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


  1. Hey Trynd! Polisci student from the school that's going to beat you guys in football this weekend; similar fascinations about human conflict drove me into the major. Reading through your post, the point you make about leaders' responsibility to execute really struck a chord in me. There's been many occasions where I chose not to commit myself to something for fear that it'd all be a giant waste of time, and instead I keep finding excuses to convince myself that not committing was the right choice to make. Your post has given me lots of insight on the importance of individual values and the impact one can make by living by them. Thanks, and keep the awesome posts rolling!

  2. Another solid blog Merrill, and another challenge to respond. You touch on a lot of great points that I feel strongly about, that you have once again have articulated very well. I guess most of us know it, but cannot always explain it, and can rarely do it for ourselves.

    I have been motivated by the idea of goal oriented processes for most of my life. Where most people would spend time complaining about the problem, I was thinking about the solution. In the past I have come off as cold and mechanical under these circumstances, but when the problem is solved the people who were busy complaining are now thankful for the resolution. My hope has always been that the sacrifice of personal emotion in that moment of time has been well spent for the greater good.

    While I have tried to keep emotion out of the problem solving, I have made extra effort to keep positive emotions where they are generally lacking! One of the many elements I appreciated about the Riot Games environment was the positive atmosphere, no matter the conditions. In my experience as a leader, I have found that a positive outlook, even in the face of hardship, has help motivate and drive even the greatest pessimists.

    I am also greatly moved by your relationship with Brandon, someone who I would have loved very much to get to know better while I was at Riot. I have never had a best friend for longer than four or five years, generally because they would move away or we would simply grow apart. So I have not had same inspiration from a peer in quite some time. Of course there are a lot of people I look up too, and learn from on a regular basis, but very few who are right here with me doing it for the first time with the same goals. That said, I think what you guys have is great, and I hope I find someone as equally inspiring to travel through life with. In the platonic way of course haha, I still have Sonja!

    I have been inspired by Riot Games leadership and for some time now Google's, and I aim to bring that level of quality and experience to my life and the businesses I help build. Hopefully sooner than later my own!

  3. Hey Marc, former Marine here.

    I like your mention of the USMC, but I will be honest and say that it is mostly hype and marketing that makes the USMC out to be full of excellent, motivated leaders.

    The USMC is like any other organization, and it falls short in a lot of ways when it comes to promoting the right people and properly motivating individuals to do their jobs. Marines share a lot of common values, which does help, but it does not mean that everyone has the same view on how to accomplish a task. Because the wrong leaders get frequently promoted, inept leadership is super prevalent in the USMC. NCOs regularly have minimal experience at their job, and their more skilled suboordinates have to regularly deal with poor judgment calls. Combine this with a culture of negative reinforcement and hazing, and you end up with an organization that is really not a stand-out group.

    They are really good at shooting guns though. Good read regardless, just that Marines are a bad example!

  4. I loved the point about being in charge not equating to being a leader. It's so eloquent and is something I wish that people could understand as well as you do. It isn't really that hard of a concept to grasp, which you demonstrated by articulating precisely. Being a high school student, it's very frustrating, yet common, to see people who are in leadership positions but can't quite figure out how to lead. It's such a simple concept but can be something nearly impossible for some people to apply to their actions. Even grown adults have this problem, among others. I'd also like to say that it is my dream, right now, to complete my first year of college, which is next year, and apply for an internship at Riot. I really enjoyed reading this entry, and I hope to see more!

  5. Another good post--

    (Interesting point in the comments, I think this is the first time I've heard someone say "former Marine". I'm sure they have their flaws, but the dedication and mission of creating that culture and persona is valid and, from an outside perspective at least, is very effective.)

    Spot on with "Being the boss doesn't make you a leader"--in 2 of the 3 examples, the leaders were NOT the boss. Neither appointed nor elected, Ghandi and MLKing were absolutely leaders.

    Finding ways to inspire and expose people to new values is a key to swimming upstream. I was once told I had a knack for getting people to do what I wanted, but I believe it more accurate to say I have a bit of talent in providing the context so that it's a shared value and goal.

    In the uncomfortable examples of the suicide bombers mentioned earlier, with rare exceptions some people CHOOSE to do that, want it even. Brainwashing? Maybe, sometimes. That's often and easy out for those things us "rational" people cant identify with. Regardless, there's still a context and inspiration (even if for evil) that's been instilled.

    Finally, "Clearly communicate WHAT the goal is and WHY it is important" might be tuned a bit. It's not just communicating this, is bringing the contributors together to BELIEVE in that goal. Arrange the right people and if the answer to "do we want to do this thing?" and "should we do this thing?" is Yes, then the answer to "CAN we do this thing" will also always be Yes.

    When's the next post?

  6. Very insightful. The one qualm that I have with this post is that in some ways it neglects the non-leadership roles that can often be essential to an effective institution. Often, because leaders can be so focused on important goals they can accidentally neglect the people following and supporting them in achieving their goals. I think it is always important for a leader to have a counter-balance, or a trusted friend/advisor, who can reorient his focus occasionally so as to not let people fall through the cracks on the path to the completion of a goal. A leader who can continuously focus on serving and caring for his followers is the ideal, but leaders are rarely capable of achieving this on their own. The story of King Arthur comes to mind.

  7. What I find most interesting in this post is that good leaders/organizations (at least from your perspective) seem to have a drive that goes beyond themselves. In other words, the business/etc. exists for more that the survival of the founder. As in Riot's case, your passion is players (summarized quickly) and creating the best customer(player) to company repoire as possible NOT "Hey, I'm an inspiring person and I know these great programmers, let's make a game to survive."

    I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on finding what drives [you]. In other words, finding "the problem" one wants to be solved. Or the cause beyond "subsistence" that drives someone/ a company. Do you think that "vision" or "the solution" is something found (as in I was living my life and at 35 I suddenly became passionate about it), or if it is innately in someone/company but has to be uncovered (I didn't realize it was a passion in me/us the whole time but I just had to observe the pattern of my/our values/lifestyle)?

    1. That being said, great post again. Looking forward to the next one as always.

  8. I really enjoyed reading your post. It made me think about my relationship with my best friend. We work for the same company, are roomates, play league and pursue the funniest projects together (like learning how to melt glass).

    Sometimes we start to argue over the most stupid reason ever, but when we look at each other and say: dude, we are best friends and our friendship is above anything. If one of us say this, BINGO, it is enough to stop the argument. We also always find a way to fix any problem.

    I am happy that we are always aligned with our goal to be friends above anything, but your post is so cool, because it shows the importance to "clearly communicate" to each other. We need to improve a lot on that one, so it is always good to be reminded about it.

    In addition, from mine and my best friend's experience, I would suggest you to add an extra step in your 3 step list: Love, support and understand each other above the goal itself.

    And yeah man, I know it is not a big help, but I am trying my best to contribute to the Tribunal. Hopefully our fellow players will soon live in a community where we ALL love, help and understand each other (no newbie will be left behind, not even the toxic ones - dude, I used to be a toxic player myself, but I got my game straight). League is the future of esports. Trust what I am saying. I love the game you made, it is one of the best things that happened in my life since 2009.

    Thank you so much and please post more stuff for us to read!!!

  9. Another blog from a successful entrepreneur I look forward to following.

  10. Marc. with money from hallowen did you will repair euw?