Bigger than all of us

Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?

There was a time when companies were urged to set overarching goals to inspire the troops. In many of these companies, though, the troops noticed that when tough decisions needed to be made, considerations like “Don’t embarrass your boss” and “Pump up the CEO’s bonus” seemed to be the real guiding principles.  In other words, instead of inspiration, employees got hypocrisy.  At the very best, they got platitudes, akin to “We want to do good while making our employees happy and providing a superior return to our investors.” Kumbaya.

Boyd, oddly enough, liked the idea of a higher guiding principle. He wrote:

A review and further manipulation of the ideas and thoughts that make up these different ways suggest that for success over the long haul and under the most difficult conditions, one needs some unifying vision that can be used to attract the uncommitted as well as pump up friendly resolve and drive and drain away or subvert adversary resolve and drive. In other words, what is needed is a vision rooted in human nature so noble, so attractive that it not only attracts the uncommitted and magnifies the spirit and strength of its adherents, but also undermines the dedication and determination of any competitors or adversaries. Patterns of Conflict, 143.

It turns out Boyd may have been on to something. A recent article in Quartz references a new book, Peak Performance, by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness:

While researching their book, Stulberg and Magness interviewed countless scientists and world-renowned athletes. They found that people who exhibited this kind of “superhuman” strength were able to do so only when they chose to focus on a purpose greater than themselves.

The author of this article, Cindy Lamothe, notes that Stulberg and Magness have found at least one study that provides physiological support for this effect, which they call “self-transcendence”:

Prior to their evaluation, each participant was asked to first reflect on their core values. What the scientists discovered is somewhat surprising: The part of the brain associated with “positive valuations” showed heightened neural activity when participants read the threatening messages. Though it sounds counterintuitive, instead of shutting down, their brains actually moved toward a challenge when faced with a threat.

In other words, Auftragstaktik works in such an environment.

Not everybody agrees. In his 1986 book Out of the Crisis (which, incidentally, I loved but Boyd did not) Deming unveiled his “fourteen points for the transformation of management.”  The tenth of these condemns the use of “slogans and exhortations”:

Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.

Wouldn’t an overarching goal or higher purpose run into this problem? If all you do is incorporate it into a corporate mission statement and post it all over the walls, it well could.  But Deming is really addressing management malpractice: Instead of doing the work to create a system with better and improving quality, you exhort the employees to quite making mistakes. And put up notices to that effect.

Another thought you might have is that Boyd is just talking about Schwerpunkt, an important attribute of an agile organization,

Schwerpunkt represents a unifying medium that provides a directed way to tie initiative of many subordinate actions with superior intent as a basis to diminish friction and compress time in order to generate a favorable mismatch in time/ability to shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances. Patterns, 78

A higher purpose or unifying vision does that, but there’s more. The key lies in phrases like “attract the uncommitted as well as pump up friendly resolve and drive and drain away or subvert adversary resolve and drive.” Boyd’s concept for a “unifying vision” ascends into grand strategy: Building organizations and alliances that will take the initiative and, over time, create opportunities and exploit them while confronting obstacles and overcoming adversity. Fundamental organizational power.

In other words, it’s a super Schwerpunkt to guide behavior in such a way that keeps morale high while, at the same time, it attracts the uncommitted. In business, by the way, it’s a good idea to consider customers as “uncommitted.”  It’s not as easy as it might sound. Uber recently showed how to pump up morale, at least in part of the company, while repelling customers. And it’s not a really good idea to drag paying customers off your airplane.

It doesn’t have to be “save humanity” or some equally vacuous phrase. My advice would be to stay away from such platitudes because profit-seeking companies find it hard to make them believable.  Instead, you could use the power of business competition in a way similar to how the best coaches train and motivate their teams.  You might get some ideas from people like Bear Bryant, Pat Summit, and Jose Mourinho.  Imbibe “Yamaha Wo Tsubusu!” a great example of how a unifying vision can produce superhuman effort, when all they wanted to do was beat Yamaha.

Boyd suggested that in order to pursue your unifying vision, you, as an individual or organization, needed five attributes. These are insight, orientation, harmony, agility, and initiative (Patterns, 144).  Don’t think of this as a checklist — they’re far too general — but more as things to keep in mind when evaluating your organizational heath and trying to improve it. Can you think of any others?


I’ll do some future posts on IOHAI, but for now, look at orientation, essentially your evolving model of how things work, your basis for predicting the results of your actions and thereby selecting what to do. As a component of your orientation, a unifying vision is an hypothesis that requires continual testing, both inside and outside the organization (those “uncommitted,” remember). When you consider all the miraculous properties Boyd wants a unifying vision to have, at the upper left corner of Chart 144, it’s clear that effective ones are works of art, corporate haiku, and equally hard to produce. So when someone proclaims their mission statement and claims that it guides their behavior and attracts partners, you can always apply the “Oh, really? Show me” test.

3 thoughts on “Bigger than all of us

  1. “While researching their book, Stulberg and Magness interviewed countless scientists and world-renowned athletes. They found that people who exhibited this kind of “superhuman” strength were able to do so only when they chose to focus on a purpose greater than themselves.”

    Isn’t this the “superhuman’s” creation of a mismatch in his favor by playing values against the physical, values against the mental, and values against the situation?

    • Very interesting way of looking at it! Boyd’s original formulation used “moral” rather than “values,” that is, he was thinking about groups. Your comment looks at it from the standpoint of the individual.

  2. I was approaching it from the M&M game. This is a good conversation, because I want to make sure I’ve got this right. So for example, as an individual athlete, if I know that my strength and skills outclass my opponent, I can exploit that mismatch (in my favor) by taking him head on in the physical realm. If I know that he is younger, stronger, but less savvy or experienced, I can exploit that mismatch by leaning on my mental prowess (Muhammad Ali: rope-a-dope) and play M&M Mental vs the Situation (physical), or if I am outclassed in both, I can appeal to abstract values and potentially create the strongest mismatch of all, Values vs the Situation. The values mismatch might allow me to reach that superhuman spectrum of ability, temporarily, or it might even produce a win on a macro level despite a loss on the micro level (Moral Victory, the “People’s Champ” – this example is particularly fascinating in sports, when there are popular athletes who appeal to the audience’s values system and are beloved more than the athlete with the better record / better abilities). That last example would be winning the war despite the outcome of the battle. Modern example in combat sports would be Conor McGregor vs Mayweather.. Conor won the fight before he stepped into the ring. Values vs Situation mismatch in his favor: he is seen as the moral victor for lasting 10 rounds with Mayweather, even though Mayweather actually won the fight.

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