Fernando Fischmann

Innovative Cultures Don’t Need Superheroes — They Are Better Off Without Them

27 June, 2018 / Articles

To be adaptive and innovative, a company needs to react to and even predict the needs of their customers. This requires not just a few good big decisions made by the leadership team but thousands of smaller decisions made throughout the organization. To build a culture that can make these microdecisions, you need to delegate responsibilities and decision-making power to the many people on the front lines.

Superhero cultures don’t do this well because they focus on a few great people who carry and protect the whole. Innovative companies, on the other hand, benefit from a collective approach where the goals and missions of the company are widely implemented. This claim seems counter to everything our media tells us about success. Apple had Steve Jobs, Amazon has Jeff Bezos and Tesla has Elon Musk.

Shouldn’t we conclude that superhero leaders are the secret to innovation? How can the popular narrative on innovation be so off?

The difference between a human and a dog is that when you point, most dogs look at your finger while most people look at where you are pointing. To view a leader like Bezos as a superhero innovator is like looking at a finger when someone points. Bezos’ greatest achievement is in building Amazon into an organization that can thrive on innovation.

The most innovative companies that avoid the superhero culture tend to have five basic characteristics:

  1. Low power distance.Hierarchical cultures value power and distinction. That means the highest-paid people in the room make the decisions and they don’t want to be questioned. Cultures that value low power distance do the opposite.  Decisions and actions can be vetted and questioned by everyone.
  1. Actions and decisions are made at the leaves.Hierarchies horde information at the top and then expect people to come to them to make decisions. Such hierarchies want plenty of action, but typically, these are repetitive actions that have already been pre-planned. Innovative cultures are the opposite. They pair actions and decisions at the leaves.
  1. High transparency.To launch a rocket, you need access to a lot of fast-changing information. Running a company is no different. This is achieved with transparency. It may be hard to provide transparency, but the upside of doing so is that good metrics enable everyone to know if their contribution is making a difference.
  1. The leadership sets the principles, goals and metricswhile clearing the way for everyone else to deliver on those goals. If you pair actions and decisions at the leaves, you must be very good at communicating goals, priorities and metrics from the roots. Leadership should spend a lot of time here. The leadership establishes the targets so everyone else can know where they are going.
  1. The leadership establishes, maintains and recruits into the culture.They also celebrate good decisions and help people avoid bad patterns. While goals and priorities change on a quarterly or yearly basis, principles are more lasting. The leadership needs to make sure that they have a healthy culture and that this culture is being replicated. They also should recruit the right people into the culture and guide the wrong people out of it.

Now that we have the right framing on creating innovative cultures, what practices do the best technology companies employ to avoid the problems of a superhero culture?

Problem: Hero cultures celebrate individuals who are attracted to the limelight.

Solution: Counter this by giving praise to the leaves of the organization — not just the people at the top. Also, favor celebrating the work of a team where possible.

Companies like Google have many projects that swelled up through the ranks. Gmail was a product started by Paul Buchheit but ultimately taken to market by a team of key individuals.

Paul began his work on Gmail in August 2001. He later worked on Google Groups but ultimately reused that code for Project Caribou. A month later Sanjeev Singh joined him. Finally, Brian Rakowski became Gmail’s first product manager, and in 2003, Kevin Fox designed the interface.

It wasn’t until April 2004 that the service was finally launched external to Google. At that time, a dozen people were working on the project. Everyone now knows Gmail, but that success isn’t associated with co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The team that brought us Gmail is the hero here. (Full disclosure, Google Ventures, GV, is an investor in Voicera.)

Problem: Individuals who gravitate toward the shiny tasks will often take credit for the work of others while individuals who tackle the gritty tasks are often overlooked.

Solution: Flip this by celebrating the tasks that create the platforms for others to succeed. For example, Jordan Cohen at Pfizer helped launch PfizerWorks, a productivity initiative that allows employees to outsource boring parts of their jobs. Jordan let his team (not just himself) become the face of the program by making sure they received recognition at public events.

Salesforce is a company that is known to innovate, and its rising revenue and high retention rates attest to that. But the company’s innovation is not created only from the top. We have experienced that directly because Salesforce is an investor in Voicera, and we have seen innovative ideas implemented across multiple levels in the company. In describing this approach, CEO Marc Benioff says, “They can’t look to me for all the answers. I don’t have them, and that’s not our culture. They are coming to me with their ideas and their visions. It’s not my role to be the only visionary in town.”

So as you look across the ecosystem, if you find a CEO who understands that superhero cultures don’t drive innovation, make sure not to celebrate that CEO. Instead, try complementing their culture, their team and their innovative achievements.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.



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