When I was last asked to speak at my employer’s all-hands meeting, it was in a context of crisis in our relationship with our biggest customer. The tone of internal discussions was denigrating, focusing on their manipulative contract negotiations and technical indecision.
I had been privy to two experiences, however, that gave me a different perspective on the matter. The first occurred during a site visit to the Netherlands. The other three representatives got smashed each night, which is a way of maintaining a coherent gestalt. My approach was rather to walk gently among our hosts. When we went to look at the machine that they were upgrading, I crouched down to look at the cable route, wondering how in the heck they would be moved to replace a critical component. The mechanical designer, who had projected some hostility regarding the project, stepped behind me, and I suddenly understood that a wing nut on a retaining bar, if loosened, would allow me to bend the cables out of the way. I turned around to find him looking approvingly at me.
The second experience occurred during a reciprocal visit to our facility. We produce electronics that can fail catastrophically, and the customer works in the health care industry. The lead engineer asked specifically whether we had tested the logic that prevented this failure mode, emphasizing that “in no circumstances can we have a fire in the operating theater.” He was assured that we had manually tested the fault logic, forcing the failure mode and verifying that power was shut down.
Four months after deploying the solution, our electronics caught fire in the operating room. The assurances offered to our customer were simply a lie.
It was in part to counter-act the mounting hostility that I offered this perspective:
As engineers, we come in every day to wrestle against the laws of nature to help our customers do things that most people think are impossible. In that struggle, fighting against our competition is far less rewarding that fighting against nature for our customers. When we fight for our customers, we enter into their dreams. They offer us their insights and understanding, and help us to make our products better.
Our customer understood that fundamental difference in me. Even though my role was limited to creation of software that integrated with their user interface, I was the first person they contacted whenever a problem came up. They knew that I wouldn’t pull out the contract or demand irrefutable proof that the problem was in our equipment. I would sit down and try to emulate their scenario so that we could evaluate the problem on our end. In turn, they would get a rapid assessment of likelihood that would help them to focus efforts on their end.
This attitude was emphasized by a comment made by the lead engineer in a discussion of welfare policy. He said,
If somebody wants to go fishing every day, I would rather that he just didn’t come in to work. I’d be happy to see him paid to fish, if that meant that I wouldn’t have to fix the problems in his work.
This is the experience of all creative people: in the end, everything that we do is a new form of truth. Creating that truth means living in truth, and the more people that are embraced in that circle, the greater are the challenges we can overcome. That trust can only be sustained when the team members take pride and find satisfaction in the work that they do. Conversely, when falsehood enters that circle, the creative process is corrupted by indecision and mistrust. Everyone runs around checking and double-checking the facts, and defending themselves against blame.
In over thirty years as a professional, the factor that most commonly creates mistrust is when a party representing the market seizes control of creative decision making. Because they do not contribute to the creative process, ultimately they can only justify tyrannical authority by attacking the work of the creative team. Because they don’t understand the creative process, the tyrant’s attacks are arbitrary and often false. As the team fragments, more and more control is asserted, with individuals promoted and demoted largely based upon personal loyalty rather than actual creative capability. Worse, those in the creative team that decry the loss of team cohesion are pushed aside, because to recognize the validity of their perspective is to undermine the power of the tyrant.
The shift that is necessary to resolve this philosophical conundrum was proposed ten years ago out at everdeepening.org. I offered these definitions:
Power is the ability to make reality conform to our intention.
Will is a measure of our ability to sustain an engagement with reality.
Strength is power over the self.
Authority is awarded by constituents when power is validated by expressions of love.
In any situation, a resort to lies degrades power, because lies are against reality. To lie is also to flee from reality, which is a failure of will. To the sophisticated observer, then, it is a sign of personal weakness. As a violation of both self-love and as an attack on the creative team, lies undermine authority. When that trust is lost, the creative team loses its faith that accomplishment will receive satisfactory rewards. Their motivation undermined, the only way that the tyrant can maintain control, then, is to run around telling people what to do.
From these, it follows that in engineering organizations the role of senior management is in securing the cohesion of the creative team. That means giving credit where credit is due. If the team fails, nature will let them know. To the degree that success is achieved, it is the role of marketing and sales to target opportunities that will produce sustaining revenues.
The difficulty of sustaining this organizational cohesion is so daunting that anyone achieving such success will find that people flock to their defense when they are threatened. To people who care only about creating new truth, such a loss would be a tragedy without parallel.