TL;DR Every independently thinking person can easily recognize all the enterprise talks regarding "engagement", "motivation" & "ownership" as stinking pile of worthless, corporate rubbish. Neither knowledge nor creative workers can be so easily "tricked" (even if they can, in fact they're just fooling themselves short-term ...) for "higher engagement" - sustainable recipe for strong-performing, highly-effective organization has to be based on principles of everyone having (at least) "skin in the game": a win-win-win-... scenario with everyone proportionally participating in both risks & successes (shared definition!) of enterprise they all contribute to.

If you've read this blog before, you probably remember that I'm absolutely obsessed with the idea of "ability-to-execute" (A2E) - ephemeral amalgamate of skills, experience & attitude that makes people able to deliver, learn & improve (non-trivial stuff) in sustainable manner. I've already written about A2E on more than 1 occasion, but it's a great opportunity to re-visit this topic, just because of recent premiere of the latest book by Nicholas Nassim Taleb - which is all about one of the most important factors that do contribute to A2E - "skin in the game".

What does it even mean? The term is not new & it refers to your personal stake in activity you are performing. You've got the stake in the game if you personally feel both positive & negative consequences of your actions, in reasonably proportions:

  • great success (that you've greatly contributed to!) should bring great rewards
  • risks you take should also be your personal risks - you need to feel negative consequences of the failure

The point is of course very clear - make the game either "win-win-win-..." or "lose-lose-lose-..." - in other words, align everyone's targets (& successes, & failures) and make sure that all treat their shared goals as they'd treat their own private ones. It's the perfect answer to poorly defined problem of so-called "engagement" - corporate attempt to depict one's willingness to contribute, based on very shallow motivating factors (more money/valuable asset, "vertical" promotion).

Your skin, your game

How to achieve that (in context of software delivery)? Oh, that's not that hard in theory, but practice is completely different kind of story ...

  • "business people" & "IT people" have to work together, within the same unit, with the same goals, targets, metrics & KPIs - no more dedicated "IT department" - "software developer" is just a specialization of "product developer" where "product" is a business term: value-adding, IT-powered service

  • work cannot "flow" between IT & business people, there can't be any gated, formal demand management (in-flow of work) or acceptance/approval proces (out-flow of work) - all specialties need to collaborate TOGETHER, in the same space & time, contributing what they can provide best to the end-product they are accountable for

  • work-related decision-taking has to be as close to the "place" affected by decision as possible: no more "political" decisions made by content-free executives, no more consultants who bring over-generic "best industry practices" w/o feeling any consequence of their recommendations and / or full understanding of local context

  • building a (personal) brand & gaining network recognition - providing strong marketing incentive by giving the green light to reach out (to the community, whole industry) with auxiliary product (something out of company's core domain that may be shared w/o sacrificing competitive advantage) - probably by Open Sourcing a generic library/framework, publishing some whitepapers, contributing to already existing initiatives, backing up events/conferences/meet-ups, etc.

  • providing an unconstrained, highly-individualized runway to accelerated growth - adapting model to individuals & their recognized potential, instead of falling back to corporate, globally formed "ladders":

    1. investigate & recognize potential
    2. set-up sandbox, confirm goals
    3. unleash the hound & watch the hunt
    4. adjust sandbox according to the performance, award according to the outcomes
    5. rinse & repeat
  • there are stock (share) options as well, but this topic is far more complex than it seems - due to its long-term consequences (& possibility of exploting the "system"), potentially going far beyond individual's involvement at given point

That's the essence of true "ownership" (responsibility treated personally) - something that can't be imposed, forced, manipulated-in or bribed-in (using lowest, extrinsic motivations) - everyone has to play the same game, based on the same rules, exactly as appealing for all the players!

Your own monument

"Exegi monumentum aere perennius." ("I have made a monument more lasting than bronze.")

-- Horace, 3rd book of Odes

Actually, Taleb introduces additional discriminant to differentiate "skin in the game" from "soul in the game" - while the first is just about having vital stake in your endeavors, the second is about making it fully personal, out of intrinsic motivations. It's about sense of mission, deep belief in the reason, putting your whole heart into something with profound meaning - stuff you really believe in & are hooked on.

When writing about all of that, the first word that comes on my mind is of course entrepreneurship, but both skin or soul in the game do not have to be about your own, personal business. There's even a term coined for that - "intrapreneurship".

But doesn't it sound ... unhealthy? After all, job's supposed to be ... job. There are so many priorities in your life -> isn't being paid for given tasks, performed 8h per day a fair deal?

Answer is ... highly individual (personal).

There is & there always will be place for 2 categories of people:

  1. goal-oriented & ...
  2. ... task-oriented ones

While the latter do not need (or appreciate) more freedom, more challenge or space for higher level of involvement, the former are in general more ambitious, engaged & "hungry" when it comes to thinking ahead. There's a place for both, but it doesn't mean it's the same place ...

  • more creative, more unique & barrier-breaking roles are definitely NOT for task-oriented people
  • more variable work environments, where one's work can't be easily "scripted" (predicted & pre-designed) are poor choice for task-oriented people as well
  • setting up work-system for task-oriented people & expecting them to provide results like the goal-oriented ones is plainly stupid (yet happens all the time): the smartest will leave with their ideas to start their own businesses (& gain as much as they can out of them)
  • mixing these 2 categories of people within the same work system requires good planning up-front, to make sure that both groups put-in & get-out exactly what they've subscribed for, without holding a grudge against the other group

Your only REAL investment

I won't be convincing you to anything. Neither that you should look for companies that can provide your proper "skin in the game" work system, nor that it's more beneficial to aim for goal-based individual attitude. My way of thinking is in fact much more simple than that:

My work at any of my employers (former or present) is an investment. Yes. An investment of the most precious resource I do own:


There's nothing more precious as:

  • you can't recover time already spend (& you can't even pause its flow)
  • you have the limited pool of it & you can't extend beyond some threshold
  • there are plenty of ways to spend time, many of them very satisfactory, pleasant or fulfilling while there are others that make you feel miserable, depressed & unhappy (which can impact even the happy moments)

So it should be very clear that the way of spending time has a humongous difference, especially when it comes to work -> we're spending there so much time that it's crucial to make it a benefactory experience! Get us much out of it! Satisfaction, self-development, value added, ambitions fulfilled! All of that!

This is very simple thinking -> you're going to spend fucking 8 hours there anyway, so WHY NOT TO TAKE AS MUCH of it possible? Contribute as much as possible (without working your ass off overtime, 8-9 hours per day is already shitloads of potential contribution) & reap as much as possible!

This is basically why the idea of the skin in the game resonates with me so strongly. I won't commit my time (again, the most precious resource I do own) to company that:

  • won't let me contribute as much as I can (on my level of proficiency, experience, responsibility) & give me necessary level of independence (freedom of making decisions, etc.) - ofc holding me accountable for all the consequences of my actions
  • won't award me fairly in proportion to the contribution I bring to the business
  • won't set up the work environment in a way (culture!) that enables me to surround myself with individuals that are equally motivated & aim at equally ambitious goals

We ALL have to be in this game together, equally involved. Otherwise, it will never work.

P.S. BTW read the bloody book - it's freakin' awesome.

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