There is No Them

Lessons on leadership from the world of game development

Pain is Good

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Pain is good, or, more specifically, understanding how to make pain work for you is an important lesson for any organization.

All systems need feedback – without feedback any system is doomed to failure. Whether a slow sink into failure or an abrupt crash of a failure, without the mechanisms to change a system based on what the system is doing well or not doing well failure is assured. Pain is an important kind of feedback, and when seen in the right light, can be a powerful tool for improvement.

What do I mean when I say ‘pain’? Pain is the uncomfortable feeling someone gets, real or imagined, that indicates something has not gone according to plan, or as well as was hoped. Pain is suffering. At a very physical level, pain is what the body feels when it tries to do something that is bad for it – when you touch a hot oven you feel pain because touching a hot oven is not good for your body. Pain serves as a negative motivator – do thing X you feel pain, so the lesson is quickly learned (whether by a human, a dog, or even perhaps a plant) not do thing X.

Pain would not work as a negative motivator if the connection between the pain and an action were not completely clear. If by touching a hot even it causes my toe to hurt its harder to associate the two things. If touching a hot oven made my toe hurt sometime later, it would be much harder to associate the two things. If you can’t associate the two things you can’t change your behaviour, because the you don’t connect the result to the cause. Pain works as well as it does because its a result that is usually easily connected to a cause.

Often in organizations pain is felt in ways that are too disconnected from the cause to allow the organization to meaningfully change behavior. When person A screws up, eventually leading to person B feeling pain, its difficult for either of them, or any one else, to connect the two events. Not being able to connect the events means the organization is doomed to let it happen again.

Leadership can use pain as an effective tool for their organization by building systems that do a better job of connecting pain to its cause. When person A screws up they should feel the pain. Or, if the only way it works is that person B feels the pain, there should be enough transparency in the system that the two events can be easily connected.

By letting the organization know that pain getting routed to the right place is important to the leadership you enlist everyone in the effort. Instead of seeing pain as a bad thing, something to be avoided or ignored, accept that pain will happen and can be useful. Reward those who make an effort to seek out and find the pain they are causing. Make examples of processes that allow pain to flow to the place where it can do the most good. Flip the presumption that those feeling the pain are responsible for finding the source and fixing it; make understanding the pain you cause (or might cause) something each person owns.

“That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is sometimes true, but not always. Instead of just believing in the truism, make pain work for you by being intentional about how its connected to a cause. Then you will see why Pain is Good.


Written by joshuahoward

November 4, 2008 at 2:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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