Culture can be a company’s most valuable asset, but creative a good one is hard. As with any aspect of leadership, it’s a matter of striking just the right balance.

Design thinker Lech Guzowski has given this topic some thought, and come up with five pairs of polar opposites that must be mindfully navigated.

The first force field:
tolerance for failure vs. intolerance of incompetence

Failing fast and failing early is a mantra in startup-circles and there is something to be said for acknowledging and owning up to ones mistakes.

Amy Edmonson is a central thinker here. She’s a Harvard professor specialising in leadership and organisational learning and her research points to the seemingly contradictory correlation between trust and error rates. She’s showing how the hospital departments with the highest degree of trust between staff and leadership are often the ones where the number of reported errors are orders of magnitude higher than the average. The theory is that leaders here encourage their staff to be “noisy and mindful error-makers”, which in the long run is exactly what drives productivity and learning.

But really it only makes sense for a certain type of failures, more specifically the ones where risk is reduced by letting you learn something in the cheapest possible way. In other words, the term failure here should be thought of as an experiment that disproves your hypothesis, and as any scientist will tell you, these are just important as the ones that validate your assumptions. Perhaps really it would make more sense to think in terms of learning fast rather than failing fast. 

The second force field:
psychological safety vs. radical honesty

Psychological safety is another false friend, it doesn’t mean what you think it does. In his book Smarter, Faster, Better Charles Duhigg studies the team of writers behind Saturday Night Live. He concludes that its members experienced psychological safety in the midst of what looked like complete chaos. Team members frequently had affairs with each other, yelled and got drunk during office hours. And still they kept churning out new material to the wildly successful show. How is that possible?

Guzowski says psychological safety has to be counter-balanced by radical honesty and Duhigg pretty much says the same thing: You have to trust your team mates to back you up, but just as importantly to tell it to your face when you suck.

The third force field:
a collaborative mindset vs. personal accountability

Moving on to collaboration. That has to be through and through good, right? Well, Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister has something to say about this in their 1987 classic Peopleware. They observe how teams that gel often get to a point where the group dynamics itself becomes the overarching goal, even when it doesn’t align with the agenda of the company.

(Granted, these clashed of interest are not always a bad thing. The original Macintosh-team were all a bunch of renegades. When they barricaded themselves in an isolated office space and hoisted the Jolly Roger on its roof, it was a way of making a stance towards the old Apple.)

But there’s also another reason why overly collaborative cultures are problematic: Consensus blocks creativity and no committee has ever had a strike of genius. Great product are built by individuals with a deep sense of commitment and responsibility and that’s why collaboration must always be counter-balanced by personal accountability.

The fourth force field:
flat org-charts vs. strong leadership

If accountability on a personal level is achieved you can theoretically have a flat organisation. No need for bosses to breathe down your neck if you stay up at night worrying about that last little detail all on your own.

That’s also how Steve Jobs describes Apple in this wonderful clip:

“We’ve got zero committees, we’re organised like the worlds biggest startup.”

(Ron Lichty who was long a senior engineering manager at Apple and who wrote the book Managing the Unmanageable echoes this sentiment, saying that “The difference between Apple and the boyscouts is that the boyscouts have adult supervision”)

The flattening out of the org-chart-trend is also influenced by recent military leadership theories, where the dominant paradigm now is to push decisions down as close to “the ground” as possible. The term Clusterfuck, which signifies a a disastrously mishandled situation, actually derives from the oak leave symbol (“cluster”) decorating the shoulder of Lt. Colonels in the US army. The idea being that most seriously derailed situations occur not in spite of but because of top-down management.

The fifth and final force field:
a willingness to experiment vs. rigorous discipline

The last of the open doors to kick in: Any creative culture has to allow for a willingness to experiment. Sure enough, but this value has to be counter-balanced by rigorous discipline.

While it may be true that “creativity is intelligence having fun” it is equally true that the mind craves guardrails. Any writer will attest to the importance of a deadline and design work without requirements will soon loose its edge.

Huggy Rao, author of Scaling up Excellence and Stanford professor specialising in human resource management within the world of startups, has this to say about striking a balance between discipline and a willingness to experiment:

“The challenge is to strip away as many unnecessary constraints as possible — to select a few crucial guardrails, tell and (especially) show everyone that crashing through such barriers produces unpleasant consequences — but otherwise allow people to take the paths that they believe are best”

In conclusion, for a culture to be creative it has to welcome tensions between contradictory mindsets and values. It’s the opposite to how politics tend to isolate people of a particular persuasion and pit them against groups that think different.

This means navigating a creative company culture is often counter-intuitive and uncomfortable, where the only way forwards is to embrace uncertainty one day at a time.

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