I’ll never forget a tense conversation I had with my leadership team about the launch of a key tech product. We were discussing why we weren't getting broad adoption among our users. One of my team members in the company, which operates in the home-improvement sector, offered this explanation: "This industry is just slow to adopt new technologies."
I’ve been thinking about that comment ever since. But not because it’s accurate.
As a matter of fact, construction was the first industry to heavily use cell phones—back when they were big, blocky, and expensive. On a deeper level, what struck me was the frame of mind behind the remark. By making the excuse that "it’s the industry," you let yourself off the hook. It’s a mental dead end, and it's a well-known psychological phenomenon referred to as an "external locus of control." It means that you assume some outside force —the economy, dumb luck—is running your life, your work, your business. But if you have an "internal locus of control," you believe that you are in the driver's seat.
Making this switch is never easy, but it's something you can learn how to do. And in my experience, it really does come down to your mind-set—one in which you reflexively take total ownership of your work and all that comes with it.
To be sure, this can be pretty frightening; most of us understandably may not like to confront the idea that our success or failure rests solely in our hands. And while it's true that many outside factors do shape and define our spheres of action, it's this conviction that nevertheless predominates among some of the most effective leaders—who, by the way, are far from delusional optimists as a result.
Instead, embracing what some call "radical responsibility" requires seeing things as they actually are, limitations and all, and asking hard and careful questions about how they got to be that way.
This is one area where business can learn from science. The scientific method is about making hypotheses and testing if they're wrong. Instead of looking for reasons why you're right, it's more useful to try to find ways that you might be wrong.
In physics, this spirit finds special form in "first-principles" thinking. People usually reason by analogy: They look for a precedent and try to iterate on that. Take the example of transportation. In the late 19th century, everybody was competing to create the best horse-drawn carriage. But as soon as the combustion engine arrived on the scene, the world changed.
If that oversimplifies the reality of technological innovation, it's at least partly the point; with first principles, you’re trying to get at fundamental truths. Elon Musk has spoken explicitly about this approach, which he credits with having helped him launch SpaceX. "I said, okay, let’s look at the first principles," Musk recalled in Wired:
What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. And then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around 2% of the typical price—which is a crazy ratio for a large mechanical product.
Rather than taking anything for granted, Musk went to the core of rocket construction, evaluating the very materials themselves.
But this doesn’t have to be rocket science. I learned about it at the kitchen table growing up in Canada. My parents would have my brothers and me take a side of a debate over dinner. Then we’d switch, suddenly debating the same issue for the other side. My parents knew what they were doing. Those exercises trained us to look at the world with a critical eye, and I think it's helped me considerably as a founder and CEO in the startup world, despite being an introvert and in the face of major, crisis-level challenges.
With radical responsibility, your success depends not on any external factor, but your willingness to see and act on things as they really are. So how do you develop this frame of mind? While it’s a lifelong pursuit, here are a few first steps you can take:
1. Search for your first first principles. A handy way to get to breakthrough insights is by asking, "What is true?" about a conventional topic, the nature of which many of us take for granted.
A super-simple, everyday example: You might think that exercising is grueling by nature. But really, working out just means being active. If you find an activity you enjoy—whether it's playing basketball with friends or doing yoga after work—it can become a specific activity that you find pleasurable. But first, you have to move beyond your preexisting bias against exercise in general.
2. Give yourself time to reflect. A Harvard Business School study found that new hires at an Indian outsourcing company had 23% higher performance than the control group when they took 15 minutes at the end of the day to reflect on what they did well. Why? Because when you assess your performance, you’re gathering firsthand feedback.
Taking time to reflect on your achievements, no matter how small, can become a powerful habit that lets you see your own decisions and actions bearing fruit.
3. Surround yourself with loyal dissenters. If you ask me, one reason for Volkswagen's
recent catastrophe was that the company's leadership got way too single-minded. Productive, internal disagreement had become scarce.
One study of over 2,500 U.S. corporations found that when there’s too much consensus at the top, firms have lower valuations, lower profits, and a higher risk of fraud. At my company, finding people I respect—and who will respectfully disagree with me—has been a lifesaver time and again. If everyone holds everyone else accountable for their decisions, you'll be better able to see how they play out (for good, ill, and anywhere in between). And that will make you and everyone in your company captains of your own fate.
Ultimately, embracing radical responsibility is all about building these habits and relationships over time. But as you do, you'll become better at noticing blind spots you otherwise would have missed. And you’ll be taking ownership over your work—and life—in a whole new way.