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.