the LESS able this process is able to execute.  This is not just true for the government, this is also true for large organizations such as NGO's and Corporations.  (Someone send me a chart that shows the directional relationship there and I'll add it to this post.)

Further confounding these problems is anything else which occludes transparency or obfuscates accountability.  What else occludes transparency and obfuscates the issues?
- Special interest groups
            - super PAC's
            - Unions
            - industry lobbying groups
- Ineffective media coverage

Why are special interest groups bad?  Because they essentially funnel large amounts of resources to drive government action to benefit themselves (as opposed to the whole, diverse population).  This leads to all sorts of negative "downstream" consequences like bad teachers that can't be fired, subsidies for specific industries which give them an unfair competitive advantage (corn, what?), and examples of industries such as the music industry who cling to the old trying to protect the outdated status quo and try to get laws passed to stop technology progress despite what consumers want (iTunes anyone?).

As to the media, this can be summarized by the fact that humans are prone to confirmation bias.  Thus, if you're a Democrat, you probably watch CNN or MSNBC and read the Huffington Post.  If you're a Republican, you probably watch Fox news and read the Drudge Report.  Conveniently, the information you're exposed to on a day to day basis from the news (but also your social circle) largely reaffirms your beliefs, as opposed to challenging them with the validity of the other perspective.  

If you care about the future of our states, country, cities and local governments, then focus on raising visibility with your social circles about these UPSTREAM causes that can really be summarized by three problems:
- Bureaucratic government structure & inefficiency
- Special interest groups
- Confirmation bias through media

It literally doesn't matter what your primary issue is - gay rights, abortion, healthcare, national security, education, economic growth - the issue that is blocking "progress" in those areas all stem from the same upstream systemic issues.  If you want to fix our society, start with fixing yourself and get out there and start looking for a broader perspective and be open to the possibility that the "other side" has merit to their perspective and is also well-intentioned.

Everything else is short term.  Seriously.

- Marc "Tryndamere" Merrill

PS - It is simultaneously possible to be ideologically for something, yet against the specific implementation details of the actual legal proposal.  It would be nice if the media and our citizens would stop characterizing people as "flip-floppers" that take this rational perspective, and instead start applauding this discerning use of judgment.  IE - a person can be pro-universal healthcare (as a concept), but against the specific proposal which may be too expensive, ineffective, etc.

Don't be afraid to rational.  It's OK.