Enlightened Self-Interest Lights A Fire

As a change agent, coach, and guide I often help find how a change will benefit the people that management is asking to change. I have often heard that you have to find “what is in it for them” (WIIFT). The idea is that if something is in it for them, they will be more likely to embrace the change, or do the right thing. The ethical or philosophical concept is often called enlightened self-interest. Steve Tendon, author of Tame Your Work Flow (currently the focus of our Re-read Saturday Feature), had an exchange in which he suggested that enlightened self-interest would lead product owners and leaders to put the good of the firm in front of their own interests. The idea of enlightened self-interest is not commonly understood (I have struggled with it) and is not a panacea.  

“I have no idea what the phrase enlightened self-interest could possibly mean!” Karyn Ross Author, Artist, Coach & Consultant

Let’s explore what this idea really means. The definition I use is “acting to further the interest of others to further the interest of the whole.” The similar Wikipedia definition is “Enlightened self-interest is a philosophy in ethics which states that persons who act to further the interests of others (or the interests of the group or groups to which they belong), ultimately serve their own self-interest.” The opposite of enlightened self-interest is myopic greed. Greed is often perceived as generating good for the individual (and their cronies) while hurting the whole (this foreshadows why enlightened self-interest is not a panacea to drive change).  

Servant leadership is a common concept in agile circles. A servant leader works to empower and serve the people he or she leads. Outside of scenarios of pure altruism (which are very rare) servant leaders have their own interests at heart. I live in northern Ohio, which has a substantial Amish community in rural areas. Occasionally when driving to a hike, I have come across barn-raisings. Barn-raisings are an example of enlightened self-interest (you lend a hand when someone needs it, you get a hand when you need it).  Enlightened self-interest requires a philosophical and ethical framework that supports this transaction; this form of reciprocity. All organizations that use agile, TameFlow, or any other framework have an expectation of a payback. Methods and frameworks are adopted so that value is delivered sooner, to increase quality, and to make sure the right work is worked on. In the minds of the decision-makers choosing to adopt these frameworks, they are doing well by doing good.

Next: Why an enlightened self-interest is not a panacea.