Sunday, March 25, 2012

Driving Your Own Agenda Leads to Failure

I've been on many teams in my lifetime. At work, in school, in social activities, etc. During recent reflection on past successes and failures, I noticed that among cases of failure, it is common for team members, or a key team leader, to be focused on their own agenda. As I thought about this observation more, I came to the conclusion that when someone drives their own agenda, whatever they're working on is highly likely to fail.

This hypothesis sounds like an over-generalization. But let's clarify what is meant by "driving one's own agenda". This statement refers to situations in which one is so focused on their personal goals that certain realities of the environment in which they are operating fall the periphery of their view. To take a simple example, consider someone who wants a promotion. Their singular focus is on getting that reward. I purposely use the term "getting" because when the focus is on the promotion itself, it devalues the act of earning it. As focus on the promotion becomes sharper and sharper, everything else becomes obscured.

So why do I believe this behavior is highly likely to lead to failure? As I mulled over the the failures I've been through, I considered them in this context and asked myself, "isn't focus a good thing?" The answer is clearly yes. Focusing on a small set of goals and removing distractions is a powerful technique in achieving success; we've all heard the saying "do one thing and do it well". Wasn't focus one of Steve Jobs' (RIP) techniques for success? This is all true and good, but the problems start when one ignores the vast web of interconnections that render our actions inalienable.

To be successful, it is important to understand one's relationship with fellow workers and communal goals. It is important to understand how the different actors affect the system. While certain actions are isolated, others have direct and obvious impact, and still others reverberate through the web in subtle ways. And we can't forget that we are not the only party taking action. We need to understand the structure of the web and how our goals play into it. If we are so caught up in driving our own agenda that we can't see beyond the immediate impact of our behaviors, we are highly likely to fail since we miss the broader dynamics at play. Elaborating on our example, if we are pursuing a promotion with tunnel vision, we may miss the fact that the organization we are part of needs to have the profits to fund the promotion. As we invest our energy into standing out from our peers and gaining influence on key organizational decision makers, we divest elsewhere, perhaps reducing the overall profit-earning capacity of the organization. Thus, our singular focus on our goal not only contributes to our failure to achieve it, but also negatively impacts those depending on us.

The thing to remember is to be aware of the complex web of interrelationships and how the different pieces influence one another. For success, understand the best way to invest your energy in this holistic context. From my experience, this usually means driving community goals rather than individual agendas.