The Free Ice Cream Phenomenon
There are very few things in life that you can predict with absolute certainty. But the next time you are out on a hot summer day, find a random kid on the street and ask him if he wants some ice cream. See what he says.
Most corporate environments consist of a bunch of teams all working in concert to achieve a common goal. How these teams interact is highly dependent on the specific processes, individuals, and culture at the company. But in larger organizations, the interaction between teams frequently devolves into something transactional. That is to say that teams engage when they need something but not always in between those needs.
So what triggers a transaction?
When teams interact only at the point of necessity, then it is the specific request that triggers interaction. My function is dependent on your function, so I will open a ticket. My team needs something from your team, therefore I will call a meeting. I would like you to do something, so I will send you an email.
This type of operation is normal. There is nothing inherently wrong about a need-based approach. Forgetting for a moment the value of relationships, this is a perfectly reasonable way for different organizations to interact.
However, problems do start to pop up when there is too much distance between the requestor and the fulfiller.
Imagine two engineering teams – a platform team and an application team. The application team requires platform changes to add some capability or maybe increase the scaling numbers for a particular application. Or maybe a sales team and a product management team are dependent on each other to deliver against some deal. The sales team makes feature requests into the product management team. Whatever the nature of the request, one team heaves requests over the wall to the other team.
The dynamic here is that the cost of making a request is virtually nothing. It costs nothing for the application team to request new APIs in the platform. It costs nothing for a sales team to request a new customer feature. It costs nothing for a line of business to make a new request into IT.
So how do you decide whether you should service a particular request?
Oftentimes validation is performed on the need side. “Do you really need that thing you asked for?” But this is like asking that random kid on a hot summer day if he wants ice cream. Of course he wants it. Who wouldn’t want free ice cream? Sure, it might cost money to make the ice cream, keep it cold, and distribute it, but those are hidden costs from the kid’s perspective. All he knows is that, in the moment, he is getting some ice cream.
So it is with corporate functions. When teams and individuals are faced with a free ice cream scenario, there is no other answer than “Yes!” But the Free Ice Cream Phenomenon is actually more prevalent than you probably imagine.
How many of us have worked at companies where upper management was not making ideal decisions? If we would only just do X or Y, we would be so much more successful! From our perspective, the solution to whatever the problem exists is so painfully obvious. It is so obvious in fact that we start to question whether management is capable or oblivious or whatever.
This is just another manifestation of the Free Ice Cream phenomenon.
From your perspective, the answer is clear. Fund this project or fire that person! You can see with unquestioning certainty how the series of events will play out. But there is no cost for you to make that decision or take that action. You are, in essence, that random kid on a hot summer day.
It is generally not the case that people are as incompetent as we imagine them to be. Sure, it might be en vogue to quote something like the Peter Principle, which concludes that people are promoted to the point of their incompetence. But the reality is that most people are actually at least mildly clueful, and most problems that need solving are rarely as simple as we imagine them from the outside. There is almost always some other dynamic at play – budget, personnel, competing requests, and so on.
Even worse, our love of free ice cream makes us so incapable of seeing the fullness of the scenario that we end up doing a poor job representing our point of view.
When you stand and petulantly demand some course of action without regard for the bigger picture, you immediately place yourself into a tiny little box. This person doesn’t understand the full scope of what he is asking, so I can disregard this particular request. Sure, you might know what you are talking about (might even be right in absolution), but the fact that you present your case in isolation makes it less compelling to the person you are trying to influence.
Instead of just taking the free ice cream, try a simple acknowledgment of the associated costs. By placing your request in context, you do a couple of things. First, you demonstrate that you are informed, which lends your position more weight. Second, you highlight that you understand the other person’s position, which helps build rapport. And finally, you open up a conversation about costs and tradeoffs, which is typically the core of the problem in the first place.
It is rare that someone doesn’t do something because they never thought of it. It is far more likely that inaction is related to something else. You are far better off exposing that something else straight away and focusing the discussion there.
Ultimately, being successful as an individual or as an organization requires more than just transactional engagement. To some extent, we all need to understand that free ice cream isn’t really free.