Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Alchemy: The Secret to Leading Innovative Teams


There are so many books, articles, blog posts and tweets about leadership I hesitate to add to it.  

Clearly, we haven't hit on the magic formula yet. 

And yet, what strikes me about many of them is that they try to describe an ideal style of leadership.

If you think about it, that makes no sense.

Imagine a team made up of different generations, ethnic groups and work styles and just to make it interesting, imagine they work in different locations on various short- and long-term projects. 

Looking at how work and tech are trending, that’s the composite team of the future but we find teams like that even today.

So who thinks all these people with different cultural backgrounds and at different stages in their careers will respond positively to the same style of leadership? 

Exactly.  They won’t.  So how do you go about leading such a team?  It’s simple, really. You do it by helping each member of the team play to their strengths while being very clear about your expectations.

In order to do this, you need to be radically honest about your own leadership style and where you can and can’t be flexible. Don’t leave your team to figure this out for themselves, lay out the things that are important to you as a leader and are therefore non-negotiable. 

Leave the rest up to the people in your team.  Let them decide when, where and how to work.  Let them decide when to ask for help and when to work independently.  Let them spend time on projects that interest them, so long as they line up with team priorities.  

One very important point of clarification here: This doesn’t mean everyone just runs off and does whatever they feel like.  It’s a leader’s job to set clear priorities and deadlines, manage expectations within the team, ensure people interact professionally, and hold each person accountable for bringing their best self to work. 

In fact, how you lead the team shapes the team culture, which in turn impacts how well the team functions – so much so, that many companies continue to hire for culture fit rather than diversity. This is problematic and here's why:

Imagine a Venn diagram where individual personality and company culture overlap.  You immediately see a trade-off because the bigger the overlap, the less cultural diversity you have.  

Hiring managers also frequently try to hire people who will ‘fit in’ and therefore – let’s say it – be easy to manage.  Here again, the larger the overlap between team culture and individual personality, the stronger the sense of tribe and the lower the likelihood of conflict – or true innovation - within the team. 

As you can imagine, it's easier to lead a culturally homogenous team than a culturally diverse one because one size is more likely to fit all, which means the manager has to expend less energy to lead the team.  By the same token, diverse teams with inflexible leadership tend to underperform because people have to expend so much energy trying to fit in.  

The glue that makes a diverse team great is the leader, who sets the tone, shapes the behavioral norms, encourages (or discourages) personal expression, provides support for professional growth, and keeps the team focused and on track. 

Here’s why it matters: A team with a high degree of personal autonomy – or a large ‘personal expression zone’ – led by a skilled leader is likely to outperform and out-innovate a culturally homogenous team because more perspectives engender more ideas, which in turn create more possibilities.  

Diversity creates alchemy, which if properly channelled has the potential to turn crazy ideas into gold.  If the overlap between company, team and individual culture is too great, you get high complacency and sense of belonging but low alchemy.


If, however, company and team culture allow for a high degree of personal expression and creativity, you might just get… magic.
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