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Fear keeps companies from collaborative thinking

Margaret Heffernan makes a strong claim: If you don’t tell anyone about your problems, how will you get the input that allows you to figure out a solution?

Søren Vasø Hansen

Søren Vasø Hansen

As CEO of five software companies her claim stems from experience. On the podcast “Masters of Scale” she shares a story that paints the picture:

”The piece of software we were running had a very specific problem, which was what I would call a load balancing problem. It just required too much processing power. And the more customers we got, the more acute this problem became. And because it was such an existential threat, everybody knew about it.

And one Friday, one of my marketing people came to me and said: “You know, I’m not an engineer, but I just had this idea.” So I call my CTO and I say, “Harry, what do you think about this?” And he thinks about it for a minute, and says, “I think I know how we could do that.” So it was a really thrilling, not to mention kind of life-saving moment.

But what I think is especially interesting is, in very siloed organizations, or fearful organizations, you wouldn’t share that problem. But actually, everyone knowing the problem was what allowed us to solve it.”

The learning in Heffernan’s story is that the solution came from outside the team that was battling the problem. And only because it was a known problem. 

However, what if the problem was troublesome, but not life-threatening? Would the marketing person have walked into Heffernan’s office with the solution?

Off course not.

No one outside the team would have been able to offer their input and ideas to the conversation. So, a solution would, worst case, never have been found or best case solved later than it should have been.

Adding diversity in people and mindset, is key to solving problems and innovate. Both in Heffernan’s case as well as in any other organization.

But before you can go there you have to solve something else first:

Companies aren't able to think

In her Tedtalk, “Dare to disagree”, Heffernan argues that companies aren’t able to think.

“It’s not that organizations won’t think, it’s simply because they can’t. It’s because the people inside of them are too afraid of conflict. In surveys of European and American executives, 85% of them acknowledge they had issues or concerns they were afraid to raise. 

Afraid of conflict and arguments they did not know how to manage, effectively meaning they could not think together because of fear.

So, organizations that have gone out of their way to try and find the very best people they can, mostly fail to get the best out of them”.

Heffernan says it takes skill and practice to overcome fear. My claim is that culture plays a huge role as well. We need to develop a culture where raising concerns and problems is accepted and naturally encouraged. 

We do that by placing structure inside our organisations and teams, so conflicts more easily can become conversations and with hard work, start to form new ideas and solutions.

Leadership for the better

When fear is overcome and the first brave person dares to speak up, Heffernan says the results are almost always the same:

“It turns out everybody has exactly the same questions and doubts. So now they can think together. And yes – conflict, argument, and debat will still happen, but the conversation allows everyone to be creative, work together and solve the problem.”

It’s bravery at its finest. It takes guts to be the one to put yourself out there. Unknowingly if anyone agrees with you.

We have a name for such courage: it’s called leadership.

The willingness to put yourself out there so everyone can benefit and become part of something better.

And that is what always happen when the work culture allows and entices everyone to speak openly about problems: something better.

See Margaret Heffernan’s full TED talk: Date to Disagree (12 min) and hear her on the podcast Masters of Scale, episode: Innovation = Manage Chaos (30 min).

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