Is your company culture hurting your digital efforts?

As published in the Mint on Sunday on September 10, 2017.

The alternative to developing an innovative work culture is to devolve to a culture of order-takers and givers

“Because sir wants it that way.”

That all too common rationale, uttered robotically in many companies, goes off like a warning bell in my head every time. Customer needs, business logic and front-line experience are disregarded. As the boss commands, so it shall be, without further justification. Score a win for the hierarchy, and a loss for a culture of innovation.

When one thinks of innovation, Silicon Valley leaps to mind. The forward looking—or, depending on your point of view—whacky work environments of Valley companies are famous.

Swings and slides are interspersed between open-plan desks, with nary a private office to be seen. Team outings involve shoot ‘em up games of paint ball. Decisions are openly questioned and criticized in company meetings and blogs.

When I worked in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was not a fan of, as the Financial Times’ Lucy Kellaway describes them, “infantilizing” work environments. These annoyingly contrived playgrounds for adults, with brightly-coloured toys and walls in primary colours, make me cringe a little even to this day. Fun is the order of the day, it seems, whether one is in the mood for it or not.

Ignoring my personal quibbles, however, the intent behind these environments carries greater weight. They attempt to flatten the natural hierarchies that exist at work. If your work environment encourages you to let loose and be yourself, the theory goes, you will express yourself more freely at work.

If your manager sits at an identical desk next to yours, he is less a boss than a first-among-equals, and more approachable for an informal chat. If you’ve shot him dead in paint ball, you are more likely to shoot down his point of view on a project.

But why does digital innovation, in particular, require a focus on an open company culture? Why has Silicon Valley led the change towards flatter, more egalitarian organizations?

The answer lies in two phenomena. The first is the speed of change in digital and, related, the availability of real-time feedback in large numbers from consumers, necessitating iterative analysis, experimentation and action.

Buzzfeed, a massive publisher of online content with over 200 million monthly users, generates multiple headlines for every single article published. Analytics data generated by user actions (or in simpler words, how many and which kinds of people clicked on what) prioritizes which headlines to promote to which customers.

This kind of innovation is tested, proven, automated and continuously improved upon at a rapid pace on the ground in Buzzfeed’s content programming and engineering teams, and is key to the company’s success.

In contrast, in a hierarchical structure with centralized decision-making, while information travels up the hierarchy and decisions filter down, not only is scarce time lost at the front-lines, but also precious motivation.

In a recent email to all Tesla employees, Elon Musk described communication via the chain-of-command as “incredibly dumb” as “while it serves to enhance the power of the manager, it fails to serve the company”.

If the point was not clear enough, he plainly stated that any managers who allow or encourage this form of communication would “soon find themselves working at another company”. He gave every employee license to talk to anyone in the company, without seeking permission from their manager.

The second reason for flat and open digital cultures is the dominance of the youth demographic in the digital economy. This means young employees are often best-placed to understand consumers and technologies, and therefore to contribute to innovations.

On the flip side, you know your digital efforts are in trouble when your own young employees don’t use them. When this occurred at a company I worked at, where our competitors’ products were being used over our own, senior management’s (including my own) gut response was to exhort, almost mandate, our product’s usage.

Upon reflection, we recognized we were regressing to management-by-control. We corrected course by listening to employees and acting on their feedback.

Google, famous for its obsession with quantifying everything, ran a multi-year internal study starting in 2012, as reported in the New York Times, to understand factors driving the effectiveness of teams.

The study concluded that teams in which all members got roughly equal opportunity to air their opinions performed better than those where a few people dominated. This factor had a greater impact on team performance than whether individual high performers were part of a given team.

Ironically, the better performing teams at Google appeared to be less well-run, with people speaking over each other in meetings, and often going off on tangents. This is a startling revelation for the conventional manager, used to so-called well-run meetings that follow strict agendas. The bottom line: if people feel safe and free to express and apply their true selves, rather than act out a role, teams perform better.

Hierarchies come naturally to us in India. The millennia-old shadow of our caste system lingers over our society. More recently, colonization created a new upper class.

Central and state governments, large employers and therefore influential shapers of culture, reinforce hierarchical thinking with their numerous perks and symbols of status. Obsequious norms in government offices endanger body postures in large numbers, government-sponsored gatherings on International Yoga Day notwithstanding.

On our streets, even the police can be shouted down, depending on the relative socio-economic status of the offender. As a co-founder at my start-up abroad, I would put away dirty dishes in the office kitchen when needed. In Mumbai, I found myself arguing with my office manager, because it was beneath him to supervise the cleaning staff.

Has this historical context continued to weigh on the modern Indian workplace? To supplement my own experiences, I spoke with five young Indians working in Bengaluru, Chennai, and Mumbai in a range of industries—both digital and traditional.

They expressed a clear preference for work cultures that encourage and value their opinions, and give them latitude in decision-making. Encouragingly, most of those I spoke with already work in companies that are making efforts in this direction.

With great clarity, they spoke of the same benefits of open cultures that many management gurus do—that being on the ground helps them know the real issues; an open culture encourages opinion without fear of repercussion, which results in better solutions; that the motivation to think and create is higher in these environments.

Employees of progressive companies were unequivocal in their refusal to work in a command-and-control structure. To work in a hierarchical culture is to “not be myself at work”, observed one person. Another remarked that the focus in a hierarchical culture is to simply clock-in, finish the work, and get out, rather than applying oneself to do things well.

Their companies, however, are inconsistent in applying professed values of openness. They solicit employee views, often with dutiful company-wide surveys, but don’t necessarily close the loop with response or action. The degree of open communication varies greatly across teams, depending on the attitude of a particular manager.

It emerged from these conversations that better talent is abandoning traditional cultures for more progressive ones. Those who feel stifled in a hierarchical setup mentioned that as an important reason for considering other opportunities.

What then is the role of the senior manager or experienced leader, in a country with a long tradition of respect for elders, and where the young instinctively address even strangers as “uncle” and “aunty”?

For the youth, the respect that age commands by default at home does not automatically translate to the workplace. Though cultural norms can hold them back from expressing themselves fully in front of a senior, the young people I spoke with do not regard age, by itself, to be a passport to senior rank.

Experience must yield greater insight and competence, and therefore earn the right to lead. One person mentioned that experience can even get in the way of being open to new ideas—particularly relevant in the digital space where new practices often trump best practices.

Does this mean youth has all the answers, and us grey-hairs should fade gracefully into the sunset? Despite my fervent advocacy on behalf of the young, the answer is decidedly not, as even the Mecca of youth is discovering.

For the past many years, Silicon Valley has given free rein to young founders and management, even when they lack the maturity and judgment to build companies and cultures that endure.

The recent coup of the grown-ups at Uber, where a 48-year-old veteran replaced a young loose cannon, serves to illustrate the extremes to which a Silicon Valley culture can degenerate, when youthful and unbridled ambition is not tempered with the wisdom of years. Larry Page needed an Eric Schmidt, Mark Zuckerberg needs Sheryl Sandberg, and the young Steve Jobs, well, he had to wait for the older Steve Jobs, along with Tim Cook, before taking Apple to its heady pinnacle.

Similarly in India, experienced leadership and management have a critical role to play in the digital economy. But managers can’t rest complacently on tenure and past experience, and need to push themselves to upgrade skills and, devoid of personal insecurity, support and mentor the growth of young talent.

The alternative to developing an innovative culture is to devolve to a culture of order-takers and givers where even the dubious rationale, “because sir wants it that way”, becomes redundant. People stop asking “why?” and cut straight to the habitual question, “What does sir want?”

Nish Bhutani runs an education and consulting company specializing in digital strategies and transformation.

His fortnightly column in the Mint on Sunday, Digit Spinner, addresses the digital capabilities of consumer businesses. Read previous columns here.

Nish publishes on his blog, and can be reached at nish.bhutani@gmail.com for feedback on this column.

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