By CSD Staff
Humans are lazy thinkers. Although the brain comprises only about 2.5% of our body weight, it generally uses 20% of the body’s energy. That’s why the human learning machine prefers to operate in a low gear—on autopilot—as much as possible: It’s a conservation thing.
As Nobel laureate and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman put it, “Laziness is built deep into our nature.” According to Professor Edward Hess, the big problem is that business has taken the “laziness model”—or operational excellence—as far as it can go.
“The lazy brain is why the operational excellence model—in which companies fight for dominance by being faster, better and cheaper—rose to dominance in the first place,” said Hess, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business. The professor is also the author of the new book “Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization.”
Fact is, the old operational excellence model most companies employ provides too many reasons not to learn—too many reasons to remain lazy, complacent and robotic. Steeped in the “command and control” paradigm of operational excellence, leaders (and employees) see learning as a high-risk activity. Combine a deeply entrenched attitude that risk-taking is a no-no with the brain’s inherent laziness and you get a company that can’t innovate its way out of the proverbial wet paper bag.
The implication is clear: If you want to survive the coming Digital Age of Machines (aka the 21st century) you must give your company culture a serious shake-up. You must engage and reward people so strongly that they’re willing to override their natural tendency toward laziness and continuously generate and share new ideas.
“In other words, you have to create an idea meritocracy,” said Hess. “Doing so requires creating a hybrid business model, one that prioritizes the need for innovation while keeping in play the best aspects of operational excellence—for example, its focus on relentless, constant improvement. Succeeding at this hybrid culture requires a commitment to learning. Lazy brains won’t survive.”
Read on to learn how you and your employees can energize your lazy brains and revitalize your culture in the process:
So how does this occur?
Empower fast, cheap, customer-centric experimentation. Intuit is a very successful and highly profitable company. (Quicken, TurboTax, and QuickBooks are a few of its products.) About eight years ago, after becoming concerned that it was losing its edge, Intuit proactively created a new culture and installed new processes, all designed to create an idea meritocracy. One of its primary goals was to galvanize product development by discovering often-unstated customer needs and creating solutions for them.
“Intuit wanted to empower idea generation and encourage fast, cheap, customer-centric experimentation by all employees,” Hess said. “As part of the transformation, founder Scott Cook stated that decisions would no longer be made at Intuit based on PowerPoints and politics, but by customers themselves, who will ‘vote with their feet’ for the ideas they like best.
“They designed the experiments to first test key customer needs or value assumptions so that they could move quickly on critical ‘must-have’ data,” Hess added. “Also—here’s the ‘cheap’ part—they decided to start small in scope until innovators had more and better data to justify a larger investment.”
Turn mistakes into “surprises.” Another major change was needed at Intuit to fully engage the workforce in this new culture of innovation and learning—specifically, a new mental model about mistakes. Fact is, lots of ideas just don’t work out. They may not be supported by data when they are tested, or a process improvement idea that looked wonderful in theory may not work as expected in practice.
“In an idea meritocracy, mistakes like these are not punished so long as financial risk parameters are respected,” Hess said. “Instead, they are viewed as learning opportunities. There is no mistake so long as you learn. Intuit even calls mistakes or experimental failures ‘surprises.’
First of all, while mistakes are not good, there’s no negative connotation with surprises. Surprises don’t elicit the same amount of fear and anxiety that mistakes do. And when we aren’t afraid, we’re more likely to take risks that have the potential to lead to big wins. Second, in many cases, those ‘surprises’ ultimately point employees down a different path that could have great promise.”
Teach employees to work around their weaknesses. Bridgewater Associates, the largest and one of the most successful hedge funds in the world, implements its idea meritocracy through a culture and processes designed to help people overcome the common human obstacles to learning: their cognitive blindness, dissonance and biases, and their ego-driven emotional defensiveness.
Bridgewater does that through radical transparency, constant stress-testing of one’s thinking by others, the daily rigorous use of best learning processes, complete candor, permission to speak freely, and an egalitarian idea meritocracy where everyone has the duty to challenge ideas regardless of rank or position in the hierarchy.
Let employees “pull the cord.” Sometimes employees see big problems and mistakes but feel powerless to make a change. They figure bringing mistakes to the attention of higher-ups is above their pay grade and not a part of their job description, or they fear ending up being the proverbial messenger who gets shot. Of course, these feelings of powerlessness are terrible for morale and just encourage people to keep going on autopilot.
The solution is to make it very clear to employees that they are able not just to point out problems, but to take bold action to correct them. At Toyota, an idea meritocracy was created by giving every employee in the factory the ability to “pull the cord” at any time to stop production. In other words, all employees were empowered to take ownership of preventing defects and mistakes.
“In many cases, fixing a mistake required a team to discover the root cause of the problem and to devise a process that would prevent that mistake from happening again,” Hess said. “Empowering line employees to take responsibility for continuously improving processes using root cause analysis helped Toyota keep employees engaged and was Toyota’s quality differentiator for years. Unfortunately, Toyota diluted that system in its drive for global expansion and global sales leadership.”
Make it a duty to dissent. Google’s culture is built on driving innovation and experimentation—in other words, trying new things. To support this culture, pay level is irrelevant in decision making, and so is experience or tenure—unless the experience provides data used to frame good arguments. In fact, Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman, stated in the book “How Google Works” that Google employees are told not to listen to “HiPPOs,” or the “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.”
“At Google, permission to speak freely is not enough—one has a duty to dissent,” said Hess. “This means that relative ‘rookies’ can—and do—raise objections and present alternate ideas when they disagree with their bosses. A similar duty to dissent can be found at UPS, which has an employee-centric culture of ‘constructive dissatisfaction,’ meaning that everyone has the duty to find ways to improve.”
Idea meritocracies are able to continuously improve or innovate faster and better than the competition, said Hess.
“Seek to engage all employees in constant improvement or innovation through everyday learning,” Hess said. “No matter what product or service you sell, in order to compete in a technologically advancing, highly globalized competitive environment, you must be in the business of learning. You must build a culture where lazy thinking is snuffed out and big thinking is encouraged and rewarded.”