One thing I noticed early on in my career is that conducting a large meeting with diverse participants – who may possibly have different points of view or just points of view – on a difficult topic where the stakes were high, disagreement intense, and sensitivities involved, is an art that many people did not possess. Actually most people struggle to conduct even one on one meetings with these characteristics, leave along a large group meeting.
Creating a culture of transparency and innovation relies hugely on this skill.
Since this skill is not in abundance and is difficult to learn (leave alone master), most people who need to conduct these meetings find ways to avoid them. Decisions still need to be made. So, what do they do? They often end up quietly assembling a smaller group of pliable participants, sometimes excluding those that may have a direct stake in the decision, and pushing their point of view.
What are the consequences of this style?
People very quickly realize that it makes sense to be pliable and say ‘yes’ rather than have a point of view, because it is better to be a part of the decision even if you are unable to influence it rather than be excluded from the process. They very quickly realize that that it is better to be politically correct and quickly learn to say what the leader wants to hear. They pick up what the leader says in a meeting and paraphrase the same in a different meeting – no better way to demonstrate alignment and gain trust! Imagine you are in a team meeting and the leader quickly kills a point by saying “I completely disagree” even before the team has had a chance to discuss the point. Others would quickly learn that expressing a view is a waste of time unless it is aligned to the leader’s point of view.
Over a period of time, decision making becomes opaque. No one knows whether the minority views have been heard or not. No one knows whether the majority truly believe in what they are saying or are just being politically correct. There would be speculation on a lot of issues – why someone is rewarded or why some initiative is being piloted.
Innovation and risk taking needs an atmosphere of free speech and debate.
Just think about it. What is innovation? It starts with thinking a little differently. It is very easy to kill this spirit of thinking differently by publicly mocking the idea or the individual. Very soon word goes around and people get the message. Innovation thrives in an environment where there is energetic debate, healthy conflict, and above all intensity. In a place like this, leaders are likely to respond to an idea they disagree with, with something like, “If you feel strongly about it, go ahead and make it happen”. I recently got to know that Jeff Bezos calls this style “disagree and commit”.
Another soft culture element that is necessary for innovation to germinate and grow is a “non-hierarchical culture”. A non-hierarchical culture is not as simple or easy to create as it sounds. It requires the key leaders to display a strange combination of “assertiveness with humility”. Assertiveness when it comes to pushing people to stretch and set high standards, assertiveness when it comes to debating an idea or asking difficult questions. And, simultaneously, humility when it comes to leading in areas that you do not understand as well as someone very junior to you does, humility when it comes to issues that don’t directly relate to work, humility as in feeling energized rather than upset when you encounter disagreement from juniors.
This does not mean that hierarchical styles have no place. When there is little or no uncertainty and when what needs to be done is clear, then a hierarchical style makes life easy for everyone and the team. But these kinds of environments are rare.
What you say or do as a leader or a CEO, however small or trivial it may seem to you, matters more than you can ever imagine in creating this culture of transparency and innovation.
Leaders, and CEOs, are human. It is natural for them to have their likes and dislikes when it comes to people or ideas. But next time in a rewards function you feel tempted to stand up and cheer for one person who you like more than the rest, just think of what message it may send.
Next time you call for a small meeting of people who tamely agree with you on everything, think of what skills you need to develop to call a bigger meeting of the right stakeholders to harness diverse view points. You don’t need to fear disagreement and think you would lose control. Nobody loves disrupting you as you may imagine. They are more likely than not just expressing their view. See the merit in this. Encourage diverse points of view. You will get to listen to points of view you may never have heard of or even imagined. You can express and argue your point. At the end of it if you can’t create a consensus around your point of view don’t worry. It is only for the good. Don’t cling to your views too tightly. Commit yourself to attaching with the best outcomes.
If you worry that too many ideas kill execution and focus, explain this to people. Tell them that the quality of the idea is just 5% and the rest of the 95% is about getting buy-in, building a coalition of support, and execution. Teach them not to confuse ideators with innovators. Soon, everyone will get this and once they get it, you don’t need to worry that the surfeit of ideas will drown your focus. At the same time, the flame of true innovation would be kept alive.
Does the climate of innovation create chaos?
This is a common fear. Chaos, especially the destructive kind, is often created by cluttered thinking rather than by encouraging transparency and innovation. There is a tendency to confuse the two. The chaos that arises out of a climate that encourages innovation has a lot of positive energy and can be easily channeled with the right skills, while the chaos that is the creation of cluttered thinking is draining and damaging.
People that can innovate generally demand a lot of freedom – freedom to ideate, freedom to express, and freedom to try out their ideas. They thrive when there is a high degree of transparency. Opaqueness puts them off. Being able to provide this freedom, and dealing with the consequences of this freedom is both a skill, and an art. Leaders, CEOs and founders who wish to create innovation need to develop this skill.