When your organization is challenging the status quo and trying to disrupt markets, you want people to have the freedom to exercise their creativity, the psychological safety to communicate openly and the discipline to focus on what’s important. You want team members to experiment and be comfortable taking risks.
There are three elements of culture that motivate these behaviors and sustain the Product Mindset – a framework for product development that sets businesses up for success in today’s rapidly changing market. These elements are empowerment, freedom, and communication. If you can integrate these components into your organization, you will be ready to shine in the digital economy.
In his book “Leading Teams,” organizational psychologist Richard Hackman writes, “With many choices that the team has to make, choice of mountain is not among them.” Hackman provides a simple picture of employee empowerment. Giving employees the mountain and letting them decide how to scale it empowers them. They’ll know if they are making progress, standing still, or backsliding, and can change their path as they see fit.
Avoid micromanaging by telling them where to go and how to get there. However, you should offer guidelines—a structure within which those on your team can make their own decisions. You will know your employees feel empowered if most ideas and decisions come from the product team itself.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but placing clear boundaries around employees can actually empower them. Research done with preschoolers shows this. In a study, one group of kids enjoyed a normal recess within a fenced area that protected them from busy roads bordering the school. They ran around and explored. A second group was sent to recess in the same busy area, but without a fence in place. These kids stayed in the center of the playground, scared to play because they had no sense of boundaries. Without the fence, the children actually experienced less freedom. They were more cautious and less creative; they were safe, but not having much fun.
Setting clear boundaries empowers employees to be brave enough to push all the way to the edges. They know they won’t get their hand slapped if they stay within their own “playground.” Without boundaries, they may wonder what invisible restrictions might lead to arbitrary punishment.
One of our cybersecurity clients wanted to create a new product and asked us to help vet the idea. Rapid research, prototyping, and testing showed the idea had little chance of success. We recommended they shelve it. Instead, they built it. Management mandated that they become a multi-product company; they were more afraid of negative consequences being imposed by their bosses than by the marketplace.
You can tell your organization confers a sense of psychological safety if employees at all levels across the organization regularly exchange ideas and debate their merits. A healthy team is one that trusts each other enough to share and dissect ideas. They may disagree passionately sometimes, but they don’t attack or criticize each other. Instead, they question ideas—even if those ideas come from leadership. They are free to explore and experiment to find what works best.
You can usually tell which organizations have a culture of open communication by their internal language and their group chat. They say “we” a lot. Bantering and jokes are the norm. Inside 3Pillar group chat, a dancing, brightly colored parrot—we call it the “party parrot”—is a favorite. It seems silly, but this quirky inside joke has inspired more positive and open communication.
Opening up communications can be especially challenging for large organizations with multiple departments, divisions, and teams. Leaders have to be proactive to ensure communication doesn’t stall. You may need departments like legal or finance to operate as a balance for the entrepreneurial idea seekers. If these departments aren’t on the same page, you will spend too much time managing conflict. As one example, GE brings in “innovation fixers” who understand the complex regulatory environment and compliance needs of the company. Leaders constantly promote open communication among this group and internal teams so that everyone moves forward quickly and as a united front.
If this sounds challenging, remember: Your organization’s culture is not set in stone. It can be changed if you are willing to do the work—every day and at every level.
Portions of this guest post are excerpted from a book authored by 3Pillar Global CEO David DeWolf and VP of Product Strategy and Design Jessica Hall called The Product Mindset: Succeed in the Digital Economy by Changing the Way Your Organization Thinks.