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What's Your Default?

by Polly LaBarre on August 10, 2011


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What's Your Default?

As dispiriting as the recent debt ceiling dysfunction drama has been, the most disturbing plot point is not that our leaders can’t seem to compromise—but that they are so compromised. While the pundits continue to parse the no-win “deal” and the bloviators bemoan the failures of leadership, the rest of us might take the opportunity to consider the benefits of being uncompromising.

The most winning and progressive organizations depend less on the strength of their leaders than on the strength of their convictions (which should never be confused with political positions). Instead of putting people on pedestals (from which they are invariably knocked down), the focus is on putting stakes in the ground (from which they will never deviate).

This is no small thing—matching up behavior to belief day in and day out. But it is precisely the thing that separates the best of us from the rest of us. What organization today doesn’t have a soaring vision, lofty values, and towering ambition? But how many of them make good on their intentions in every interaction with their people, their customers, their wider community (or are even honest about the challenges and failures they inevitably meet in the process)? What individual, for that matter, lives up to her highest ideals (or even her most mundane aspirations—to eat well, exercise regularly, meet deadlines) with satisfying regularity? Certainly too few.

But those that do offer two very clear lessons about sticking to your convictions.

First, staying true starts with announcing your intentions in such stark terms it’s impossible to back away. Take Australian software company Atlassian’s ruling value: “Open company, no bullshit.” No bones. The message couldn’t be more clear: “Atlassian embraces transparency wherever at all practical, and sometimes where impractical. All information, both internal and external, is public by default, We are not afraid of being honest with ourselves, our staff, and our customers.”

They are also not afraid to draw a line in the sand—to definitively declare what they stand for (and what they won’t).

When Rollin King drew a simple triangle on a whiskey-stained cocktail napkin forty-five years ago and labeled the corners “Dallas,” “San Antonio,” and “Houston”—he was drawing such a line and Southwest Airlines’ point-to-point, low-fare, low-cost alternative to flying for the few and the well-to-do was born. That wasn’t just an operational model. For forty years, Southwest has stood for the “freedom to move about the country,” and every decision—from focusing the fleet on 737s to perfecting the rapid turnaround to choosing the ticker symbol “LUV”—has been judged on the basis of whether it advances the cause of giving regular folks the same freedom and flexibility to travel as the wealthy.

In another business practically synonymous with defaulting on the dreams of its customers, ING Direct grew to be one of the largest and most successful online banks over the last decade on the basis of its zealous advocacy for savings even in the midst of the decade of debt. The simple statement “ING Direct exists to help you save your money,” guides the bank’s unwavering support of the “little guy” all-too-often forgotten by the big banks—whether that takes the form of offering the highest possible interest rates (such as they are these days), adding interest on checking as well as savings accounts, and eradicating fees and minimum deposits. The company’s radical devotion to thrift in a spendthrift world has attracted 7.5 million customers, $82 billion in deposits—and a $9 billion offer from Capital One Financial earlier this summer.

These are refreshing and inspiring aspirations in a world of murky and generic mission statements. But just as important, they are a powerful lever for aligning behavior and guiding decisions from micro-choices to sweeping strategic moves. That’s the second lesson of uncompromising companies: they frame their dreams in terms of defaults so individuals don’t have to fight gravity, route around organizational norms, or even think too hard in order to do the right thing. Think of it as the organizational equivalent of a factory pre-set or an “opt-out” check box rather than an “opt-in.”

As John Rotenstein describes in his story about Atlassian’s “open information culture," (a finalist for the HBR/McKinsey Management 2.0 Challenge), “information sharing is the norm and information hoarding is a foreign concept.” That’s mostly because there is no place to hide. Inside the company, business plans, sales data, project status, customer feedback, performance reviews, recruitment details, are open to all. More widely, Atlassian shares all of its pricing information, source code, documentation, bug reports and even the contents of its customer support calls.

What’s more, most work and communication takes place in “public”—on the company wiki (there is no “document management” system, person-to-person emails are rare), in personal blogs, via always-on mega-video screens that offer up a window onto the action in Atlassian’s offices around the world. Everything is open for discussion—the strategic plan, HR policy, project plans—and everyone is part of the conversation.

“By default we ask, ‘why would we NOT share it?’ Rather than ‘why would we share it?’” says Joris Luijke, the company’s global head of talent. “It’s beautiful. When people respond to that information, disagree or agree, and openly question things, they take ownership. And when something’s not going well, it doesn’t matter. We don’t try to hide it.” (Which is probably why Luijke was comfortable putting the company’s approach to performance reviews on public review with a year-long experiment in “ripping apart” the obligatory annual time-sink and sharing the insights along the way.)

“Openness” at Atlassian isn’t dictated by “corporate edict,” according to Rotenstein. Instead, it’s the product of making every person a custodian of shared conviction. The habit at Atlassian is to share, to debate openly, to work out loud—and to reinforce and recognize those behaviors. “If someone does something really cool, people will actually post that on the wiki, says Luijke. “They’ll say, ‘that’s so awesome—it’s really ‘open company, no bullshit.’ Actions and behaviors are basically being tagged with the language of our values all the time.”

What gives convictions force—whether the aim is openness, promoting savings, or democratizing the skies—isn’t rigor, rewards and incentives, or top-down policy, all those creaky mechanisms of control at the heart of most organizations. It’s built-in habit. When things fall apart—when crisis strikes, temptation sets in, the prevailing winds shift, or it just gets hard—force of will caves but habit is unfazed.

An ever expanding body of research supports this notion. In Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler describe how defaults, opt-outs, and tiny design tweaks can create a “choice architecture” that stacks the deck in favor of better decisions when it comes to health, wealth, and happiness (despite our worst tendencies). MIX Maverick Tony Schwartz writes compellingly about the futility of harnessing will power and the paradoxical power of making the most important things automatic.

So ask yourself: What’s my default? In your own life, what are your “pre-sets”—whether it’s diet (plants and whole foods), exercise (move every day, the more vigorously the better), work (do the most important thing first), or attitude (kindness over criticism)? And inside your organization, does everyone know your default? Do people act on it automatically? Can they express it immediately in your own, homegrown language? If you have to think about it, you can be sure that the next crisis, competing priority, aggravation, distraction, or slice of chocolate cake will compromise your convictions.

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