Travis Newcomb

Jan 22, 2022

Unleash Innovation in Your Organization by Not Tolerating Cynicism.

Innovation is the result of an investment in knowledge, infrastructure, and/or experimentation that uncovers previously unseen opportunity.  Making these investments when there is not a concrete justification is inherently risky so they’re easy to resist.

Cynicism, when tolerated by a leader, behaves as kryptonite for innovation by serving up an endless stream of straw man arguments used to resist change. 

  • Risk taking is discouraged because historical failures are used serve as ammunition for cynical arguments.

  • It undermines psychological safety within a team, limiting who feels comfortable pushing for change.

It's only when we "assume best intent" can we resist the corrosive affects of cynicism.

I picked up this guiding principle during my time at Apple where problems were sometimes so complex that solutions could be non-intuitive and easy to criticize. Assuming best intent shifts some of the burden of persuasion on the listener, ensuring they respond with curiosity. Ideally, when we hear something that doesn't seem right we respond with questions to understand what incorrect assumptions we might be holding.

Foster a culture that "assumes best intent" by:

  • Never tolerating straw-man arguments.  Challenge them directly in the forums they are made and provide feedback in 1:1s and reviews.

  • Supporting change agents by requiring rigorous arguments, both in favor and against proposed changes. Our default state is to resist change so persuasive arguments require well formed opinions to convince others. Recognize the power imbalance and require the same quality of arguments against change.

  • Assessing cynicism during the hiring process. I do this by asking for examples of how candidates dealt with disruptive changes in previous roles. Listen for unfair representations of intent or contempt towards those pushing for change.

Travis Newcomb

Thoughts on the personal & leadership challenges faced in rapidly changing organizations.

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