Inception at Work
I saw the new Leonardo Dicaprio movie, Inception, the other night. While I only understood about 75% of the movie, I did find it very entertaining. And over the past few days, I've found myself pondering how the idea from the movie can and should be applied to the business world.
Without giving away any spoilers, the movie at its core is about the idea of planting an idea in someone's head – what Leo calls "Inception." A key requirement for inception to be successful is that the inception target needs to believe that the idea is his or her own idea, otherwise, the target will reject the idea, and the inception will fail.
I'd submit that any good business leader practices inception on a daily basis. Now, we don't literally invade other people's minds like Leo does in the movie, and neither do we hire architects to create false realities. But as leaders, our job is to declare a destination and then help our teams get there. The challenge is that no one wants to be told what to do or how to do it. If you have a boss telling you exactly what to do and how to do it, well, that's called micromanagement. And a micromanaged employee is not an engaged or a successful employee.
A good leader suggests the kernel of an idea to his teammates, but gives them the room to make the idea their own. As a leader, even if you know the answer, it's always more effective – and rewarding – for other people to arrive at the same conclusion on their own. Sometimes that means giving people a portion of the story, or some of the facts, instead of the whole answer. The trick is to give enough information that people arrive at the conclusion you want, but to leave them enough room that they can figure it out themselves, or even better, come up with a better solution that you hadn't thought of.
Inception isn't only something that you can practice on people who report to you. Inception is equally important when it comes to upward management. When speaking to a general manager, or even the CEO, it's often enough to give that person one or two key facts, and then let them draw their own conclusions. It's frequently a very effective way of letting management know there is an issue inside the organization without running to them and stating, "Person XYZ isn't doing their job." Nobody likes a tattletale. But if you report on a missing business result, then management can quickly determine on their own who is not doing their job and take action.
Now, I realize this all sounds very nefarious, and that it could come across as if I am recommending that you manipulate people all day at work – or that I spend my days at Novell manipulating people. I'm not advocating (nor am I doing) that at all. Rather, I'm stating that ideas are powerful, but they are far more powerful when an individual owns an idea. A good leader plants the seed of an idea in the mind of his teammates, and then enables everyone else to own that idea so that it can grow in unexpected and wonderful ways.