Universal Principles

June 12, 2017 by
Filed under: Leadership, People, Teamwork 

Way back in 1687, Sir Isaac Newton published Principia Mathematica, where he described the concept of gravity. It’s been said that he discovered gravity then, but it’s a pretty safe bet that apples fell in the downward direction from trees before 1687, and they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Gravity is a universal principle.

What’s that have to do with the sort of work I do?

In workshops, there’s a couple of questions that come up with increasing frequency, questions that are often thought of as synonymous:

  • What is the latest science/techniques/thinking around this or that topic?
  • What do companies do in the real world?

That first question generally is asking for the latest trends, the stuff that is coming from the business schools or the big research companies or the industry associations. What does HBR say? What about the Sloan School, or Rotman if you need Canadian content? What’s Google’s view on things, what’s the latest from the Agile community? What’s the best certification to go after? What are the most relevant TED talks?

What you’ll find if you dig in to these fresh ideas is that there have been no new universal principles discovered here. Gravity still makes apples fall, better relationships on teams generate better results, it’s better to understand your intended destination before starting your journey, and expect to make adjustments along the way.

What comes from the latest trends is a new, fresh veneer that can resonate with an audience that is, well, looking for these latest trends. Largely marketing spin, with assertions that “We’ve discovered this…” or “Our latest data suggests that…”. Marketing has its place, of course, but does not necessarily correlate with the outcomes you may be seeking.

The better latest trends are based on universal foundations and don’t lose sight of that fact. They may give you a new lens to use to reflect on these universal foundations that can make the concepts clearer and more relevant – that’s probably their greatest potential value. This does not render previous ideas and concepts obsolete, merely adds to the breadth of understanding.

The poorer ones, well, would like to suggest that they’ve done something akin to discovering gravity.

The latest trends can be useful, but only if they are relevant to the issues at hand and remain clear about the underlying principles they are addressing. Otherwise, you’ll get stuff we’ve all seen at some point: ignored Balanced Scorecards, or overstated certifications, or binders full of useless ISO documentation, or stifling, dogmatic Agile implementations, or teaming exercises that still fail to bring people together.

That second question leads to a different response.

There are typically a few companies that embrace the latest ideas, but not all of them will implement these ideas in ways that bring out the intended results. There are also other companies that achieve those desired results simply because they work in a way that is aligned with the underlying principle, even if they haven’t consciously made that connection – they just know it works. And there are those that unconsciously work against these principles, much to their dismay.

In this form, things fit nicely into one of those 4 quadrants charts, with axes corresponding to whether companies are following current trends, and whether companies are experiencing great results. It’s left as an exercise for you to draw this out (the audience participation segment of this blog entry), and see where the following phrases fit:

  • applying ‘common sense’
  • struggling with dogma (or missing the point)
  • hopelessly floundering
  • principle-centric behaviours

In my experience there always have been these four categories, and there always will.

If you feel the need explicitly to follow the latest trends, without regard to which principles need shoring up, your results won’t necessarily be positive. In that light, following the latest trends can effectively be a set of blinkers preventing you from recognizing great things that people have done successfully for years.

A more effective approach is to apply trends right along some old-school stuff that still works just fine that align with the principles behind the challenges you face.

Absolutely get to know the latest trends, continue to add different arrows to your quiver, but understand their relevance to the principles and when to appropriately apply them.

Oh, and a tip that’ll piss off consultants and business schools worldwide.

If you focus on those principles first (relationships, clear goals, need to change), there’s a very good chance your team can come up with an approach that works for them even if they haven’t read the latest issue of Harvard Business Review or hired the consultant with the trendy certification.

…and teams actually have the capacity to do just that.– JB


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