This is Why Your Engineering Team Can't Innovate / by John DeVries

I’m not sure why, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the work environment I am a part of every day. For years now there has been something under the surface that was frustrating me, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. When someone posted this New York Times article in Slack a few months ago, I immediately began to understand some of the dynamics in play within our company culture. And unfortunately, in my opinion, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Most of what you’re about to read comes from the previously mentioned article and a paper written by a professor at the Harvard School of Business.

If you think this is pretentious, unnecessary, or you can’t tolerate the grammatical missteps, I welcome any criticism that is constructive and delivered without shame or malice. More on that later. :)

Background

I work in a special place. My co-workers are amazing in so many ways. I have a stand-up desk that I love and a quiet work space. My teammates are epically awesome. I can talk to the CEO and business owners any time I want by walking downstairs and asking. It really is amazing.

But, like any organization, it isn’t perfect. 

  • I’ve been scolded by management in front of my peers.
  • I’ve been told outright (again in front my peers) that my ideas were stupid.
  • I’ve given presentations that were met with nothing but hostility and irrelevant criticism of projects I spent weeks on.
  • I’ve watched as fellow co-workers were verbally and emotionally abused for doing their best work and delivering it to someone who didn’t like it.
  • I’ve given demos to people who couldn’t even be bothered to look up from their laptop during the presentation. And I’ve watched my co-workers endure the same blatant disrespect.
  • I’ve been asked, in not so many words, to stop asking questions because I either don’t need the answers or somehow the answers are above my pay-grade.
  • I’ve watched as people in meetings are publicly shamed for trying to understand the content being delivered.
  • I’ve watched meetings between adults descend into such chaos that you couldn’t even figure out who was talking or what the conversation was even about anymore.
  • I’ve watched people argue for so long they forgot what they were arguing about in the first place.

But I’m not the victim here.

  • I’ve told people there work was shit.
  • I’ve gotten angry at my co-workers for not doing what I thought their job was.
  • I’ve been downright unkind, sometimes publicly, to those who didn’t meet the expectations I arbitrarily set for them.
  • I’ve been verbally abusive to people when I was angry or frustrated.

Are you seeing a theme?

Before you write me off as a cry-baby millennial who can’t handle reality, please keep reading. 

Also, “be nice to people” isn’t where this is headed.

Why Aren’t we Innovating?

“An organization’s ability to innovate--whether to develop new products, implement new technologies, or formulate new strategies--is critical to success in a changing world. ...activities supporting innovation involve risk, uncertainty, and even failure along the way to success. Team members are often reluctant to offer novel contributions for fear of being wrong.”

Creativity and Innovation in Organizational Teams

In my estimation, our product was extraordinarily innovative 12 years ago. Though I wasn’t working here then, I’m hard pressed to see us in that light today. 

There are companies with a better user interface. There are companies with equally useful features. There are companies that solve similar problems. There are companies that manage all kinds of media files. You get the idea. 

Since I’ve been here, I can’t think of anything we’ve released that truly felt ground-breaking. This is really going to piss some people off. That’s ok. I honestly think my cohorts do amazing work. And while it’s not my area of expertise, our company obviously fills a very necessary and specific niche or we wouldn’t be competitive in our space. 

But we’re not building things that no one else has built. Even with an aggressive roadmap that contains desirable targets for our customers. We’re not breaking new ground. Even our bleeding edge features are things that already exist in the world today. And the next year of feature development, if nothing else, is incredibly ‘safe’.

I’m no business pro or innovation expert, just a lowly engineer over here. But I can’t imagine we don’t all agree that building new products that are both innovative in design and efficacious in solving people’s problems, is what we’re all aiming for. 

Where is The Psychological Safety?

I’ve heard a lot of reasons why we don’t have fancy new features and products being delivered. I’m sure you’ve heard similar stories where you work. 

“The technology is too old.”

“We don’t have the headcount.”

“We don’t have the money.”

All of those things are probably true. But I think we face an even bigger problem.

As an organization, we haven’t created an environment that spawns new ideas. New ideas aren’t safe. You aren’t safe.

“The researchers eventually concluded that what distinguished the ‘good’ teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another.”

What Google Learned From It’s Quest to Build the Perfect Team, New York Times

This fantastic New York Times article, in a long-winded fashion, basically spells out what makes or breaks a team. What is it? 

It’s called Psychological Safety. Sure, it’s how we treat each other. But there’s a lot more to it.

“Within psychology, researchers sometimes colloquially refer to traits like ‘conversational turn-taking’ and ‘average social sensitivity’ as aspects of what’s known as psychological safety… Psychological safety is ‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up...’’’

What Google Learned From It’s Quest to Build the Perfect Team, New York Times

Let’s be honest; engineers aren’t known for things like “social sensitivity” or “conversational turn-taking”. Many of us work with computers BECAUSE they don’t talk and they aren’t sensitive. 

Well, that’s all fine and good. But we also work with each other. And the ideas that have driven our companies in the past, along with the ideas that will drive it in the future --come from people. Like it or not, these people have feelings, egos, fears, desires, etc… So, as much as I’d love to ignore you all and go back to arrays and objects, how we treat each other and the environment of psychological safety that that behavior engenders would be unwise to ignore.

So what exactly is psychological safety?

“I have used the term psychological safety ...to capture the degree to which people perceive their work environment as conducive to taking ...interpersonal risks.”

Managing The Risk of Learning, Harvard School of Business

Why a Culture Lacking Psychological Safety is so Corrosive to Productivity and Innovation

“...a nurse facing the decision of whether to ask a physician in the unit about a medication dosage she suspects is erroneous may be so focused on the potential immediate consequences of asking this question, such as being scolded and humiliated for being ignorant, that she temporarily discounts the longer-term consequence of not speaking up—that is, the harm that may be caused to a patient.” 

Managing The Risk of Learning, Harvard School of Business

Some of you may not be able to imagine a world in which you don’t say things because of how other people might respond. But I assure you, for some people that is a reality. 

The terrifying thing, in whatever organization you’re a part of, is that you and your co-workers may have built a culture where ideas, thoughts, or feedback which are in the best interest of the company are never voiced due to the fear of social consequences. 

Is that insane? Sure. But it happens.

For example, I’m actually a little worried I might be fired for publicly sharing my opinion on this issue. That’s kinda messed up.

“Thus, team members of a nurse who reported being ‘made to feel like a two year old’ when reporting a drug error independently reported similar feelings of discomfort about speaking up, for example commenting that ‘nurses are blamed for mistakes’ and ‘[if you make a mistake here,] doctors bite your head off.’ These nurses, either from personal or vicarious experience, came to the conclusion that, on their team, reporting mistakes was interpersonally penalized.”

Managing The Risk of Learning, Harvard School of Business

I went through about a 3 month period at my job where I pretty much just stopped talking in meetings. I’m sure other people have had similar experiences here. And as a company, we missed out on their ideas and their feedback. The thing is, some of you have really good ideas. Those ideas need to be heard and respected, even when they suck. So, it’s especially important that we create a culture in our organizations that encourages questioning. Questions are not encouraged where I work. In some cases, they are actively dodged, avoided or dismissed.

“I argue that creating conditions of psychological safety is essential to laying a foundation for effective learning in organizations.” 

Managing The Risk of Learning, Harvard School of Business

“One solution to minimizing risk to one’s image is simply to avoid engaging in interpersonal behaviors for which outcomes are uncertain. The problem with this solution is that it precludes learning.”

Managing The Risk of Learning, Harvard School of Business

“...trust moderates the relationship between goals and performance: when there is a low level of trust in a group, contributions of group members were limited to achieving personal rather than cooperative goals. This can inhibit group-level learning and get in the way of accomplishing a desired organizational change.”

Managing The Risk of Learning, Harvard School of Business

If your culture suppresses learning, and if people are afraid to ask questions and share new ideas, how are you supposed to build amazing and innovative products and services? I don’t see that working out well.

How People and Certain Cultural Norms Can Break Down Psychological Safety

“In sum, if relationships within a group are characterized by trust and respect, individuals are likely to believe they will be given the benefit of the doubt—a defining characteristic of psychological safety.”

Managing The Risk of Learning, Harvard School of Business

When you refuse to answer someone’s question honestly, you begin to break apart whatever level of trust existed between you. If you can’t answer a question honestly, tell the questioner that you can’t share that information with them, and tell them why. Telling someone, “I’m not willing to share the specifics of this situation or decision.”, is exceedingly better than making up some bullshit. The former builds trust, the later takes trust away.

When messages come down from management that don’t reflect the complicated, interpersonal dynamics that generated the tough decisions, trust is broken. I’m sure you’re friends with a lot of your co-workers; I am too. People talk, and we often know what’s happening and why our co-workers disappear.

When you show up to a presentation or demo and you work on your laptop, trust is broken; respect is lost.

When you talk over someone in a room and raise your voice in an attempt to overpower them, you demonstrate extreme disrespect. Trust is broken.

When you tell someone their ideas are stupid, or you publicly shame them, you teach them to stop talking and to stop sharing. 

When you verbally assault a co-worker because they didn’t do what you wanted, you deteriorate our communal psychological safety. We need that safety to learn. We need to learn to innovate. 

How to Create Psychological Safety

Start With Your Leaders

"The secret killer of innovation is shame. You can't measure it, but it is there. Every time someone holds back on a new idea, fails to give their manager much needed feedback, and is afraid to speak up in front of a client you can be sure shame played a part. That deep fear we all have of being wrong, of being belittled and of feeling less than, is what stops us from taking the very risks required to move our companies forward. If you want a culture of creativity and innovation, where sensible risks are embraced on both a market and individual level, start by developing the ability of managers to cultivate an openness to vulnerability in their teams. And this, paradoxically perhaps, requires first that they are vulnerable themselves. This notion that the leader needs to be 'in charge' and to 'know all the answers' is both dated and destructive. Its impact on others is the sense that they know less, and that they are less than. A recipe for risk aversion if ever I have heard it. Shame becomes fear. Fear leads to risk aversion. Risk aversion kills innovation."

~ Peter Sheahan: Change Labs

The company owners, leaders, and managers inside of an institution set the tone for what cultural norms will be accepted. In many ways, they demonstrate acceptable group behavior with their own actions. 

From the quote above, “If you want a culture of creativity and innovation, where sensible risks are embraced on both a market and individual level, start by developing the ability of managers to cultivate an openness to vulnerability in their teams.”

Vulnerability is authenticity. Vulnerability starts when you stop making things up to save face. Vulnerability builds trust among teams. It builds safe environments where people can learn and share because they know at an instinctual level that their co-workers will be both honest and kind with them regarding their ideas.

What does this look like on a practical level? 

“Thanks for asking. I honestly don’t know. And now I feel silly for not thinking of that.”

“We’re open to constructive critical feedback here, but let’s save that for the end of the presentation.”

“When you guys missed that deadline, I felt really bummed out and I was worried about how I would look to the CEO.”

“I was wrong.”

If these are the kinds of comments your leaders make, you might be on the right track. The antithesis would be:

“Yeah, I’m not answering that question.”

“That’s not relevant, let’s move on.”

“You guys really screwed up when you missed that deadline.”

“You’re doing it wrong; that was a bad idea.”

You’ll notice the first batch of questions imply ownership and expression of personal truth. The second batch of statements are blaming, destructive of trust, and shut down communication.

If you’re in a leadership position where you work, it’s your job to improve your capacity for vulnerability and to spot shaming (especially public shaming) when it happens. 

But our leaders aren’t the only ones responsible for creating an atmosphere where ideas are born and built. 

Each of us has a role to play, and I think it begins with two very basic rules:

ONE - No shaming of anyone, ever.

Shame is destructive to individuals, groups and cultures for all the reasons we’ve already talked about. It shouldn’t be allowed. If you see someone exercising shame as a control tactic, pull them aside privately and discuss it. Should this person be unable to eliminate this behavior, they should be removed from the organization, asap. Shame works as a way for people to get what they want. That’s why we use it. However, because of its destructive power, it shouldn’t be allowed in your professional or personal life. 

Common Forms of Shame Tactics

  • Condescending tone while speaking to subordinates
  • Social execution: proving someone wrong in front of their peers
  • Berating or yelling
  • Telling someone their ideas are stupid
  • Consistently talking over others (the implied communication is that what you have to say is more important than what is already being spoken)

TWO - Follow basic improvisation rules.

Improvisation is pure creativity. There’s no time for planning, only creation and innovation. Improvisational comedy is funny when groups work well together; it’s terrible when they don’t. Not surprisingly, the same group dynamics that lead to creative humor can also lead to creativity in any form of work. And, it’s pretty simple. Here are two common rules taught in many improv classes:

  1. Don’t say no.
    1. If someone has an idea, you don’t have to shut them down and reject it… even if you think the idea sucks. Remain open, entertain all possibilities and see if you can’t guide the group to a better solution by doing rule two.
  2. Yes, and.
    1. Instead of rejecting ideas, affirm them and then add your own twist. This doesn’t mean you have to implement every idea anyone has. But you could, at a minimum, respect the fact that someone cared enough about their work and your company to have an original thought. Then, from that place, ask some clarifying questions or offer some ideas of your own.

The reality is that, all of the concepts I listed above are tactics. In my experience, ‘tactics’ rarely inspire actual change in humans. People read them, they agree with them, then they move on with their lives.

Personal change is hard. It’s hard to lose weight. It’s hard to change how we think. It’s hard to build new habits or break old ones. Unfortunately, that’s what we’re talking about here --human beings changing their behavior.

In my experience, people change when they’re good and ready (rarely before). As a result, I think any tactics you try and implement in your organization (although potentially helpful) are just bandaids. What you need is for your company to be built of people who naturally display an aptitude for social sensitivity, empathy, and emotional intelligence

I honestly believe that when you hire employees, you should be far less concerned with their work experience than you are with the above stated qualities. You can teach someone to be more technical. You can teach them how to do marketing, programming, or even how to be a better leader. That said, can you really expect to teach them new behavior patterns surrounding how they interact with others? Probably not. 

Resources for testing social and emotional aptitude:

Assessing Emotional Intelligence

Online Test for Social Sensitivity 

NYT Social Sensitivity (same test)

What a Culture of Psychological Safety is Not

Finally, you might be thinking that I’m expressing these thoughts because I want everyone to be treated delicately and carefully in the workplace. I couldn’t care less about that. Secondly, I don’t think there’s any value in us all attempting to be overly accommodating or nice to each other. I certainly don’t think there is any value in not expressing criticism or uncertainty. 

“Teams cannot afford to shirk critiques—the risk of sounding negative, criticizing the boss or making the company appear fallible. For example, management teams often face strategic decisions in which they must reflect on the company's current situation and suggest changes. The challenge in such discussions is to be objective and blunt about problems and about what is not working.”

Managing The Risk of Learning, Harvard School of Business

I do, however, feel that we could all endeavor to honor the humanity of our co-workers by showing them more respect and attempting to build more trust. 

My fear here is that you will walk away from reading this (especially if you are in a position of power at your company) and think, “yeah, we do that” or, “good ideas”. When in reality, you’re simply too ingrained in your organization to see the glaring problems. This of course, would be totally reasonable - as most of us simply can’t see the water we’re swimming in. 

I would implore you, however, to watch the group dynamics in your next meeting. How do people actually behave towards each other? How many ideas are added to? How many ideas are rejected outright? How many people are ‘put in their place’ by a coworker or superior? How you feel about where your company stands on this issue is irrelevant, what matters is the behavior of the people who, through their actions, create the culture of your organization every day.