Leading Creative Teams (Stanford Leading Innovation notes)

Building the team

Superstars aren’t lone geniuses or  dazzling independent performers

The “lone inventor” is a myth:  Great innovations happen in social/ teams and networks.

  • Darwin’s network and team (esp. by correspondence, also a ‘PR’ team who defended his ideas)
  • Thomas Edison’s lab (lousy inventor but great at building the lab and business)
  • The duos that started HP, Sun, Yahoo!, and  Google (Facebook, Zuckerberg and all)

Leader’s goal = the “product” at the Hasso Plattner  Institute of  Design: Creative Collaborators

Who are the real superstars?

  • People who spread their ideas to others
  • Borrow ideas from others (and give them  credit)
  • and help others succeed.

GE, IDEO, Genencor, McKinsey, and P&G – very different reward systems, all the same  philosophy: If you’re a low performer and good team player supportive of culture, you’ll get chances. High performer undermine the team (and fail to collaborate), you’re out:

Cooperation and information sharing is not  considered in compensation decisions – if  people don’t do it, they just don’t get  promoted. Former Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley


Microsoft’s Downfall

Dysfunctional Internal Competition at Microsoft

Diego Rodriguez: It’s tempting to judge against big picture goals but you’ve got to be careful not to take people out of the moment, delivering a great client experience right now. Grok the gestalt of the team. Intervene or not. 3 things to watch for in terms of enlightened action:

  • Cold feet. Is something freaking the team out (of innovative behaviours and decisions)?
  • Are they just trying to be busy? Assist with focus (or too much focus)
  • There should be some angst, even fear in the room (maybe ask provocative questions)

Look for dignity, beauty, joy and elegance

Experts, novices, and mind of the child

Put more faith in novices, less in  experts (and blend them together):

  • Experts: People who know what has been done,  what can be done, and what can’t be done.   (but these opinions can be strongly held)
  • The naïve: People who don’t know what can’t be  done or is impossible to do.
  • Variations: Bring in people who are experts on  the “wrong” thing, or a related but different thing (Edison was famous for this, e.g. with the phonograph)

Google started off knowing too little about what they couldn’t do 🙂

Ditto Jobs and Wozniak (Home-brew computing company). Steve Markkula (adult supervision)

Zuckerberg relying on Sandberg for business smarts

Deal with the bad apples In the best teams “problem” members get quick negative feedback and warnings, and if reform fails, are expelled quickly.   Leaders – formal and informal: don’t duck the dirty work.

Bad is stronger than good:

  • “5 to 1 rule” for encounters in personal relationships and at work
  • Eliminating the negative is more important than accentuating the positive
  • Bad apples – including deadbeats, downers, and rude jerks – bring down performance 30% to 40% compared to teams that don’t have them
  • Distraction and contagion

Perry Klebahn:

  • You need to clarify the culture – create the guard-rails of the group
  • Are the goals clear?
  • Managers job is to focus the team on the key goals

Running the team

The case for Small and stable teams

J. Richard Hackman’s rule: “No work team should have membership in the double digits …. the number of performance problems a team encounters increases exponentially as team size increases.”

“Optimal” team size is 4.6 in one study – Navy Seals “fire teams”  and McKinsey engagement teams have four members

“Apple also consciously tries to behave like a startup, most notably by putting small teams on crucial projects. To wit: just two engineers wrote the code for converting Apple’s Safari browser for the iPad, a massive undertaking.” Adam Lashinsky, Inside Apple

Stable membership linked to team performance:

  1. Surgical teams, semiconductor start‐ups, R&D teams, and flight cockpit crews
  2. NTSB: 73% of flight incidents occur during the crew’s first day together; 44% on their first flight

Innovation requires extreme optimism… punctuated by input from realists and pessimists

Why optimism? It reduces the failure rate! Emotions are contagious

The self‐fulfilling prophecy

  • If you believe you can, you can
  • If you believe you can’t, you can’t

“Confidence in nonsense is required.” Burt Rutan

Why innovation requires a few grumpy and pessimistic people:

  • They are better at finding flaws
  • They are better at pulling the plug, at stopping organizations from throwing good money after bad

Happy Worriers The best of both worlds?

David Kelley argues that the key to leading innovative work is finding ways to instill creative confidence in people.  Ted Talk

Money as a motivator

Psychologists and economists can show you hundreds – really thousands – of studies that show people will work harder to obtain financial rewards. But there are two big problems:

  • Getting the rewards right is REALLY hard
  • Money turns us into selfish loners

Steve Kerr: On the Folly of Rewarding “A” While Hoping for “B”


The power of being ‘reminded’ of money (Apple try to keep it out of staffs’ thoughts)

Nine experiments by Kathleen Vohs (involving Monopoly money):

  1. Less likely to give others help
  2. Less likely to ask for help
  3. Sat further away from others
  4. More likely to choose to work alone Didn’t realize experiments were about money – but led to selfishness and self‐sufficiency

Intrinsic Rewards

Doing interesting work itself. Dan Pink based on Drive Ted Talk

Stand-Up meetings

Research on 111 groups, all studying the same problem:   Stand‐up meetings were 34% shorter but just as effective.

David Darragh, CEO of Reily Foods: Has a daily 15 minute stand‐up meeting with his top team: “The rhythm that frequency generates allows relationships to develop, personal ticks to be understood, stressors to be identified, personal strengths and weaknesses to be put out in the light of day, etc. The role of stand‐up meetings is not to work on strategic issues or even to resolve an immediate issue.”


Stand up every 20-30 minutes – cardio-vascular benefits

Learn how and when to fight

Innovation happens when people respect each  other – but fight like crazy over ideas.

Hallmarks of effective creative abrasion

  • Strong opinions, weakly held
  • Fight as if you are right, listen as if you are  wrong

‘I now disagree with my own standpoint. I was wrong, let’s get on using your view

In terms of creative work: “When two people in business always agree,  one of them is unnecessary.” William Wrigley

Not so in operational work, you generally want agreement around routine work

Brad Bird of Pixar Director, The Incredibles and Ratatouille “I’ve been fired for being disruptive several times…  but this is the first time I’ve been hired for it”

“Everyone will get humiliated and  encouraged together.”

Don’t fight when generating ideas,  such as when brainstorming

Stop fighting after the decision is made  – it undermines implementation

Intel motto:  Disagree and then commit 

Fighting a Good Fight


Leadership (Stanford Leading Innovation notes)

Bob Sutton: 4 keys to successful leadership considerations (Good boss, bad boss):

  1. Be in tune with your people
  2. Assertiveness
  3. Employ a ‘small wins’ strategy
  4. Have their backs

Even the best leaders seem to have a ‘weird’ self obsession, even when viewed in a constructive way. They want to understand what it means to work for them (i.e. they’re honing their empathy).

As a leader, ‘it’s not all about you – except when it is:

  1. Accept, you get more credit and more blame than anyone else. 10-20% of the input (for the team) but 50% of the ‘response’.
  2. Attention is directed up. The people you lead watch you rather than you watch them.

Watch out for the toxic tandem – the people who lead don’t know much about their staff, but the staff sure know about management (clueless managers).

Managers have surefire ‘tells’ that staff read.

Linda Hudson (CEO BAE Systems): …people are always watching, your example, your tone, confidence, how you carry yourself

Bob Sutton: A member of a baboon troop glances at the alpha male every 20-30 seconds.

Effects of giving people power:

  1. Focus on their own needs and concerns
  2. Focus little attention on the needs of others
  3. Act like the rules don’t apply to them

Who takes the last cookie, eats with their mouth open, leaves more crumbs? The leader

Bob SuttonSome bosses live in a fool’s paradise (HBR blog item)

Diego Rodriguez: You need a suite of countermeasures:

  • People to give you honest counsel (out the limelight)
  • Stay mortal, display humility
  • Maintain the reality and illusion that you’re in control
  • David Kelly – when in a difficult situation. Ask 3 questions of others, then make the decision. Get perspectives and synthesise and decide yourself.
  • Balance of backstage (thinking) and frontstagen performance.
  • Learn to look happy while walking through the office – put things in perspective (on stage) to help maintain a positive environment

Mauria Finley: A ‘supportive hardass’. Does both way reference checks to share her quirks.


The best bosses are rated roughly average by followers on terms like competitive, aggressive, passive, and submissivethey are moderately assertive.

Push hard but not too hard

Bob Sutton: The best management is sometimes no management at all.  The managers of the most innovative teams:

  1. Devote less attention to their people
  2. Allow them to act without asking for permission first
  3. Don’t enforce rules as consistently as managers of less innovative teams

“After you plant a seed in the ground, you don’t dig it up every week to see how it is doing.” — 3M’s William Coyne

Perry Klebahn: When do I let the team struggle or intervene? If people are cooperating, listening, etc. Leave it. Exception being – decision-making (e.g. pick 3 ideas) (Sutton: Constraint is your friend)

Mauria Finley: Set rules for when you will micromanage (e.g. ‘When the boss’s boss takes a big interest, I may swoop in’).

Help people understand the structural things that may not work so well and encourage them to help come up with improvements over time

Small Wins. The progress principle

Work out the stepping stones  to Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs)

The best bosses frame what they do  as a series of manageable and  doable steps, which leads to better  decisions, sustains motivation, and  stops people from freaking out.

e.g. Use post it notes – What can we do to meet goals? Easy? Hard? Do easy, then attack hard in (say) 2 weeks

Mauria Finley: Keep linking the top-down and bottom-up goals while repeatedly painting the aspirational vision of why we’re here.

People tend to be big picture, or small picture. Help be the auto-correct between those modes.

Get people to build their own successful garden

Got their backs? The best bosses protect their people from harm, intrusions, distractions, indignities, idiots, and idiocy of every stripe.

Henry Mintzberg: Someone once defined a manager, half in jest, as someone who sees the visitors, so that everyone else can get the work done.

Perry Klebahn: Seek consistency, and instil pride in your people for what they do

Always on my mind. Multi tasking

I think when you multi task so much, you don’t have time to think about anything deeply. You’re giving the world an advantage you shouldn’t do. Practically everybody is drifting into that mistake. Charlie Munger

One of the things my Gallup Strengths Themes assessment tells me is that I’m big on connectedness, and ideas (as well as about the whole ‘Strengths‘ thing).

The idea that forms the theme of this post is multi tasking – and its effect on attention and results. I wanted to consider multi tasking in the context of one day, Saturday 12 March, to see if I could learn anything (as well as bookmark cool things for another day).

Eve and I didn’t have any plans before 7pm, so I decided to go into work to tackle several items that I just haven’t been able to spend enough time on. After breakfast (at Brewristas in Glebe) and, inevitably, checking my emails, including the weekly digest from Farnham Street, and specifically Multi tasking: Giving the World an Advantage it Shouldn’t Have.

I’ve seen several items on the perils of multi tasking lately, including These Are The Long-Term Effects Of Multi tasking from Georgetown Professor Cal Newport (via Michael Sutton‘s LinkedIn micro-blog), it’s a timely topic, hence the energy expended in the set up to this post. In essence, the articles suggest our brains are not really wired for multi tasking, and it’s essentially self-defeating, keeping us at a surface-level of thinking and muting our ability to consider important, thinky things (if you really wanted a long bow, big thinky things like, ‘Do we have the brains and the tools to understand and account for the future?‘)

I decided to get on with some of that work and record some observations on the way. Originally, a secondary post, I’ve moved them to this PDF file Multi tasking notes 20160312, as they are not wildly coherent.

Conclusions and Follow Up

Working on a Saturday is obviously not representative of a normal working day, so I had the chance to focus on key tasks, knock them over, and dabble a bit with email, notes, texts and what-not in between.

One good thing is that my brain doesn’t seem to have totally atrophied and I know I could maintain my attention span for a lot longer. The only reason for pulling the pin was a dinner commitment.

The jury remains out on my propensity for multi tasking at inherently busier times.

One thing I read at breakfast, down-stream from the original Farnham Street post referenced at the top of the day resonates with perhaps more significance than the multi tasking thing alone:

The best way to identify how the world really works is to find the general principles that line up with historically significant sample sizes — those that apply, in the words of Peter Kaufman, “across the geological time scale of human, organic, and inorganic history.”

Will and Ariel Durant, writing in the amazing Lessons of History, say “all of the achievements of man fall humbly into the history of polymorphous life.”

To paraphrase, the Durants suggest that the natural world, and the world of humans, is among other things, fundamentally competitive. And that in some regards, individuals group for competitive purposes, and that by inference, I group with others like me as a competitive act.

Multi tasking is eroding the capabilities of my group. What to do about it?

Coda. Smartphones are ruling our lives and killing our imaginations

Smartphone Stats