Michael Anton Dila, one of the cofounders of Overlap, recently gave a talk at the BIF conference. He starts with his frustration with the question “What do you do?”, as he can never answer it. He then talks about Overlap and the community that has built around it (Overlap is full of people who don’t fit into traditional jobs, including myself). But I like the way he describes what he does at the end: “My job is to make other people unhappy…I want people to stay unhappy, and unsatisfied with the present, so that they can’t help themselves but change it.”
This description meshes well with what I’ve been up to at Google – at a recent strategy offsite, one of the directors said after my presentation, “Eric, why do you always have to start these things by making us unhappy?” But I consider it to be my job to not let people be satisfied with the status quo, but to think ahead to the next challenge.
I took a leadership seminar a few years ago at Google on Adaptive Leadership. The facilitators described two kinds of challenges: technical and adaptive. Technical challenges are those where you know what to do, you just have to continue what you’re doing, and it will eventually pay off (six sigma is built for handling these types of challenges). Adaptive challenges are those where the rules of the game have changed, and doing what worked before will likely lead to failure. Another way to describe it would be incremental vs. disruptive innovation.
One thing they taught us in that seminar was that to get those around you to recognize that they are facing an adaptive challenge rather than a technical challenge is to turn up the heat. People will instinctively cling to what they already know, so to increase their willingness to change and try something new, you have to get them out of their comfort zone. So I think what Michael Dila is describing as making people unhappy is this process of getting people around you to recognize that change is coming, so that they can rally to deal with it, rather than ignore or hide from it.
I don’t know if I like describing what I do as instigating unhappiness, as that seems negative. But I can’t deny that it has been a consistent theme to my career. I’ve never been satisfied with the status quo at the companies I worked at – I always saw ways in which things could be better, and would let people know. Early in my career, I was very blunt about such things (it turns out that telling the CEO of the startup you work at that he’s an idiot at an all hands meeting is not effective at changing his behavior, even if it’s true). I’ve learned more subtle ways to turn up the heat since then, including showing metrics that beg for certain questions to be asked, instead of asking the questions myself. I’ve also learned that these problems are generally too big for one person to fix on their own, so part of making change happen is creating the awareness of the need to change – finding allies and rallying them to change, rather than trying to go it alone.
I still struggle with the balance of challenging the status quo vs. being happy and thankful. This often comes up when I talk to other Googlers – we will complain about how things could be better, but then stop to remind ourselves that we work at one of the poshest companies in the world, which pays us extremely well, lets us work on interesting problems, and caters to our every need. I think I’ve found a reasonable balance at work, but this is something I continue to work on in my personal life, which will be the subject of another follow-up post.
What do you think about being an instigator of unhappiness? Is this a role you see yourself in? Why or why not? I’m curious what my friends and readers think.