Intention, Inertia, and Introspection

The best tech leaders I’ve seen and who remain remarkable over the years are those who are never “done.” They evolve, learn, experiment, and change their minds routinely. The constant need to undergo personal growth is both the most fascinating thing about leadership and a source of anxiety and fatigue. It can feel like a never-ending struggle where you can’t stop. Issues and problems keep piling on your plate, and what used to work for you last year no longer seems to be cutting it.

I’ve seen this struggle repeatedly when working with my clients. In coaching them, I’ve learned that naming some of the everyday occurrences of this growth effort and their relationships can help reduce stress and make priorities more straightforward. My recently published book, The Tech Executive Operating System, covers many aspects of managing your focus and energy (BTW, you can fill the form below to get a sample chapter). In this article, I want to focus on a part that can be utilized by itself without needing to go through the entire book. That is understanding the mechanism of balancing Intention and Inertia with Introspection.

The diagram below shows the gist of a process I often walk my clients through in order to make sense of the issues on their plates. Regularly taking the time to see where each item should be placed on this diagram and reassessing the right way to handle it is the Introspection part. Let’s briefly go over the parts of the diagram.

Initiatives: Issues that are currently being pushed solely by your intention and deliberate effort are your active initiatives. There’s no inertia involved yet, and therefore these often make up the lion’s share of the meetings in your calendar and your cognitive load. Both are scarce resources, which is why you should routinely introspect your effort and think of ways of moving things from here. That’s the only way to keep your plate from overflowing. An example of an initiative that is common for my clients is the introduction of Intermissions to routinize creativity and innovation (again, intermissions are covered at length in The Tech Executive Operating System, but some background is available here). At the initial stages of kicking off such a change initiative, you are likely to be closely involved in the messaging, the concept’s reception, and fine-tuning as you go along.

Systematization: As the blue arrow indicates, the natural flow from the initiative state is to systematization. That is when your intention (and attention) is still required, but inertia is slowly picking up. Going back to the previous example of implementing intermissions, it often moves to the systematization stage after running 2-3 intermissions as scheduled. That is usually when some in the team start to get the hang of it and to maintain their own innovation backlogs (the key indicator for successful integration of the concept).

Autopilot: When an endeavor has been successfully inculcated in the team, it has gained the needed inertia and no longer requires your deliberate attention. The panoply of processes, habits, and systems that occupy this space form a substantial part of your organization’s culture.

Irrelevant: Well, if something is not being actively pushed, and has no inertia, then the issue is moot.

Garbage Collection

Do notice the red arrows indicating that regular introspection should result in matters moving to the Irrelevant square. It doesn’t matter if you’ve realized that an initiative is inappropriate for your team or if you’re letting go of an obsolete process. The essential part is that such garbage collection takes place regularly.

If you don’t do so, you will acquire too much cruft, resulting in a slow-moving behemoth. The Autopilot mode can backfire as a black hole, where things remain forever as never escape. Introspection is required to see which parts of your culture should be discarded as your organization evolves.

Iteration: Refinements and Readjustments

Of course, not every process that’s no longer working optimally should be discarded. Just as the natural flow is from Initiatives to Systematization to Autopilot, there should be a healthy rhythm of refinement for existing systems. When you perform your regular introspection and find something that could use some attention, it moves back to your plate as an initiative. That doesn’t mean that it has to be as complex or time-consuming as it was when you originally introduced the initiative. It’s the circle of (work) life, and it is healthy.

For example, I have seen clients working on introducing OKRs and realize a quarter or two later that they need to readjust how they come up with their objectives or keep track of their progress. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you did anything wrong the first time, and you shouldn’t treat it as so. Instead, just as we’ve embraced iteration in our technical processes, we should do the same with our organizations. I call this Change Culture. Introspect routinely, so you know where to initiate and where to iterate!