Unvarnished

It’s an altercation that’s stuck with me for decades.

Roughly twenty years ago I was leading a retail team that would eventually design what we now call Flowcasting. We were an eclectic team, full of passion and dedicated to designing and implementing something new, and much better.

After a particularly explosive team session – that saw tensions and ideas run hot – everyone went back to their workstations to let sleeping dogs lie. One business team member, who’d really gotten into it with one of the IT associates, could not contain his passion. He promptly walked over to the team member’s cubicle and said…

“Oh, one more thing…Fuck You!!”

Like most of the team, I was a little startled. I went over and talked to the team member and we had a good chat about how inappropriate his actions were. Luckily the IT team member was one cool dude and he didn’t take offence to it – the event just rolled off his back. To his credit, the next day my team member formally apologized and all was forgiven.

Now, please don’t think I’m condoning this type of action. I’m not. However, as a student of business, change and innovation I’ve been actively learning and trying to understand what really seeds innovation and, in particular, what types of people seem to be able to make change happen.

And, during my research and studies, I keep coming back to this event. It’s evidence of what seems to be a key trait and characteristic of innovative teams and people. They are what many refer to as…

Unvarnished.

If I think back to that team from two decades ago, we were definitely unvarnished. We called a spade a spade. Had little to no respect to the company hierarchy and even less for the status quo. And, as a team, we were brutally honest with each other and everyone on the team felt very comfortable letting me know when I was full of shit – which was, and continues to be, often.

But that team moved, as Steve Jobs would say, mountains – not only designing what would later morph into Flowcasting, but implementing a significant portion of the concept and, as a result, changing the mental model of retail planning.

I had no idea at the time, but being unvarnished was the key trait we had. Franseca Gino has extensively studied what makes great teams and penned a brilliant book about her learnings, entitled “Rebel Talent”.

She dedicates consider time to unvarnishment and quotes extensively from Ed Catmull, famed leader of Pixar Animation Studios who’s worked brilliantly with another member of the unvarnished hall of fame – Steve Jobs.

According to Catmull, “a hallmark of creative cultures is that people feel free to share ideas, opinions and criticisms. When the group draws on the unvarnished perspectives of all its members, the collective knowledge and decision making benefits.”

According to Catmull, and others (including me), “Candor is the key to constructive collaboration”. The KEY to disruptive innovation.

Here’s another example to prove my point. When I was consulting at a national western Canadian retailer, our team was lucky to have an Executive Sponsor who was, as I now understand, unvarnished as well.

As the project unfolded I was amazed how he operated and the way he encouraged and responded to what I’d call dissent. Most leaders of teams absolutely abhor dissent – having been unfortunately schooled over time that company hierarchy was there for a reason and was the tie-breaker on decision making and direction setting.

Our Sponsor openly encouraged people to dissent with him and readily and openly changed his mind whenever required. I vividly remember a very tense and rough session around job design and rollout in which he was at loggerheads with the team, including me. When I think back, it was amazing to see how “safe” team members felt disagreeing with him – and, in this case, very passionately.

As it turned out, over the next few days, we continued the dialogue and he changed his opinion 180 degrees – eventually agreeing with his direct report.

Neuroscience refers to this as being able to work with “psychological safety” – which is a fancier way of saying people are free to be unvarnished. To say what they believe, why and to whom with no consequences whatsoever.
Without question, as I’ve been thinking and studying great teams and innovation I realize just how brilliant this Sponsor was and the environment he helped to foster.

How many Executives, Leaders or teams are really working in an unvarnished environment – with complete psychological safety? I think you’d agree, not many.

If you, your company and your supply chain is going to compete and continually evolve and improve, won’t ongoing innovation need to become a way of life? And that means people need to collaborate better, disrupt faster and feel completely comfortable challenging and destroying the status quo.

Now, I’m not saying that when you don’t agree with someone to tell them to go F-themselves.

What I am saying – and other folks who are a lot smarter than me – is that hiring, promoting, encouraging and fostering people and a working environment that is unvarnished will be a crucial!

So here’s to being unvarnished. To being and working in safety. To real collaboration and candor.

And to looking your status quo in the eye and saying…”Fuck you!”

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