Your Company’s Hidden Killer

If you run a company, country or cult you might think your biggest enemy is a competitor. Or time. But there’s a far, far greater enemy: self editing. The two biggest constrictions your company faces is the good ideas people don’t have, and the much worse outcome: the great ideas people self-edit into oblivion.

This happens because good people are often self-critical. They constantly introspect. Constantly try to improve and re-train their model of the world. A nasty byproduct of this is that they occasionally discard great ideas. It’s vital to ensure this doesn’t happen. But how? Humans respond to incentives. You just need to set up the right petri dish.

Train a good RL algorithm. People watch leaders closely. They will try to model for positive outcomes based on what’s happened in the past. If you reward particular ideas, you’ll get more of them. This is very potent in a group setting (like a meeting). People really want their peers to know the leader respects them. I’d make sure to constantly reward non-linear thinking. Interestingly, I believe negative feedback (“that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard”) is fine. You can’t be all platitudes. You just need go out of your way to highlight the good stuff (“now that’s a fantastic idea”), when it happens.

New employee requests. New hires have fresh perspective and optimism. This tapers over time, as they learn and as they struggle to push initiatives through the company. You’ll notice many new hires share a repeated trope of suggestions and ideas (“We should fix that HR tool! It really sucks”). Those suggestions are never enacted. This data is very special: it’s your Thoughtcrime. A collection of things the organization trains you against thinking (“all internal tools will suck forever”). As a leader, pay close attention to it and occasionally execute one of those new employee ideas, to great fanfare.

Force unscheduled interaction. Conversing with others is how we refine and sharpen ideas. It’s also how we generate many of of them. Meetings don’t work: the unscheduled conversations are often the most important. To my occasional dismay, Apple was very frugal with the number of bathrooms it had. There was a lot of walking with a full-bladder. Steve Jobs chose this design because it increased the odds of a serendipitous encounter. I’m not suggesting you shut down all of your restrooms. But be on the lookout for other ways to make it conducive to talk during downtime. Especially meals. Every time someone is eating alone in front of their monitor, think of the conversations they’re not having! Offer tastier food to those that eat with people, especially if they don’t normally work with them.

In summary, make sure to publicly reward unconventional action and thinking. Setup your organization to talk to each other. Generate an open-minded organism rich with weird concepts.