Innovation, “Humanness,” and Culture Stewardship – An Interview with “The New How” Author, Nilofer Merchant (Part I of II)


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The following blog post is a compilation from a Q&A with Nilofer Merchant. Nilofer, formerly the founder and CEO of Rubicon, is a corporate director at a NASDAQ-traded firm and a lecturer at Stanford. After working at Apple and Autodesk and with many other Fortune 500 firms, she wrote The New How to share the secrets of unlocking collaborative innovation. Nilofer also blogs for the Harvard Business Review (HBR).

Kathy Klotz-Guest (KKG): So much has been written about Steve Jobs and innovation. And yet, Steve didn’t build up his people with the important “people-y stuff” you write about on HBR. What kinds of leadership traits are required to build SUSTAINABLE cultures of innovation?

Nilofer Merchant (NM): Google, Apple, Pixar, IBM, and so many good companies manage to create cultures that enable greatness. When asked why those companies are so good, people often say because of their products. But, of course, products are created by people and by process. In fact, what we make is a direct function of who we are, and the culture by which we create together. Success is a function of Purpose, Talent and Culture.

Most hiring managers focus on smart people who have the skills in the domain area. I think we should add an element of bravery into that mix, because brave people are the people who will ask the hard questions. Brave people will challenge the status quo that is keeping things as they are. Brave people will suggest that making even a bad decision or having a rough conversation is better than staying stuck or avoiding the dialogue. Bravery is the reason why someone can be a catalyst within an organization — independent of a title or a level. Then it’s a question of what talented people do together. This is why culture comes into play.

Culture’s all that invisible stuff that glues organizations together. If you read my Yes & Know blog, you likely already know that I believe culture will trump strategy every time. Culture mostly comes down to two things, which are flip sides of the same coin:

Do We Trust Each Other? A team I was recently working with reminded me of 6-year-olds playing soccer. I worry that as this team grows, and they’re not all in the same room, they will fail. By always huddling, they’re signaling that they don’t know how to trust one each another to do their unique parts. They — like many teams — simply don’t know how to “let go” to and build trust with others, thus risking their ability to scale results.

Who Cares About the Baby? A team recently described an issue where they do their best right up to a hand-off milestone, then relinquish any part of the project’s ultimate success. When the “baby,” or in this case, business performance, isn’t co-owned by everyone, things can easily fall through the cracks. And truth be told, that’s where most business problems happen in our high velocity world — between the cracks of divisions or silos or the “white space” no one owns.

So while Steve didn’t talk about “people-y stuff,” he did hire brave people. He insisted they work together and then he demanded that they step into a bigger game, which is what every innovator needs to do.

KKG: Innovation isn’t just about “process” – it is how people work together. Collaboration is critical to innovation because innovation is a team sport. Yet, many companies might be surprised to learn their people don’t feel collaborative for a number of reasons. What can leaders credibly do to ensure more consistent collaboration is happening across the organization?

NM: It’s funny how the word Collaboration gets a bad rap. People view it as that stuff that is kumbaya-related, not performance related. So let me just insist that the goal of collaboration HAS to be about an outcome. It has to be co-laboring towards something that the individual parties couldn’t do by themselves. If you can do it yourself, do it. But for the stuff that’s tough, involve the people who need to make a shared decision.

Collaboration doesn’t happen when the company cannot name with clarity why they are there. In fact, I see so many leaders using this generic language. I find it entirely stupid to say “we’ll transform” or “we’ll make money” cause those are just things anybody can say and is like saying “I’m going to breathe.” Okay, of course you are, but “exactly how will you live your life?” is the question. I am shocked to see how many CEOs talk blah, blah, blah, and don’t realize they are saying nothing of meaning to their teams.

For people to collaborate they need two interlocking parts. One, they need to know WHY they are there. Followers of your work, Kathy, are probably familiar with Simon Sinek and his fabulous TEDx talk based on his book, Start with Why. Great Marketing Answers the “Why.”>

He points out that teams unite, work happens when you know WHY something is happening. I concur with the need for clarity of vision. Organizations that can’t finish the sentence, “We’re transforming to be able to serve this customer in this way” Or “our job is to be the #1 in a particular domain” — these organizations and their leaders lack the fidelity to allow people to create. Without a named why, what happens is that people wait around to be told what to do. Without a WHY, WHAT is created in little bits and pieces with everyone getting assigned a piece of the pie. It’s slow. And it treats people like they are stupid cogs in a machine. It’s the 20th century model of management but fails utterly in the 21st century.

The HOW is what I’ve written about a lot because it can be a way that you can allow many people to create. When you have a HOW that lets people co-create the future — letting people question, envision, select and take responsibility for doing what they know needs to get done, then all of a sudden every manager or leader can stop assigning tasks. Alignment happens through clarity of the WHY and because people have a HOW to co-labor as needed to make things happen.

Follow Nilofer @Nilofer and Kathy @Kathyklotzguest on Twitter

End Part I of II

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Kathy Klotz-Guest
For 20 years, Kathy has created successful products, marketing stories, and messaging for companies such as SGI, Gartner, Excite, Autodesk, and MediaMetrix. Kathy turns marketing "messages" into powerful human stories that get results. Her improvisation background helps marketing teams achieve better business outcomes. She is a founding fellow for the Society for New Communications Research, where she recently completed research on video storytelling. Kathy has an MLA from Stanford University, an MBA from UC Berkeley, and an MA in multimedia apps design.


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