Seven Steps to a Robust Corporate Culture
By: Jake Breeden, author of Tipping Sacred Cows (Jossey-Bass, 2013)
The seven actions below can help ensure that leaders are excellent at the things that really matter. This is an energy conservation program that preserves a leader’s best for the most meaningful actions, and encourages a bit of play along the way. And it helps leaders create a corporate culture that tolerates rough progress but insists on excellence in the end.
1. Lower the Stakes
The first step for you to achieve excellence as a leader is to lower the stakes. Don’t make everything you do a campaign for some larger group. If you want to hit the target, forget about the group you’re part of.
Excellence is a tough aim to achieve without trying to change a stereotype along the way. Remove any priming that reminds you of your membership in some negatively stereotyped group and narrow your focus to the task at hand.
Do you want something you’re working on to be really good? If so, ask yourself: Does it need to be good? Or are you just trying to prove that you need to be good? Is it about what the work needs, or what you need?
2. Ask Dumb Questions
If you need to tackle the unhealthy desire to seem smart, hit it head on. Lead your team in a dumb-question lunch, where everyone asks the dumbest questions possible, with no eye-rolling allowed.
As a leader you have a responsibility to create a safe place to experiment. That might mean clearing someone’s calendar and it might mean clearing someone’s conscience. Guilt can prevent playful exploration of new ideas and a sense of obligation can halt playful progress.
3. Embrace the Hacker Mentality
You’re in a conference room listening to two people have the same debate for the sixth time.
One says, “We’ve got to build this new system.” The other one says, “Yeah, but people will never use the system once we build it.”
You could delay the debate by asking the two workers to gather evidence or check in with other people. Or you could kill the debate by challenging the person who advocates the new system to leave the meeting and test a prototype of the system that afternoon.
As the Old English proverb says, “the shortest answer is doing the thing.” (And there weren’t many software companies in Old England.)
4. Accept the Mess of Progress
If you’re not prepared to pay the price of a mess, you’re not likely to get the benefits of progress.
Progress is messy. Raise your tolerance for messes and you’ll make more progress. To bring others with you, you’ll need to share your mess, which can feel uncomfortable. But sharing a mess can be persuasive.
As Baba Siv, a professor at Stanford said, “I have observed time after time that if you build a polished prototype, others will see flaws. If you build a rough prototype, they will see potential.”
5. Start a Meaningful Journey with a Meaningless Map
Stumble. Bumble. Get over yourself. Burnish your brand as a leader by taking some public risks, smartly.
Leaders who must cling to an excellent map to get started may stay stuck out in the cold. Planning is a healthy process to get a team on the same pages. But let your plan be a starting point, not a pair of handcuffs.
6. Embrace OK
Is there a war in your head, between the urge to develop your people and the desire to produce an excellent outcome?
It’s a natural dilemma of leadership. I suggest this is a time to remember bold balance and say to both of those options.
Let your people feel the powerful motivational force that you trust them to be OK in the moments of truth and they’ll worry as much about excellence as you.
If they don’t then you’ve got the wrong person on your team, and you need to know that as soon as possible. Putting all the excellence on your own shoulders slows down development of your people and it prevents you from learning if they belong on your team.
7. Play Around
I’m not talking about occasional trips to the golf course or go-kart racing as a relief from the drudgery of the job. I’m suggesting that work itself should involve less drudgery and should feel more like racing go-karts.
And don’t think playing is the province of unproductive children. As the very productive playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.”
Your seven action steps:
1. Lower the Stakes. Don’t burden yourself by viewing everything you do at work as a referendum on how qualified you are to hold your current position. Instead reduce the emotional load of work by adopting a shorter-term perspective.
2. Ask Dumb Questions. Become an expert at forgetting the orthodoxies and accepted truths related to your work. Make it safe for others to question basic principles instead of feeling the need to demonstrate expertise.
3. Embrace the Hacker Mentality. It’s OK to feel a little shame and discomfort with your work – it can be a sign that you’re taking the risk of getting your ideas to market more quickly. Let go of the need to feel pride in everything you do and you’ll end up with more work to be proud of.
4. Accept the Mess of Progress. Make it a habit for you and your people to share incomplete work as a way to create a corporate culture in which people feel safe producing the low-quality work that needs to be created on the way to excellence.
5. Start a Meaningful Journey with a Meaningless Map. Start making progress towards excellence today. Any plan will do the job of getting you started. Adjust your route while you’re moving.
6. Embrace OK. As a leader, it’s important that you create a climate of acceptance and tolerance. Perfectionism crowds out completion, preventing the team from advancing toward important, ambitious outcomes.
7. Play Around. Once you’ve created a sense of purpose for yourself and your team and a climate of acceptance, lead short bursts of fun, playful exploration.
Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits that Masquerade as Virtues by Jake Breeden. Copyright © 2013.
Jake Breeden, author of Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits that Masquerade as Virtues (Wiley, 2013) teaches on the faculty of Duke Corporate Education, the world’s top-rated provider of custom executive education. He has taught leaders in some of the world’s leading companies, including Google, Starbucks, Cisco, Microsoft and IBM. For more information, please visit www.breedenideas.com.