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Melbourne, Australia

Adventurers beware, here be dragons!

July 5, 2016


I recently read Dr Jason Fox’s new book The Quest, a great read for anybody up for an adventure, to lead change and find new and exciting horizons.

It got me thinking more about the way companies approach innovation, once they’ve reached maturity and the stakes have gotten higher. When risk gets in the way of day-to-day small changes and something big has to happen, to make a difference.



There is a multitude of things to try, like siloed teams, hackathons, outsourcing or acquisition. But the truth is, if you don’t have the right set of measures for the people involved, nobody will be ‘happy’, because nobody will know when happiness has been achieved.



So, how do you measure the success of an adventure?

More importantly, as a leader, how do you reward and recognise the people risking their neck to save the world from the dragon of doom and find that elusive pot of gold?


Over the past three years, I was tasked with building such a team. A special kind of team, where each person could stare at the face of uncertainty and say ‘bring it on!’ The types of people who could look at a blank page and see infinite possibilities. The ones who could make something of nothing and anything from something. The types of people who could work inside an innovation team, looking for new products and signs of high growth. People who could take a risk, without being too risky. People who in ordinary teams felt claustrophobic and appeared distracted. The types of people who would stare out of windows, dreaming of a better way when they should be working.


They were hard to find and I had to work hard to help them to reveal their true selves. The types of behaviours and attributes I wanted to find were not usually encouraged or printed on a CV. I started with the first line in the job ad, through to the daily interactions and shared my own vulnerabilities to build a sense of trust and ability to be themselves, without judgement.


What held us together was not some magic formula, it was the belief that the sum of the parts was greater than any one of us alone, there was no room for white knights charging in to save the day. I truly believed that each person on my team was smarter than me. My job was to give them a common goal, the right tools and guidance and enough information about the environment to make the right choices.


Their job was to find signs of growth and cultivate it. They had to find joy in the treasure hunt, knowing they may never find that pot of gold.


Balancing investment in technology, code and compliance with the idea that with new information comes new decisions and that each line of code could be thrown away the next day. They had to test assumptions and try not to convince themselves that they’d found the right answers, not get too close so they couldn’t see.  Not see success in shipping alone, but in finding out information that helped us look for that pot of gold.

We believed that by working together and ensuring every one of us knew exactly what we were trying do, why and by when that we could all make the right decisions, without needing to escalate. That each person was empowered, guided and even if they didn’t agree, they had been heard and understood. We took time, to save time. Spending 25% of a project just understanding the problems meant that there wasn’t scope creep later and that nobody had to wait for somebody else to keep moving.


We developed a team that meant that it was safe to fail and safe to struggle, because there would always be somebody there to pick up the slack. We built a strength in trust and respect for one another's abilities and perspectives. We became a family, with idiosyncrasies, hidden language and common purpose.


It was hard going at times, we had our fair share of battles and wounds. But we kept getting up.


Knowing that you’re working in a risky environment, doesn’t mean you commit any less. Each one of those people put everything they had into it. They rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Each time, putting in the same effort, determined to find something.  

In these times of failing fast and often, it is inevitable that we will fail more than we succeed. So when it came time to end our quest, we lay down our tools and took some time to adjust to normal life. Life with more predictable tasks, build this, do that.

So, back to the question of how do we measure success of adventurers.

We cannot measure steady progress, since running into a burning room and running back out again, doesn’t count as progress. It’s more a jagged line. Up down, back and over.


So, I propose that  these adventurers are rewarded for the behaviours they demonstrate, the stories they uncover, the journeys they take and the findings they make.

For their ability to embrace change, for their bravery in the face of failure and their ability to quickly figure out if something is worth pursuing.

Since behaviours are hard to measure, it’s not for the feint-hearted. Adventurer or leader.

Adventurers need to accept that there is no hard and fast single number to achieve. It isn’t just about growth in NPS or revenue, it’s not just about saving money or avoiding wasting it. It’s all of these things and more, it’s how you did and the way you dealt with it. It’s not easy to measure.


So be careful there. Take care of your team. Hold their hand when needed and push them over the canyon when they hesitate. Because despite the uncertainty, the lack of ability to measure steady progress, which is a real hard thing to manage and be managed by, you’ll have a great time and learn a lot if you stick together and help each other through.


You might find that pot of gold, either way you’ll get to slay some dragons.





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