If the goal is to get a stagnant project to be more creative or productive, the best move is often to get people out of the room. Young ideas are fragile. The more people that are involved, the higher the odds someone will find a reason to kill good ideas before they’ve had a chance to prove themselves. The more people in the room, the more politics and private agendas negatively influence conversations. Diffuse authority can mean no one feels they’re accountable, or even wants to be.
Firing people, or eliminating positions, is on one extreme end of the spectrum and it has its place. Sometimes there is no other way to create room for progress to happen. But on the more conservative end of the same spectrum, simpler decisions available include:
- Get people off the project by assigning them elsewhere
- Reduce the invite list for creative meetings
- Clarify who is in charge of creative decisions (e.g. who is the equivalent of the film director)
- Clarify whose role is to give feedback, but not to drive the show
If your meetings are too slow, or arguments go on for too long, rethink your invite list. Why do so many deserve a say on so many things if their feedback is so uninspired? Pick the least useful people and make their power over creative decisions match their usefulness.
Often referred to as Too many cooks, no matter how smart the people are, if they all think insist on fighting for their own vision, misery ensues. Start-up companies thrive in part because there are way more decisions to be made than people, granting individuals tons of autonomy. When there are 10 decisions to be made, but only 2 people, there’s little motivation to fight over decision making power. But when a company grows and the ratio of people to decisions runs the other way (2 decisions to be made by 10 people), the thriving ends and the bureaucratic misery begins.
Firing people, or simply eliminating the number of leadership roles, recentralizes authority. It empowers those remaining in leadership roles to do far more in far less time, since overcoming the objections of dozens of peers are no longer part of the process of developing news ideas and projects. In organizations were there are far too many project managers, producers, and middle-managers, roles prone to measurement and process, eliminating those roles is the only way to give creative leaders the space they need to excel.
When I was at Microsoft (’94-’03) the biggest inhibitor to innovation was too much democracy. Hard to believe, but it’s true. There is a long history of internal projects with great ideas that never made it out of Redmond – they were killed by the culture of rough consensus. If a handful of middle managers couldn’t achieve rough consensus on your idea, your project got thrown into the closet (and often you with it). Grand ideas are often divisive, and a rough consensus decision making system will kill them. Many companies I’ve visited over the years suffer from the same pattern of behavior. They mistakenly believe the problem is the quality of ideas, when in fact the problem is the conservative psychology inherent in democracy. Pure democracy is not the political system that will create the most change – it’s a system geared for stability, not for innovation.
I’ve seen many great designers, engineers, and even managers hired in to well known companies, who prototype great things, and propose grand ideas, but watch in slow despair as the corporate culture’s insistence on letting everyone have their say watered their ideas down into mediocre, barely recognizable, intellectual sludge. You could throw a Johnathan Ives, a Rem Koolhaas, or a Will Wright, into most of corporate America and the output of those companies would barely change. Why? Too many cooks.
Some would argue this is by design – consistently mediocre is better than what many companies produce, and it can be enough to be a market leader (Look around: the best selling music, food, or software is unlikely to be considered the best by anyone in that field). And that’s fine: success and creativity are two related but different things. However if you ask for more innovation without changing the authority structure, I’ll call you crazy. Consensus is prone to slamming on the brakes – Autocracy is prone to putting the pedal to the metal.
The answer for many organizations is to shift the pendulum of authority two notches away from democracy and towards autocracy. I’m not saying create a tyranny – don’t go all the way – but do identify the creative leaders and give them leadership power based on those talents. To be a VP, or a General manager depends on political acumen, not creative insights, despite how the hubris of power muddles the distinction. If instead a VP or GM grants the best creative mind on the team license to lead, and rallies the majority of the team to accept the role of followers, the rate of positive change will always rise. Look to the autocratic models of building architecture, film making, and pop music – one or two creative minds are granted huge amounts of authority, disproportionate to the corporate hierarchy.
So when in doubt – look around the room. If your team is flailing or struggling to resolve a creative decision, create more autocracy. Either get the dead weight out of the room, or pick the person in the you as the leader believe has the best perspective and grant them your authority – let them make the call. If you can’t change the balance of power by any other means, thin the herd. If you have no other alternative, pink slips might be the best thing for everyone involved: the talent you fire may find, or create, the autonomy they deserve elsewhere. But either way, do what you can to give the creative minds in your world the autonomy they need to thrive.
Also see: Innovation by Death