How to inspire the will to learn and advance
What does it mean when you are told to “develop the creativity of your teams”? Is it not more accurate to speak in terms of ingenuity, because what you really need is resourceful team members? Pragmatic and agile individuals who, when faced with novel situations, can take the initiative, test out ideas and experiment – even if it involves “screwing up” – before ultimately making headway and contributing to your collective performance.
Back in 2008 in Gainesville, Florida, Kristen Hadeed started a makeshift and largely un- planned home-cleaning company. She hired primarily students, hence her company’s name: Student Maid. Only 20 at the time, Hadeed was immediately hooked by the rewards of running her own company. A decade of trial and error followed, with Hadeed self-avowedly making continual mistakes and adjustments as she grew Student Maid into a successful business. Her company became known in particular for the autonomy and quick-thinking of its teams in an industry renowned for the unrewarding nature of the work.
A culture of resourcefulness and ingenuity like Student Maid’s is not the exclusive domain of small businesses. According to Kegan and Lahey, it is also found at Bridgewater Associates, a global investment fund, and Decurion, a California-based multiplex operator. These are two examples of what the Kegan and Lahey, the authors of An Everyone Culture, call “deliberately developmental organizations” (DDOs): firrms that encourage their workers to test themselves – and their limits in their search for inventive solutions. The ingenuity recipe contains 4 crucial ingredients.
Providing freedom, autonomy and support
The people in charge at Student Maid, Bridge- water and Decurion push teams beyond their comfort zones to enhance agility and resourcefulness. To promote autonomy, teams are set ambitious goals or assigned missions without any speci c preparation. They are thrown in the deep end in accordance with the principles of “learning by doing”. Student Maid inserts its young recruits into real-life situations from their very rst assignments, sending them directly to customers. Hadeed realized early on that being a “helicopter boss” – hovering over her employees to check or correct their work – was counter-productive. She gured out that it is better to stand back and trust people, allowing teams to experiment and make mistakes without fear of losing their job if they got something wrong. In short, trial-and-error are beneficial in the long term because they teach lasting lessons.
Without support and feedback, however, there can be no learning or progress: they go hand- in-hand with autonomy. Newcomers at Student Maid work in pairs with experienced team members. When problems occur, the more senior staff are tasked with helping the newbies devise solutions. To encourage ingenuity and learning, senior sta are trained to provide support, not ready-made answers!
Finally, autonomy is not the same as free improvisation. True autonomy is formally inscribed into a company’s founding principles. This is the case at Student Maid and Decurion, where company leaders took the time to draw up and de ne autonomy as part of their respective core values and missions. When confronted with problems or ambiguity, these common standards enable teams to make more informed decisions – autonomously!
Cultivating the instinct to question
In a “challenge culture”, you and your teams test conventional wisdom not just about customers and markets but also about your internal practices. You question and analyze situations and experiment to overcome boundaries considered insurmountable. This cultural feature is one of the essential ingredients for ingenuity, and it also dovetails perfectly with the behaviors of the millennial generation. Bridgewater routinely asks its teams to undertake in-depth analyses of the reasons for any malfunction. Everyone has the right to question others about processes, behaviors and ways of thinking at every level of the company. At Bridgewater, junior workers routinely ask leaders to clarify their reasoning if it appears unfounded.
Excerpt from Business Digest N°284, March 2018
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Published by Caroline Schuurman