When the engineer said jump, the CEO said how high
Updated: Aug 13, 2019
A tech leader discovers the power of dramatic humility.
When we reflect on an experience, one moment tends to stands out. Usually it's the best moment or the worst, or the end. Or the most special. But what is special? What makes memorable moments memorable? And what makes them effective? To learn about impact, I study moments that stay with you. Here's what I've learnt from Martin's Jump.
"What have I done?"
Herman Maritz, head of engineering at global online market place OLX Group, is standing in the kitchen of his Berlin apartment. Today Herman has been showing us his passion for tinkering with home automation. At first a bit nervous about hosting his boss, he has gradually loosened up. Now he's eying a scene behind the camera: CEO Martin Scheepbouwer is jumping in the air while letting out battle cries, furiously attempting to activate the motion sensor light in Herman's hall. About to double over with laughter, there's also a tinge of apprehension in Herman's face: "What have I done?"
The moment in Herman's apartment happened during an episode of Follow the Technologist, a lead-by-example video series. OLX had commissioned me to support Martin's speech during the annual OLX Top 100 meeting. Martin was going to call on the company to give more autonomy to engineers. But he also wanted his engineers to feel that with more power also comes more responsibility. The purpose of Follow the Technologist was to reinforce this message. In one episode Martin teams up with a young developer who loves working through the night. In another we see him explore a train station with an engineer who's mad about scale. By following engineers in whatever inspires them, Martin signals that he is handing over control - and will allow for unplanned things to happen.
Follow engineers who ask for guidance.
After the jumping scene Herman explains to Martin that his automatic hall lights are a good example of a wrong problem. He says that engineers love and need freedom, but are easily tempted to work on the wrong problems. At the Top 100 meeting, this resonated with people. Martin's Jump became a moment that encapsulated the essence of the OLX vision for nurturing technology talent: follow engineers who ask for guidance.
For some people at OLX Group this vision is now forever tied to the memory of their CEO jumping like crazy to please his grinning head of engineering.
Summary: dramatic humility can be very effective
It reverses the direction of resistance.
When you take a decision or launch an idea, other people's natural response is to resist. If you say: "Here's more freedom", the reply will be: "That's too little, too late." Martin's Jump points to a way to overcome this resistance. The impact ingredients are:
1. Humility. Ask what the other person wants you to do and then do it unconditionally.
2. Dramatic exaggeration. Genuinely put in the effort but go beyond what's reasonable. Martin didn't just jump in the air, he also roared while he was at it.
3. Laughing state. Enjoy the situation, have fun with whatever happens.
4. Bubble. Create a space and time where the normal rules and hierarchies do not apply.
To inspire different behaviour, you need to make it safe and easy to behave differently. Filming is excellent for this, because the camera creates a bubble almost instantly. But you can also suggest: let's have a different kind of conversation for the next 30 minutes.
Dramatic humility works because it reverses the direction of resistance. When you put your whole fate in other people's hands, you also shift the burden of responsibility. And then "too little, too late" can quickly become "yes, but not too much please".