Instigating unhappiness

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.

3 thoughts on “Instigating unhappiness

  1. Heh. This resonates with me, which is probably unsurprising. I think one thing you hit on in the end re: balance makes more sense than you think. When smart, engaged people are bitching about something, even if they’re aware they have most things good, it usually signals that there is room for improvement. Some people say, “Eh, whatever,” and don’t think about it after that, and some people see the opportunity for improvement and seize it.

    I think a lot of places train you out of seizing that opportunity, because yeah, it’s uncomfortable and why can’t you just be fucking satisfied? But it’s valuable to be able to step back from the desire for stability and “good enough” and particularly for people in positions of leadership & power, the difference between a good leader and a bad one is whether they can listen for those moments or not.

  2. I’ve been having a lot of conversations about this recently.
    I took up some university lecturing part time as part of a project to reactivate some of my intellectual explorations. Now after a few terms, the nature of the institution that I joined has pushed me to a breaking point. Talking about it, the key issue is that I (and yes, I’m another MIT grad) am just not satisfied with an environment that concentrates on ignoring the adaptive challenges.

    Or, as I phrased it in one conversation, I believe in excellence. Now I’ve been in business long enough to know that sometimes excellence has to take a back seat to money considerations, but… It’s one thing to honestly say “this is an adaptive challenge we don’t have the energy/money/time to face right now” and it’s another to say “things are ok really, we just have to keep on the way we always have.”

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