How does your business “think”? Do you sit around a conference room table sharing ideas and the one with the most votes wins? Every business has its own unique culture that is formed based on leadership, employees, and how employees interact. Is your culture helping or hurting your ability to remain relevant in today’s changing environment?
In my 15 year corporate career I worked for a variety of different types of leaders. Each company had its own culture. Sometimes I was a good fit for that culture. Sometimes I wasn’t. A few of the companies I worked for had a culture that rewarded politics over hard work. I wasn’t a good fit; I’m not very political and find “drama” and “gossip” ineffective and a waste of time. Another company rewarded “fitting in” with the team. Literally, it was like high school. There were cliques of “cool kids” and “outcasts”. The “outcasts” would walk into a room and hear silence as the “cool kids” tried to change the subject from talking about them behind their backs. There were inside jokes and pranks. The “cool kids” would hang out together after work and buy each other presents at holidays. The executive leaders participated in all the fun and ultimately determined who was a “cool kid” and who was an “outcast.” Ultimately, I wasn’t a good fit. For awhile I was a “cool kid” after I was hired, but the constant talking about others behind their back grated on my morale. The problem with this type of culture is that in order to “fit in” you can’t make waves. I’m not very good at that. I’ve always been that employee who swims upstream and breaks rules in the spirit of progress.
“[For constructive conflict,] we have to resist the neurobiological drive which means that we really prefer people mostly like ourselves.” — Margaret Heffernan
While companies may not realize it the culture of how employees interact, how they are rewarded and what is celebrated as success plays a huge role in innovation. For many companies, innovation happens when the majority of the group agrees on a specific direction. You’ve been in these meetings. Someone throws out an idea and someone else says, “oh yeah I like that, let’s pursue that further”. You debate the details of making the idea a reality and hash out resource requirements, budget, and timing. If all of those tests are passed you move forward. These are the companies that will “agree to disagree” when conflict over an idea arises and put it on the shelf.
“The biggest catastrophes that we’ve witnessed rarely come from information that is secret or hidden. It comes from information that is freely available and out there, but that we are willfully blind to.” — Margaret Heffernan
Disagreement is the Core of Innovation
The problem with the “agree to disagree” mindset and “fear of conflict” mentality is that it kills real innovation. This creates groupthink and today’s digital environment couldn’t be a worse time to be stuck in this trap. My absolute favorite companies that I worked for appreciated the spirit of healthy debate. You would have 10 people around a table and an idea would come out. Instead of trying to tell you why the idea would work, the group would try to figure out why it “wouldn’t” work. After all the reasons it wouldn’t work were on the table the group would collaborate on how to overcome those challenges. There were spirited debates, employees raising their voice to make their point, hitting their fist on the table when they couldn’t, and even tears. Yes, tears when employees couldn’t get their idea through the filter. The company’s leadership was part of these debates. The strength of this leadership was powerful. They encouraged employees to disagree with them and present a solid case for why. At the end of a passionate debate we would walk away and grab a beer together. We’d chat about the kids, life and the latest news story that had our attention. In the end, we were all friends who respected each other. We knew that the debate was part of the process and wasn’t personal. We respected that the debate made all of us better and ultimately the company better.
“If we aren’t going to be afraid of conflict, we have to see it as thinking.”- Margaret Heffernan
This environment created critical thinking skills that allowed innovative ideas to improve with each debate. The real beauty is that it was rare for the original idea to emerge as the winner. Instead, each idea would morph into something that was so much better than any individual could conceive. Ideas were seeds that grew in the board room and the flowers of innovation were watered. Fortunately, I had this experience early in my career and it became the basis for what I expected when I threw out an idea. I never wanted a group of “yes” people around the table. I wanted a group of “maybe” people who were strong enough to debate an idea into yes. Then I wanted a couple of “no” people who always found something wrong. There is something really rewarding in turning a no to a yes through insightful and healthy controversy. There was absolutely no “pulling rank” to get an idea through. In this room, there were no titles, only equals.
“A fantastic model of collaboration: thinking partners who aren’t echo chambers.” — Margaret Heffernan (at 04:59)”
When I hired employees I was looking for creating that right mix around the table. There isn’t a place for wallflowers or “yes” people, I wanted the team of individuals who could collaborate and swim upstream together. They weren’t scared to disagree with leadership, but they also had the wherewithal to do it respectfully and in the spirit of improvement.
I was reminded of why I feel this is so important in business on a flight home recently. I listened to Margaret Heffernan’s Ted Talk, Dare to Disagree again. I listened to it through a different lens. I listened as an entrepreneur who works with companies to figure out where digital marketing and social media fits into the context of their business. I listened as an employer who works hard to get people who can truly drive innovation on the bus. I listened as mother who tries to instill independence and critical thinking skills in her children. I listened as one of the leaders of Social Media Explorer, a blog where we try to push the thinking every day. Finally, I listened as me. The person who’s never been scared to disagree and has always played devil’s advocate.
As we think about the future of business we should be thinking about how our culture will help or hurt our success. Is your company Built to Last or just dying a slow death? The convergence of digital, marketing, customer service, sales and human resources is here. Are you in the game to win it? Or are you just playing along?
Join the debate. Leave a comment and share your perspective on how culture is helping or hurting innovation at companies.