March 7, 2021

Corner Office: Andrew M. Thompson: Andrew Thompson of Proteus, on Direct Feedback

Q. Can you talk about how to create an innovative culture?

A. I’ve been an entrepreneur for 22 years in Silicon Valley, so that essentially creates a life that’s defined by doing things that are innovative and different. When you build a company or organization that’s going to take on those kinds of challenges, I think there are two things that are really important. 

One is that you reward innovative and new things in ways that are very obvious and are very visible — it’s the culture of what you talk about, what you celebrate, what you reward, what you make visible.  For example, in this company, which is very heavily driven by intellectual property, if you file a patent or have your name on a patent, we give you a little foam brain.

  But then, more important, right in our front lobby, there are shelves of big glass jars and everyone’s name in the company is on one of them — they’re like an apothecary jar.  And that’s where your brains go.  And so we have this huge wall that’s full of brains.   

There’s no money in it.  We don’t pay people to file patents because we’re an innovative company.  That’s part of your job. But we recognize it and we make it extremely visible.  Everyone who walks in the front door just looks and says “wow.” That’s a very specific and extremely powerful way that we promote and reward innovation.   

But there’s another thing that I think is probably a little less obvious: in the context of being an innovative company, it’s really important that you don’t penalize failure. In an innovative company, and particularly for a start-up company, you have to take risk. So you have to have a very strong bias to action over analytics, and for learning from mistakes and moving forward. 

That’s very much what I call a leadership culture as opposed to a management culture, and it’s very counterintuitive to many people who come from large organizations where failure is absolutely clobbered.   I want to be clear about this:   It’s not that you reward failure.  You don’t penalize it.  What you focus on much more is risk-taking and a bias to action.  So the real sin in a small company is not making a mistake, it’s not moving.  That doesn’t always mean you move in the right direction.  But if you discover you’re moving in the wrong direction, you change direction.  It’s fairly easy to see and to reward people who have those instincts.   

Q. Tell me more about that. 

A. In our company, at the senior team level, we talk about everybody in the company twice a year in a very structured way, where we spend several hours identifying people who we think are our golden seed.  These are people who have very strong leadership instincts, who understand how to move the ball forward. They know how to take risks, and how to either build on work that’s successful, or they are able to say that something doesn’t work, and let’s move on, let’s change that. And those people we try to promote quickly.

Q. How do you reinforce this in the culture of your company more broadly?

A. If we have something we want to celebrate or talk about — let’s say we promote someone or want to recognize someone, for example — we’ll talk about it in a meeting. A big part of building a culture is around stories, right?  So the stories have to be real, and they have to be vivid. If you’ve got someone who’s an effective risk taker, you make that very clear and you tell the story. You want these things to become legends.   

Q. What are some other things you do?   

A. Culture in our company is a really big deal, and we have a values system built around quality, teamwork and leadership.  One of the activities around that cultural framework is the idea that employees can recognize each other — groups or teams can recognize or be recognized by other employees for doing things that specifically demonstrate those values.   

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/business/andrew-thompson-of-proteus-on-direct-feedback.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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