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Innovative Cultures (hbr.org)
125 points by r4um 35 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 61 comments



I work in an organization that asks for innovation, but doesn't allocate any budget for R&D or investigative projects. The company also doesn't have any culture of being ok with taking big swings and accepting misses.

The project deck is fully loaded with status quo type projects, based on client demands. Teams are asked to track all of their hours toward these projects.

The subtext is, "Do the grunt work during your 40 hours that we're sure will generate revenue, and please, please, do something innovative on top of that on your own time/dime".

It just comes off as begging.


My previous workplace was exactly like that: they wanted people to build "cool tools that would help us do our job" but would not even let me refactor a piece of ugly code (I literally just wanted to have variable names that actually mean something). It's quite a pathetic display when a manager talks about innovation when devs are stuck with ancient versions of software they work with and there is zero chance of getting the corporate machine to allow us to update and even if we had the permission everything would move so slow that by the time the upgrade happens the software would already be old.


In my company it’s the same. They ask for innovation but the real message is “do something innovative but don’t change anything and always stay on your already tight schedule and don’t do anything management doesn’t approve “


Corporate culture emminates from the top.

You can't have a leader that rewards/punishes one way and managers who pick a different approach.

So it only really works if those at the top embrace these ideas, otherwise you end up with this system where they communicate they value innovation, but in their behavior fail to do so.


Same. This seems to be remarkably common.


same for me. it was even worse - you over over 40 hours. show how to do useful - but than stop - nothing happens.


TL, DR: the article argues that all the fancy buzzwords like "tolerance for failure" must be counterbalanced by ye goode olde stuff from Management 101:

- a tolerance for failure requires an intolerance for incompetence

- willingness to experiment requires rigorous discipline

- psychological safety requires comfort with brutal candor

- collaboration must be balanced with a individual accountability

- flatness requires strong leadership.


Usually, HBR articles favor Captain Kirk style snap-decision-making, C-level-wannabe folks LOVE THAT.

This one is a little more nuanced by DARING to suggest that there's a flip-side to every decision and that one has to embrace paradox.

Truly talented managers already know that intrinsically. Bad one's just won't understand-- they'll just see what they want to see, "oh look, it says here that Amazon does rank-and-yank, hmmm, that's 'intolerance for incompetence' maybe I should do that!"


"Usually, HBR articles favor Captain Kirk style snap-decision-making, C-level-wannabe folks LOVE THAT. "

And the guy with the red shirt always dies. Kirk always gets away.



>> - psychological safety requires comfort with brutal candor

I would disagree with this. Candour and honesty do not have to be brutal to be effective in this context.


Really psychological safety to me personally seems like it is better defined as non-authoritarian and just - or free although all are offputtingly political.

A mob mentality can also act as the "authoritarian" that retaliates against "inappropriate thought". The vagueness of terms is deliberate because it is culturally specific what their elephants in the room are. Even if you think it is worth risking them or they are objectively stupid it is important to keep them in mind for planning presentations. It is worth ignoring those who think eradicating a disease is playing god but know that some think that to prepare accordingly.

"Authoritarian" organizations fall into insanity obvious to fearless outsiders. For instance intelligence agencies fired people for being gay or otherwise sexually unorthodox. Now it is damn obvious - they created their own blackmail risk in the first place! Compare to a "tenured" system that said they don't give a damn so long as you aren't betraying secrets. So they could laugh off would be blackmailers. To give a colorful illustration of the effectiveness of such a policy. "The New York Times could print a full page spread of me sleeping with my brother in law and wife at the same time and I would still have a job!"

That this would be considered unthinkable to propose in that time period only demonstrates the depth of the problems.


Brutal doesn't mean disrespectful and the article does dive into this

> When it comes to innovation, the candid organization will outperform the nice one every time. The latter confuses politeness and niceness with respect. There is nothing inconsistent about being frank and respectful. In fact, I would argue that providing and accepting frank criticism is one of the hallmarks of respect. Accepting a devastating critique of your idea is possible only if you respect the opinion of the person providing that feedback.


Candid does not mean brutal. Not at all. When you confuse brutal with candid, it is likely that no one was on position to tell you off or cut your crap.

Which very much means that communication was not consistently open.


>Brutal doesn't mean disrespectful

It has done every time I've seen it.


Often when I have seen it escalate to that level it has been due to the individual being criticized being totally oblivious to anything more subtle.


Possibly, in my experience it was more about the person dishing out the advice and had little to do with the recipient.


It depends on how respect is defined as well. Ask any school child about being demanded respect(obedience) for respect(treated like a person).

Some may literally consider honesty more important than concern for feelings.

It is also a somewhat cultural thing - in some it is rude to ask politely to someone well known to "please pass" as opposed to "gimme". Etiquite is ironically very contextual.


I had a phsyics proffessor who graded my work with the following comments:

   "No."
   "I expected better from you."
 
This is brutal. But it is also fair and honest, and something I respected deeply.


I think the point here is that your prof was criticising you rather than your output. That’s why it’s brutal, because it’s personal. He’s being honest about his feelings but it’s not very helpful to you. So I don’t think it’s fair.


He knew I was bullshitting and he knew I knew that. There's no point in telling me what I got wrong when I'm well aware of it. If I had put more effort into studying, I wouldn't have gotten my analysis wrong. Or if I had come in for help before turning the assignment in.


Bringing this back to the article - the context for candid feedback is a competent workforce. By your own admission it appears you we’re still in the process of learning about competence so the prof was not providing candid feedback of your submission but questioning your competence. That’s a different and necessarily more personal discussion!


I think brutal in this case means “brut” as in champagne, no sugar added, so unvarnished critique, but not spiteful or destructive in any way.


The problem with that at scale is that some people can sneak in spite where there looks to be none and others hear spite where there is none.


That’s why you need a culture that allows people to listen to criticism without immediately feeling the need to be defensive. At work I have a few people I can be honest with and it’s very refreshing. I can tell them that I think some this isn’t right and they can tell me. If there is mutual respect and self confidence you can do that.


I would not personally phrase it that way.

When you say "brutal candor," the ones who understand how to create psychological safety will understand it as the ability to give real criticism without fear of retaliation. That's rare and refreshing when I see it.

However, I can think of several cases of managers I know who really should learn to create psychological safety, but they would read this as validation for establishing a straight pipeline from reptile brain to mouth as opposed to giving actionable criticism.

In one case, that literally happened: the manager read a book that framed communication with similar connotations to "brutal" and took it as license that he should continue to say things the way he did and expect others to suck it up. Unsurprisingly, it got so bad that all of his direct reports threatened to leave.


It's more often referred to as "radical candor", and it comes with an assumption of caring about the other person

https://www.radicalcandor.com/


I think people have different connotations with “brutal”. I would say “straightforward” or “unguarded”.


Undecorated might be another way of putting it.


This is the essence of most business writing, especially in academia where this writer is from: qualification and hedging of one's arguments to the point of basic incomprehensibility.


Did you really find the article incomprehensible? What parts did you have a hard time understanding?


I take it they found the advice incomprehensible, not the article itself. Like when someone says "always use the right tool for the job" but consistently fails to say what tool is right for what job and what makes it so. It's hedging so severe that you may as well say "I have no opinion."


Nice explanation. I would add “I have no opinion but I still want to look like a leader”. It’s the same with guys who always ask “insightful” questions but never answer a question.


Your summary reads like Netflix's culture page: https://jobs.netflix.com/culture


Stack ranking (or Amazon's lipstickes pig version) is also the opposite of a good policy as it literally encourages sabotage of peers instead of cooperation (you know what an /organization/ should do) and operates on very faulty assumptions - about incoming averages vs existing labor pool /when the actors know about it/. It is no wonder now that their phone line failed and Fire has been tepid.

It doesn't belong on a list of intolerance for incompetence - it /is/ incompetence on management's part.


I've been through my fair share of forced rankings on both sides of the barrier. Despite of all my skepticism, the whole experience was pretty reasonable:

- in small teams quotas are enforced pretty loosely. Everybody understands that in a team of five engineers all five can be good and smart

- on the other hand, everybody understands that out of hundred people in the department there will be a couple of underperformers.

- a department head may claim that all his one hundred people are brilliant, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

- usually there is a surprising consensus about who belongs to where. Yes, there are occasional clashes between the managers about whose guy is "brilliant" and whose is "exceptionally brilliant", but I've never ever seen a smart person being force ranked into a "bad" bucket


>the whole experience was pretty reasonable: in small teams quotas are enforced pretty loosely.

Any set of rules can appear reasonable in practice when people ignore the rules when their results would be unreasonable.


> on the other hand, everybody understands that out of hundred people in the department there will be a couple of underperformers.

That's the theory. In practice, what happens is that underpeformers who are good at puffing up their accomplishments or people who maintain good relationships with managers get ranked higher than people who are performing at an average level but are working on unexciting projects or are less capable of selling themselves (e.g. introverts or shy people).


> - in small teams quotas are enforced pretty loosely. Everybody understands that in a team of five engineers all five can be good and smart

Not at a couple of the companies I have worked for. Small teams were still expected to have average ratings that were close to the company-wide average.


Same here. You can’t have a team with only “outstanding” score. You have to fit your team into the standard distribution. Even if one team is much better than the other, their average still has to be the same.


Unless you then proceed to rank the teams and use a team modifier, that's pretty irrational.


> on the other hand, everybody understands that out of hundred people in the department there will be a couple of underperformers

The law of large numbers only works when the sample is unbiased. If the stack ranking was working as intended to any degree or the hiring procedures have any quality, no team will be composed of random people.

So, if that statement holds for your company (I doubt it), then both hiring managers are completely incompetent, and the rank process is completely ineffective.


Reportedly, it's when you also fire the bottom 10% on the spot and repeat the process every 12 or perhaps 6 months that it becomes pathological.


> It is no wonder now that their phone line failed and Fire has been tepid.

Your general point may be true, but using examples of specific products like this is really unconvincing. Amazon is one of the most valuable and successful companies in the world. How do you counter the phenomenal success of Amazon.com, Amazon Web Services and the Amazon Echo?

Frankly, I think most companies wish they could be "incompetent" enough to have the smash hits that Amazon does.


> Stack ranking ... is also the opposite of a good policy as it literally encourages sabotage of peers instead of cooperation

Sabotage is the wrong word. I would say more that it rewards doing things that are flashy and look good (which can involve cooperation with like-minded ambitious peers) than boring but important stuff that keeps the business running. There's little "sabotage" in an active sense because if it gets perceived as such, it will backfire onto the saboteur. What's more likely to happen is people not bothering to help out others where it doesn't advance their own interests even if it's the right thing to do for the team or the business.


This article is complete conjecture. Having worked in a highly innovative environment and ‘informally surveying’ a random sample of people from random companies that may or may not be innovative are completely different things. There is no attempt here to identify how one might measure ‘an innovative culture’ nor can the author call on personal experience to at least talk anecdotally. This is just another puff piece to further validate the ‘Arbeit macht frei’ Culture that is currently fashionable in silicone valley and China.


I think the purpose of an article like this isn't so much about delivering facts as it is about proposing a useful mental model.

This one is working through the concept of companies having innovative cultures and pointing out that each of the (presumed) positive/happy/fun attributes of innovative business cultures come with aspects that aren't so nice.

It is all hand waving but the purpose isn't to get anyone (I assume the main audience here is executives and managers) to take specific actions but to get them to adopt this mental model.

To me, the general message is a pretty good one: the good/positive/happy/fun things you want probably also have less good/positive/happy/fun implications and you have to deal with those implications effectively or the good stuff won't actually end up being good.

The article just iterates over a set of things considered positive traits of innovative cultures and applies this concept. Each of the positive traits are vague, ambiguous, and ill-defined so the counter-point traits can't be better.

I guess someone could potentially study the success of adopting the general approach implied by this article. (That is, whether focusing on dealing with the negative implications of a business approach helps the approach be more successful.)


"But despite the fact that innovative cultures are desirable and that most leaders claim to understand what they entail, they are hard to create and sustain. This is puzzling."

I really don't see how this is puzzling.. there's plenty of people living in denial, sure, but there's whole a load of people who understand intellectualy how to do all kind of things: lead a happy fulfilling life, bring up your kids in a healthy way, be physically healthy. Knowing things is really overrated.


I think that what MIT considers innovative and what Harvard Business schools thinks is innovative are different, and the models for getting there are going to be different from each school of thought. The HBR article touches on some things that produce what I would consider innovation: Researchers and scientists using the scientific method, but it never goes that far.

There are discussions here about Xerox PARC, and I would suggest including Bell Labs and probably a few other business research parks, and you'll find highly educated people given the freedom to experiment.

I guess my argument is that in order to produce innovation, I think that the best thing that management can do is put the right people together and get out of the way, but undirected innovation might not aid the business. It's an interesting problem.

EDIT: I should include the processes that developed things like Linux.


Undirected innovation can aid the business if the business follows the innovation, rather than expecting the innovation to follow the business.


From what I have read this is something Gates and Jobs were good at. They saw something new and could quickly see how it could be useful and then had the courage to make it happen.


No one minces words about design philosophies, strategy, assumptions, or perceptions of the market. Everything anyone says is scrutinized (regardless of the person’s title).

you can game this kind of culture. advance your career in such an "innovative" environment merely by frequently criticizing other people's ideas before they gain too much traction. then advance your own ideas and defend them by any means necessary.

if you get really good at this, others will fear you and always run their ideas past you. you will become the gatekeeper. you will have power.

and you don't, in the last analysis, have to be more correct than anyone else, just more difficult, more critical and more competitive. you are an advocate and a fighter. you don't have to be an engineer.


you know what, firing people isn't always a good idea either. people might be starting to get comfortable. if you're not going to offer google level salaries, you will have to offer job security because otherwise people will draw their conclusions way before you want to get rid of them. and always having inexperienced juniors is also not an option.

these exceptional companies can get away with very aggressive hr practice because their salaries are off the charts and i do not think this can be taken as a guideline for other business at all.


I agree with pretty much everything, except maybe (I'd need to think to be sure) #4.

A few kind of unrelated points about innovation within large, established companies.

(1) A lot of these hard things (incompetence intolerance, flat but strong leadership model) are the easy default for a small, young company. So... a lot of this is about making large, old companies culturaly similar to small, young ones. No surprise that this is hard.

(2) A lot of these points relate to "legibility^" issues. I wrote this one three times and it still doesn't make sense, so I'll just leave it to Venkat's awesome blog to explain.

(3) the Economist Ronald coase's "theory of the firm" starts (paraphrase) with the question: if competitive markets are so efficient, why do companies run like Marxist states internally.

Large company culture isn't arbitrary. It also isn't dictated by proclamations, value statements and such. It's a product of their structure, incentives and such. You can't fundamentally change the culture without changing the environment that formed it. ..the social and economic incentives, the feedback loops...

I'm surprised there aren't more radical ideas in this space, to be honest.

^https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2010/07/26/a-big-little-idea-call...


- Taking money from worldwide monsters who view mass murder as hygiene

- Taking money from taxpayer bailouts and inflating prices

- Dumping all your problems on the people who fought for you and gave you the room to get you started

- Paying lawyers to stack the deck in your favor and jail your competition

- Forcing your customers into debt by making your $2,000 products a necessity.

- Turning your great country into a place where only cheap plastic goes in, and cheap paper goes out

That's not failure.

But being 2 weeks late on a feature is.

Got it.

PS: Take a good look at how you really make money. It's the most vulgar uncultured garbage I've ever seen. Porn has more dignity.

Teach lessons. Otherwise you just race to the finish line as fast as you can, cowering to arbitrary delusions, and end up as some grotesque burden on everyone.

There are loftier ambitions than cell phones, clickbait, mailing out boxes of tomorrow's garbage, or making cartoons. These are no different than police sting. You are a fool to think power gives it up to make things better.

Aim for lofty ambitions first. Take all of creation before working for kings. And when you do, know there are poor people out there who can take them out with nothing.


This is dumb. Apple did not have an innovative culture. Xerox PARC did. Innovative != commercially successful.


I think Apple’s skill is to see innovation and find the right moment when it can be packaged into a very good package. They did that with the Mac and with the iPhone. All compenents were there but nobody had packaged them as well as Apple.


Why do you say Apple didn't have an innovative culture?


"During its early years, Xerox was not able to capitalize on the market potential of the research and development that was getting done at PARC. The benefit of that work accrued to other companies. During its early years, Xerox was not able to capitalize on the market potential of the research and development that was getting done at PARC. The benefit of that work accrued to other companies. For example, Apple launched the Macintosh Computer in 1984. This personal computer featured the GUI and a mouse, which for that era, was a revolutionary new innovation.

But Apple had not invented the GUI or the mouse. This brilliant work had been done by the scientists at Xerox PARC. So why was it Apple and not Xerox that was launching a product in 1984 and benefiting from PARC’s great inventions? The answer to that question lies in the fact that R&D and invention are not enough. In order to innovate successfully, companies need frameworks, tools and processes that can help them take their inventions from ideas to commercial success."


Probably this is the reason:

> In 1979, Steve Jobs arranged a visit to Xerox PARC, in which Apple Computer personnel would receive a demonstration of the technology from Xerox in exchange for Xerox being able to purchase stock options in Apple. After two visits to see the Alto, Apple engineers used the concepts to introduce the Apple Lisa and Macintosh systems.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xerox_Alto


I recall that Alan Kay distinguished invention and innovation: Invention is creating new things, and innovation is bringing them to market. He said that innovation creates billion dollar companies, but invention has created trillion dollar industries like semiconductors and computer networking.




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