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Thursday, 16 April 2015

Seeking inspiration

I meet with many different people in my job. I go to many meetings – some good, some not so good. Increasingly I’ve noticed a huge variance between the best and worst. The more I've noticed this, the more I've thought about why it is – and have come to believe there are two fundamentally different environments in which we work.

Type-A environments

The best meetings, environments and teams are inspirational. They are characterised by people hungry for new ideas and facts. Those people are always incredibly sharp, operating at their peak. They are enthusiastic and energetic. You feel that energy as soon as you walk into the room.

There’s a pace and urgency to do things.

There are no pre-determined answers at the start of these meetings – the outcome is determined by the discussions, with opinions being formed around the ideas and facts as they emerge.

No idea is off-limits, and diversity of thought is celebrated.

Problems aren’t expressed as road-blocks, but instead people seek insight by asking questions like “this might be a challenge, how could we overcome it?”

Seniority is irrelevant – your grade or experience is not a factor, the only thing that matters is the value you bring to a particular discussion. Typically nobody even knows the grades of those involved, its so trivial a matter.

Discussion focusses on ideas, not on politics.

These environments are incredibly empowering – entering them is like attaching jump-leads to the brain. Ideas bounce and feed off of each other, with new possibilities continuously emerging.

Type-B environments

Conversely, there are environments that are somewhat different. The people working here always seem to have a reason not to change anything, or not to do anything.

Type-B environments are characterised by people who seem to know what the “right” answer is, and are only interested in data that supports that pre-determined view. If contrary data-points or opinions are expressed, a clear disapproving response is provided that makes it clear to all involved that these views are not appreciated.

Dissenting opinions are suppressed not via debate, but by disapproval and unsaid threat of ex-communication.

The environment is very low-energy – and with very little emotion.

The priority seems to be to only do the “right” thing, no matter how long it takes to decide what that might be - time is not a priority.

“Conventional wisdom” is used to raise roadblocks that ensure new ideas are squashed without any real exploration of how their perceived drawbacks might be mitigated.

Grade and seniority are critical factors, with a clear hierarcy that expects “respect” – the political complexities of navigating that hierarchy often dominating discussions.

Type-B environments and teams suck all of the energy and creativity out of the air. They are profoundly unempowering and depressing.

Contrasting Type-A and Type-B

The contrast between these two environments is so enormous and obvious within 30 seconds of entering a room. Its impossible not to immediately notice which you are in. The impact is dramatic - one team gets things done, the other finds excuses. I wish all leaders would look hard at the culture and environment they foster – because that leadership, or rather a lack of it, is what allows Type-B environments to exist.

Diversity is often a factor – teams of people of a similar age, gender, profile and background tend to form a collective “assumed view of the world” that prevents alternative opinions from emerging. In contrast, where diversity of background exists, diversity of thought thrives.

Early in my career I was once asked to attend a board-meeting of a significant public company. Part way through the meeting the Managing Director stopped the meeting, pointed at me and said “this guy is here for a reason, I want to know what he has to say.” It was a defining moment – for my junior rank and lack of grey hairs had, until this point, meant I was continuously talked-over by my elders and supposedly betters. We need more leaders like this – people hungry for ideas who are willing to break conventions to seek them.

Can we please have some more diverse teams and empowering environments? I get up in the morning for meetings like that. I have to take intravenous caffeine for the other type, just to get through them.

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