Interaction Effects

We often talk about the world being made up of discrete entities or concepts. This is a helpful construct, but it’s also the case that interesting happens at the interfaces between them. Some examples that come to mind:

  • Nature vs Nurture (I). Epigenetics shows how the environment can change which genes are expressed.
  • Personality and Income. Some great research by Dr. Rong Su at Purdue University provides evidence that being a highly extroverted man hurts income potential when he comes from a low socioeconomic background but helpswhen he comes from a high socioeconomic background.
  • Nature vs Nurture (II) The latest evidence I’ve seen suggests that intelligence and personality show a high degree of heritability. Not at surprise to me. However, even much of what would we would call “environmental” factors are often themselves influenced by genetics. For example, the parents inclination to have books in the house or read to the child – or the child’s interest hanging out with certain kinds of people – is itself highly heritable.
  • The Myth of A-Players. There is often a belief that a person who has been successful in one environment will be an A-player in all. But the data and anecdotes don’t support that. Context matters. (Another reason why I think a lot about how to assemble teams and establish a culture.)

Most of this comes down to the fact that, in any complex system, everything is connected. We think of bees and flowers as separate things. But how long would either last without the other? My view? There is no bee or flower. There is only the bee-flower system. And so on.

We as humans are not particularly good at understanding the relationships between things that are separated by time and space. But just because we can’t intuit them easily doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Breaking down the system into parts may help us organize our thinking, but sometimes those conceptual distinctions can bias or limit our understanding.

Types of Work

In an organization there are many different roles that need to be filled. There are also many different ways of talking about or describing various aspects of those roles. One way I’ve come up with for talking about the type of work that different people like to do is using the analogy of building a house. For each of these different roles, you can ask how well each describes you:

  • Visionary. You see an empty field and you like thinking about what type of house should be built. You can see things where nothing exists. This role is all about the vision: a grand house with a garden, a large patio… maybe even a fountain in back. Heck, maybe everyone else thinks it should be a house, but you come along and realize what it really should be is a ten-story highrise, since in 3 years a major highway is going to run right by here and we’re going to be well positioned to capitalize on it and…. (you get the idea.)
  • Architect. OK, so we’ve agreed on a house. What’s the house going to look like? How many bedrooms? Where’s the kitchen and how’s it laid out? Is it going to flow well? How do you design it so that there’s morning light in the bedroom, that the design is naturally energy efficient, and that the minimum of material is needed? This is marrying the artistic and holistic with the practical engineering. This design looks nice, but is it technically feasible? Will it cost too much to design? Will the layout be too complex for people to walk through? This is where you get excited: taking the high level idea and creating a plan and design for translating that vision into something real.
  • Capitalist. You’ve studied the plans and now you want to know if this investment is going to make money. To do this, you know you have to run the numbers. What are the material and labor costs? What’s the expected price per square foot at sale or rental? Should we flip it or rent it? Equity or debt? What’s our expected yield? Does building that roof deck have a positive ROI? What are our assumptions? Whether it’s doing quick math in your head or preparing a detailed financial model, you know that it always comes down to ‘the money’ and keep an eye on the bottom line.
  • Promoter. So you now have the vision and plan. It’s time to secure the resources necessary: investors, the team, permits, supplies, etc. This is where you shine. You know lots of people, love talking to them, and are really good at getting people excited and involved. You’ll talk to everyone you know and everyone you meet, excitedly tell them about what you’re working on and why they should get involved, and ask them to ask all their colleagues, too. After all, who wouldn’t want to be involved in this?…
  • Closer. So the promoter has the investors and/or customers excited and got them to the table. Now it’s time to close. At the end of the day you know that money talks and that investment and revenue make or break a business. Your style might be intense or relaxed but at the end of the day you know that only one thing matters: closing the deal.
  • Conductor / General Contractor. All right, we’ve got everything we need: the vision, the blueprints, the timeline, the budget, the money, the permits, and the team. It’s time to begin construction. This is where you shine. You’re good at coordinating people, holding them accountable, keeping everyone in sync, and raising red flags should anything come up. You keep the project running on time and on budget.
  • Builder. This is where the rubber meets the road. You’ve got your plan and timing and now it’s time to execute. You get it done. Quickly and well. You’re able to stay relentlessly focused on accomplishing the task, and if things come up or break, you’re resourceful enough to figure out how to get. the. job. done. You’re practical, focused, determined, and resourceful. Brick by brick, piece by piece, you thrive on doing real work and doing it well.
  • Inspector. You like details, precision, and perfection. Sometimes, you actually like finding the mistakes and errors people make – not to make them feel bad or point blame, but because you know that it makes the end result that much better. It’s almost like a game.
  • Administrator. You love order. Making lists and checking things off them is one of the highlights of your day. In fact, sometimes you add things to your list after you’ve already done them just SO you can check them off. The files on your computer are all organized, your inbox is alway empty, and you’re generally just on top of your stuff. Crossing T’s and dotting I’s is your thing. (In fact, you’ve already noticed several typos in this post…)

When I’m interviewing people for a role I’ll often ask them to rate themselves 1-10 on each dimension, with a 5 meaning average and a 10 being world-class (for whatever they consider to be their peer group). For example, compared to my peer group, I’d rate myself a 7 Visionary, an 8 Architect, a 6 Capitalist, a 4 Promoter, a 5 Closer, a 6 Conductor, a 6 Builder, a 5 Inspector and a 6 Administrator.

How would you rate yourself?

All Types Needed

The reason I like this question is it helps get both the level of abstraction at which people enjoy working and the type of work they like to do. And the important thing here is that you really do need all roles to build the house:

  • Without the visionary what gets built is uninspired (and maybe the wrong thing altogether)
  • Without the architect what gets built will either never match the vision, won’t actually work in practice, or both.
  • Without the capitalist you may not make any money.
  • Without the promoter you won’t have all the resources you need to bring the vision to fruition, no matter how good the blueprint.
  • Without the closer the deal doesn’t actually get finished.
  • Without the conductor you will have lots of activity but quality, time, and budget will suffer.
  • Without the builder, there will be lots of talk but no action.
  • Without the inspector your building/deal is at risk of death by a thousand paper cuts.
  • Without the administrator balls can get dropped and speed and quality of execution suffers. Sometimes irreparably.

In order to be effective, an organization needs to have all types, put in the appropriate roles for them, and in the right proportions.

There are many ways of thinking about the types of people you need in an organization. This is one that I’ve found useful.