Minimum Critical Specifications: The Liberating Factor

Leading in a Bubble

Early on in my career as a civil servant, I was given the opportunity to form a small team consisting of several junior-grade enlisted airmen. While it was not my first time leading a team, it was the first instance in which I led a group of people who had no practical experience. To be sure, these were smart and devoted young men; they were just brand new to their field.

As we set about building our team, my instincts compelled me to create processes that were very specific according to task and person. I assumed that by removing ambiguity from the equation at a micro level, I would create a sense of certainty in people, because they would know exactly what role they were to play in the context of the team and our objectives. In actuality, creating these systems gave me a sense of certainty that I had done what I needed to as the leader to establish clear lanes of responsibility for everyone. Much to my dismay, my team did not behave consistent with the elaborate flowcharts and org charts that I had created. In response, I doubled down, refining the charts and Visio diagrams and pushing them out to my team, assuming that the clearer the roles and responsibilities were, the likelier people would be to comply with them.

I soon found myself in a bubble, where I was creating systems designed to guide behavior, but the behavior of the team was guided by other forces. Fortunately, the team all got along with each other, so my attempt to control behavior didn’t put too much of a strain on our relationships. In fact, we were all lighthearted enough that my seemingly endless parade of flowcharts became a running joke. The team was actually very productive and effective. However, the team’s productivity and effectiveness was in spite of me, not because of me.

Back then, I had a very specific view of the function of leadership. I believed that successful leaders set a vision, communicated that vision, and then created processes that supported the execution of that vision. It all seemed so simple to me. In the abstract, this autocratic approach to leadership seems practical. However, I found out that it did not translate well when you added the X factor into the equation: people.

As a novice leader, I assumed that I would be able to control people’s behavior as simply as I was able to describe the behavior I wanted. Any failure in compliance would be either due to inadequate communication on my part or insubordination on the part of the team members. In the case of the former, I would simply need to re-communicate my desires. In the case of the latter, appropriate doses of persuasion and later discipline would bring people around to conformity. Indeed, the measure of success I set for myself as the leader was the level of conformity I was able to generate from my team. What I observed is that as the team matured, and as individuals came to better understand how to perform, organic processes began to develop. Based upon this, and subsequent experiences, I came to understand how minimum critical specifications could play a productive role in organizations.

On Minimum Critical Specifications and Organizational Behavioral Domains

In order to understand minimum critical specifications in the context of organizational functioning, it is important to know the two domains of behavior within an organization, how people relate to those domains of behavior, and how leaders can operate relative to those domains in productive ways. Organizational behavior is divided into the micro domain and the macro domain. People relate to these domains of behavior in very different ways. In the micro-behavioral domain dwell the norms that govern how things get done (i.e. processes). In the macro-behavioral domain dwell the norms that govern why things get done (i.e. values and purpose).

There is an inverse relationship that exists between the micro-behavioral and macro-behavioral domains. The macro-behavioral domain is large when values in an organization are shared and well-aligned to the organization’s purpose. When this is the case, the degree to which processes need to be elaborated in the micro-behavioral domain decreases. However, when values are not aligned across an organization and/or poorly mapped to the organization’s purpose, the micro-behavioral domain compensates by growing in size, where the emphasis is on processes. It is important to note that this inverse relationship is governed by natural laws. In other words, the relationship between the micro-behavioral and macro-behavioral domains of an organization cannot be manipulated. If the attention is on the micro-behavioral domain, and processes are the focal point of leadership, the macro-behavioral domain will naturally get smaller. Or, to put it more precisely, if the attention is on the micro-behavioral domain, and processes are the focal point of leadership, people’s behavior will naturally follow a pattern whereby the micro-behavioral domain will grow in significance relative to the macro-behavioral domain.

The reason for the inverse relationship behind the micro-behavioral and macro-behavioral domains is largely a byproduct of the natural functioning of the brain. There are two important regions of the brain that play a crucial role in how people behave: the prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia. The prefrontal cortex is the region of the brain where cognition takes place. While the prefrontal cortex is a masterpiece of evolution, it is quite limited. For example, the prefrontal cortex tires quickly and can only focus well on one thing at a time. While the prefrontal cortex is effective, it is not in itself efficient…yet.

What Your Brain Knows that You Don't

Fortunately, the brain has complementary regions that help it to be an overall efficient organ. One such complementary region is the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia store information about routine behavior, so that we can perform routine tasks without having to use the prefrontal cortex. This frees us up to do things like take a shower while simultaneously contemplating the mysteries of the universe. The basal ganglia make it possible for you to remember to wash your hair while at the same time think about all the things you need to pack for an upcoming business trip. A shorthand for this is front-loaded information vs. back-loaded information. Front-loaded information is information that occupies the prefrontal cortex. Back-loaded information is that which occupies the basal ganglia.

So, the question then is what information do you want to be front-loaded for people in an organization: information about processes (i.e. the micro-behavioral domain), or information about values and mission (i.e. the macro-behavioral domain)? Though it may seem paradoxical, an organization will function better when values and mission are back-loaded and processes are front-loaded. The reason for this has to do with dynamism vs. stasis. Back-loaded information (i.e. information stored in the basal ganglia) is static, which is why it can reside in the basal ganglia as routines and repeated behaviors. Once the behavior changes, it is no longer static and the prefrontal cortex takes over.

An example of the above-mentioned dynamic is starting a new semester at school. On the first few days, students are often late to class as they wind their way around campus and corridors trying to find their assigned classrooms. However, in a very short period of time, the students no longer need to think about how to traverse from one class to the next; it becomes automatic and routine, and they can focus more on learning, rather than how to get from point A to point B.

Living Your Organizational Values: The Key to Making Minimum Critical Specifications Work

So, what information do you want to be static in the collective brain of an organization? Values and purpose, or processes? I submit that values and purpose should be static, and processes dynamic. This allows for values and purpose to carry a small but meaningful mental load for the organization, and make up a larger domain in terms of how people behave. To this end, it follows that the values and purpose of an organization should be the focal point for leaders. But therein lies the rub. It has almost become an article of faith that mission and values statements are the core of an organization’s soul. Plaques and banners adorn the hallways from the C-suite all the way down to the factory floor. The problem arises when people observe a disconnect between the way leaders behave and the stated values and mission of the organization. In order for information to remain in the basal ganglia and guide behavior, it must be consistent. Once that consistency is violated, this dissonance reengages the prefrontal cortex with questions about the purpose (i.e. values and purpose) of the organization. Therefore, the single most important thing a leader can do is to behave in a way that is consistent with the values and mission of the organization. But because values and mission statements are often cosmetic and do not actually represent the true values and purpose of the organization, behavioral disconnects are sometimes all but inevitable. The lesson here is simple: walk the talk. Failure to do so will lead to cultural rot in the organization.

Once the values and purpose have been established, aligned, and become a part of the organization’s cultural fabric, the opportunity space is created in which the systems and structures can have a larger footprint and take on a heavier mental load for the organization. You might be wondering why anyone would want systems and structures to take on a bigger footprint in an organization. Why would you want to front-load the micro-behavioral domain? The micro-behavioral domain essentially makes up the what and how of an organization’s identity. When space is freed up in the prefrontal cortex to think about the whats and the hows, you create an environment in which dynamism can flourish. This dynamism, facilitated by the prefrontal cortex, allows for processes to remain fluid and adaptable instead of rigid and stagnant. Because the environments in which we now operate are so dynamic, it stands to reason that the processes responding to that environment be equally dynamic. This is where the concept of minimum critical specifications plays a crucial role. 

Minimum Critical Specifications at the Crossroads

In order to explain minimum critical specifications, I will lean on an example from the work of a famed Dutch traffic engineer, Hans Monderman. Now deceased, Monderman believed in the concept of making roads feel dangerous in order to be safe. Monderman gained worldwide attention for redesigning a dangerous intersection in the Dutch town of Drachten.

Before Monderman got his hands on the perilous crossroads, accidents among cars, cyclists, and pedestrians were commonplace, often with deadly consequences. In response, local authorities kept adding signs to the juncture in hopes it would reduce the hazard. But it didn’t. When Monderman was charged with redesigning the intersection, he did something counterintuitive by removing signs, taking out lights, eliminating curbs, and putting in a roundabout. And lo and behold, the number of accidents was reduced to practically zero.

Behold the beauty of Monderman's roadway:

The reason behind Monderman’s success was that he created an environment in which minimum critical specifications compelled people to interact with each other in real-time and on an interpersonal level, totally dependent on the unique situation that presented itself at any given time. In other words, this minimalist road design allowed for maximum dynamism. People were forced to stop outsourcing their judgement to signs and lights, and instead step outside of their basal ganglia and into their prefrontal cortexes to literally think about how best to navigate the present situation, without being distracted by the “rules”. As behavior becomes rote it becomes static. When it becomes static, it moves to the basal ganglia. When it moves to the basal ganglia, people literally stop thinking.

Let Why be Your Guide

Whenever I encounter an organization laden with elaborately-described processes, I ask why the processes are so complicated and rigid. The answer is usually that without such static and structured processes, people would not know what to do or how to do it. But people questioning how to navigate situations is precisely the recipe for collaboration and innovation. Leaving open the question of how (i.e. being ambiguous about processes) opens the mind. But again, this is only possible when the mind is not preoccupied with an organization’s values and mission. Perhaps an anecdote from my personal work experience will bring this concept into clearer focus.

At one time I worked in an organization whose mission it was to create collaborative teams from three separate unique pools of specialists. Projects would come in and teams of experts from the three disciplines were meant to bring to bear unique solutions by looking at the problem from different points of view. Both collaboration and innovation were required for this process to work. After three years of personally working in this organization, and after almost five years since its inception, the level of collaboration and innovation required to solve the difficult problems given to us was almost entirely absent, with only a few glimmers of success.

People did not fully understand the unique purpose of the organization (i.e. they didn’t know the why). While values had been articulated, leadership did not reinforce how much they valued the values through their behavior. These two factors created a significant mental load for the organization and the why remained front-loaded in the prefrontal cortex, degrading morale and creating deep cynicism. In response to the perceived lack of collaboration and innovation, the organizational leadership created processes designed to force collaborative and innovative behavior. Even if the processes were effective in theory, it still would have been hard for people to engage with them, given the mental load each person was dealing with in terms of the organization’s mission and values. By creating top-down autocratic processes, the leadership did the exact opposite of what they should have done.

The organization would have been much better served if the leadership had focused on creating a values-based culture with a clearly articulated purpose, and then living by those values, thus back-loading the macro-behavioral domain, and giving space in the collective prefrontal cortex for the process executors, allowing them to develop nimble and dynamic processes that would have served the organization’s purpose. Unfortunately, this condition is all too common. Leaders sometimes have concrete ideas about their purpose and values, but simply fail to inculcate the culture with those values and purpose, either through duplicity or indifference to the purpose and values. People, being highly perceptive as they are, easily pick up on this disconnect and the macro-behavioral domain becomes front-loaded. Subsequently, productivity drops and leadership responds autocratically with top-down dictates about process, which, much like a command economy, never quite seems to fit the need.

The Sailboat and the Island

People often confuse minimum critical specifications with a willfully deficient lack of direction. Not so. The best analogy I can use to describe minimum critical specifications is what I call the sailboat and the island. Imagine that as a leader, you identify an island to which you want your people to sail. Together, you come up with values that will guide people on their journey to the island (e.g. prioritize the health of everyone on the boat above everything else, ensure that food and water are distributed equitably, make it safe for people to share mistakes and concerns, etc.). Once the destination has been set and the values are established, everyone gets on the boat and sets sail for the island. This is where your leadership will be put to the test. As a leader in this scenario, you provide no instructions on how the people in the boat are to sail from the shore to the distant island. The sea is dynamic: there will be storms, swells, currents, and winds that are impossible to predict in advance. Attempting to micro-dictate how to traverse to the island will not be necessary, so long as the people in the boat are competent, and have their guiding values and destination. The leader’s job in this scenario is to clearly define the destination, and to help establish values, and then to live by the values and purpose, while trusting the people in the boat to get to the island in a way that is both consistent with their shared values, the destination, and their skills. If the people in the boat observe the leaders lounging on a completely different island from the stated destination, if they see leaders behaving inconsistent with the specified values, they are likely going to drift and be caught up in the many hazards on the open sea. Likewise, if leaders dictate from ivory towers how to navigate the storms, swells, currents, and winds, the ship is likely going to be lost or make it to the destination late and in bad shape.

Conclusion

It is important for leaders to leave an opportunity space for people to navigate the waters of their jobs based upon the values and purpose of the mission, without suffocating collaboration and innovation with static and/or out-of-touch processes. Leaders can and should be open and deliberate about this (e.g., “We’re going to leave some of the day-to-day processes up to you to determine”). Minimum critical specifications unleashes the prefrontal cortex to create effective synergies among people, dynamic systems, and innovative solutions. Just like the intersection in Drachten, people are capable and better able to navigate, on their own, highly complex situations without the distraction of warning signs, flashing lights, and steal barriers, so long as they know their purpose and the values of the environment that guide their behaviors. Let your values be static and your processes dynamic.