By now, it’s well understood that if you want innovation, you need collaboration. The ‘lone genius’ idea is seeming less and less relevant. Even Shakespeare had collaborators!
So I’ve been wondering: why is it that so many of us still seem to think that, as leaders, the most efficient way to get things done is by telling people what to do? There seems to be some cognitive dissonance there.
In Kim Scott’s Radical Candor, the final part of her “new management philosophy” argues exactly that. But then the question is: if the leader doesn’t tell everyone what to do, how do things get done? Let’s go over it.
The “Get Stuff Done” wheel
You can’t get the best results by telling people what to do. You need to start with listening, co-creating and debating ideas before deciding on and implementing the strongest one.
Scott formalises this process in what she calls the “Get Stuff Done” wheel. The cycle runs through seven points: listen, clarify, debate, decide, persuade, execute and learn.
I know seven steps sounds like a lot – so does Scott! But in a sense, that’s the point. None of these steps is that hard, but we often end up skipping them, in a perfect example of a false economy.
This might sound like “we don’t have time to debate this, so I’ll just make an executive decision”. Or “we’ve debated this thoroughly and come to the right decision, but I’m too tired to persuade the rest of the team; they’ll just have to accept it”. Perhaps it’s more like “we have to move onto the next project, no one has the energy to dissect this one and see what we can learn”.
All of these are totally normal, human things to think. But all of them will end up wasting time and undermining communication in the end.
Don’t fight your listening style
One of the most important things Scott noted was this: we each have our own way of listening, and fighting yours is a fool’s errand.
She notes that “when you become the boss, people are predisposed to tell you that you must totally change your style of listening, and you can’t do that.” But luckily, “you can stick to your own style and still make sure that everyone on your team gets heard and is thus able to contribute.”
You might be a quiet listener, sitting back and letting people talk without interruption. You might be a loud listener, asking questions and offering thoughts as you go. Both styles have their pros and their cons. Don’t waste time wishing your style was different. Instead, learn to maximise the positives of your style, and to mitigate its negatives.
You’re the editor, not the author
The clarify stage is one which is often missed, in my experience. But it’s vital. There’s no point in taking a half-baked idea to debate, one where you’ve not prepared for any questions about it. As a leader, you can help your team take these initial ideas and hone them before presenting them to everyone else. As Scott puts it, “you are the editor, not the author.”
Leading a team doesn’t mean removing all friction
Scott retells a popular story about Steve Jobs’ childhood, in which a neighbour showed him how a rock tumbler, just by rattling rocks around with grit for a while, turned them into beautiful polished stones.
Once you’ve listened to your team and helped them to clarify their ideas, it’s time for debate. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your job is always to smooth the way. Sometimes, it’s quite the opposite: only by introducing friction in a controlled way can you turn those ordinary rocks into polished stones.
Remember, debate can be tiring and time-consuming, but “lack of debate saps a team of more time and emotional energy in the long run.”
There’s no room for ego, but there is for emotions
While the broad argument here is that leaders shouldn’t unilaterally make decisions and just tell everyone what to do, there are plenty of instances where you need to make a call. One of these is during a lengthy or difficult debate.
I want to be very clear: I don’t mean you should make a decision about what’s being debated, simply because the debate is stressful. I mean you should intervene when you see egos getting in the way, or emotions running too high. This is where caring personally comes into it: you should be able to spot the warning signs. Is that person just a high-spirited debater, or are they getting genuinely angry? Does that team member tend to process quietly, or are they too exhausted to engage right now?
“There are times when people are just too tired, burnt out, or emotionally charged up to engage in productive debate” notes Scott. “It’s crucial to be aware of these moments, because they rarely lead to good outcomes. Your job is to intervene and call a time-out. If you don’t, people will make a decision so that they can go home; or worse, a huge fight stemming from raw emotions will break out.”
Google: driving results through debate and experimentation
Scott has worked at several high-profile, successful companies with very different processes. That’s part of what makes the book useful: she can see what worked in each case, and what might have looked different while actually revealing the same underlying truth.
In her time at Google, she learned a lot about getting things done without ordering people around. Here are a few of the points which stood out to me:
A culture of healthy conflict and speaking up In one example, Scott described a time when an engineer team flatly refused to go with co-founder Sergey Brin’s idea for an AdWords redesign. He was frustrated at the time, but respected the processes they’d put in place, and in the end he realised that they were right. This speaks to a real foundation of healthy conflict: the team felt empowered to stand their ground, even with the co-founder of the company.
The Antoine de Saint-Exupéry school of management Scott quotes the author as saying: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” To her, this sums up the approach at Google, in which vision and passion are the driving forces of getting stuff done.
Nurturing new ideas When deciding whether to pursue an idea, how it’s communicated and how developed it is can, unfortunately, be as important as its actual merit. As Scott sees it, Google was particularly good at addressing that during her time there. As she notes, “there’s a lot of research demonstrating that when companies help people develop new ideas by creating the space and time to clarify their thinking, innovation flourishes.”
Twenty percent time This famous example shows how committed Google’s leadership was to innovation, theoretically allowing anyone to work on any idea they want to for up to twenty percent of their working hours. “Not too many take 20-percent time, so this policy belongs more to the fantasy Google than the real Google. But fantasy informs reality—and it’s also true that a number of important products, including Gmail, did start as 20-percent-time projects.”
Building listening, communicating and collaborating into the structures of your company is key if you want to encourage innovation. Ultimately, it’s worth the effort. You’ll see much more engagement and better results than if you simply tell people what to do.