We don’t need another hero

“It’s going to take some boldness and courage,” she said, “to be willing to approach the other teams and be open with your data, but it’s the only way we’re going to succeed.” The discussion was around the need to work together with other departments within our organization. This was new for us, because these were the same departments against whom we were typically ranked. Not true market competitors, but certainly internal rivals, who gained when the others lost and occasionally succeeded by undermining one another. We were now being asked to muster the courage to work together.

Several of the participants, including me, suggested that perhaps we should work on creating a system that supported cooperation, rather than one that rewards competition. How successful will it be to ask everyone to go against existing incentives? How about a system that requires a little less bravery?

Our society likes the language of heroism, and we may rightfully laud those who put themselves in danger or rise above to get things done. We are seeing this today, as we celebrate the healthcare and other essential service workers who put their own wellbeing at risk to keep our society functioning. But heroism only really exists where we lack systems to do the same thing without so much risk. While we celebrate the heroes, we should simultaneously be asking ourselves how we can make what is heroic today routine tomorrow. Heroism is a sign of personal honor, but indicates a system failure.

What requires bravery in your own company? Maybe giving feedback to peers, or calling out an error, or being willing to redirect a project that is based on faulty assumptions. If it requires bravery, that means it’s hard, and if it’s hard, that means it’s unlikely. We love our heroes because their work is rare and difficult. But if it’s important enough for it to happen, it should happen without heroism.  How about a system that requires a little less bravery?

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