How to Create a Culture of Lateral Thinkers – Part 2

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Please click here for Part 1 of this blog post before reading on.

Is it harder for people to operate without managers to watch over their shoulders, giving directions and expecting reports? In many ways, yes. It’s easier to have someone tell you what to do. It’s easier to know exactly what’s expected of you. And it’s definitely easier to not have to take risks, or come up with new ideas, or have someone to turn to to fix it when everything suddenly goes wrong.

But like most things that don’t require a lot of effort, being managed is unchallenging, unrewarding and fundamentally unfulfilling. Following procedures and checking boxes that were created by someone else, especially if that person no longer actively performs the tasks they were charged with streamlining, doesn’t add any joy or excitement to life. It makes the professional experience dull, and fosters a company culture where people are fixated on the things they need to do rather than the things they want to achieve.

That’s why the McDonald’s approach, which I discussed in the first part of this post, was never going to be a long-term solution for E-Web Marketing. It works very well in the fast food industry, or any business where success depends on following the exact same recipe every time. But it’s not sustainable in a field like Internet marketing. The recipe for a Big Mac never changes; Google’s search algorithm updates twice per day.

Making Everyone a Master Chef

“If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”
- Anthony Robbins

How happy do you think most of the people working at McDonald’s are? How high would staff retention be in a system that thrives on automation, where there is little opportunity to be challenged and grow? The only people who would survive long in that type of low-risk, low-reward environment are those who “live for the weekend”. Because they think any kind of work must be boring, these people gravitate toward boring jobs, and are disinterested in pursusing a more challenging career path.

Unless you run a highly systemised model like McDonald’s or Kmart, you can’t afford to have those people in your business. They avoid growing and by association they hinder your business from growing. What do you think would happen at McDonald’s if the people who made the burgers came to realise that an existing recipe no longer worked? Maybe because the business could no longer get a key ingredient, or customers’ tastes had changed altogether, or whatever the reason might be. I’d bet that most of those McDonald’s people would continue to follow that recipe, until someone higher up came along to give them a new one. And ultimately, it would be the fault of the higher-ups, because they never trained the burger-makers to think laterally and solve problems.

While that scenario is unlikely to pose a problem for McDonald’s– I actually envision a future where burger-makers are replaced by robots, so a lack of lateral thinking training for fast food employees never becomes an issue – it does underline a profound truth for most other business models. Namely, that what you need to survive the future, with the world changing more rapidly than in any other period in history, is a team of people who have the problem-solving mentality of Master Chefs.

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Enabling a Culture of Leaders

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
- Chinese proverb

At E-Web Marketing, we’ve literally transformed our organisation by building our own Master Chef inspired dream team. To start with, we completely flattened the conventional company hierarchy, and even eliminated the word “manager” from our internal vocabulary. Everyone is as responsible as everyone else for the success or failure of our business’ goals. And if someone can’t stand the heat, then they don’t last long in the kitchen.

Enabling this cultural shift for our existing team was the first step, and the next was to stamp it fresh on everyone who joined after we retired both management positions and our old training program that fostered blind doing over creative problem-solving. Now, when we receive a promising applicant, we never tell them what to do. Instead, we tell them what they need to know to perform their desired role, and send them away to find it out. So for instance, if someone is applying for an SEO position, we’ll say: “You need to get this site ranking on the front page of Google in this amount of time. Tell us how you’re going to do it.”

It doesn’t matter how they find the information. They can use search engines, monitor SEO news sites, look through forums, read books, ask other people for advice, etc. When they figure out the answers, they qualify to the next round of consideration; if they don’t, the keep trying; if they give up, then they don’t earn the chance for a place at E-Web Marketing. Thus from day 1, we teach people how to feed themselves through innovation and independent research, instead of setting up an intravenous knowledge transfer. I’ve used SEO as an example throughout this post, but we apply this lateral thinking challenge to applicants for all our roles: AdWords management, account management, social media consulting, etc.

Ultimately, the Master Chef approach is about investing in people. The mistake that many well-meaning companies make here is to confuse “investing” with “coddling”. There will be times when you’ll be tempted to help someone who is struggling by just giving them the answer they need. Trust me, they won’t thank you for this in the long run – and neither will your bottom line.

When hiring, don’t make the positions you need to fill or the skills you’d like the person to have your first priority. Job titles are illusory and any skill is acquirable. Having been in business for 18 years, I can’t reinforce enough to other entrepreneurs how crucial it is to focus on people first. When all’s said and done, it’s not any brilliant strategic plan you may come up with, or market advantage you’re lucky enough to possess, that will determine if the future horizon of your business is dim or bright. It’ll be the people on your team.

Just remember that it isn’t your job to teach them what to do – it’s to teach them how to think.

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