Leading in a fast-changing world of uncertainty
Faced with rapid growth in the make-on-demand marketplace for independent creatives, Redbubble turned to Melbourne Business School to help it adapt its workplace culture and leadership skills to a new reality.
With orders steadily increasing and institutional investors now supporting its future growth, the online platform had to modify the free-thinking, entrepreneurial culture that has characterised the company since its launch in 2006.
Melbourne Business School executive educator Greg Harbidge says the lessons that Redbubble has learnt on the road to global success are relevant to any fast-growing or fast-changing business.
Greg Harbidge, Senior Consultant at Melbourne Business School Executive Education
The pace of modern business throws up many paradoxes for organisations, especially start-ups and quick-growing companies, who need people able to cope with uncertainty and a little bit of messiness.
I’m helping Redbubble instil a more collaborative spirit across its workforce, which includes many highly creative and independent-minded individuals in the company’s original Melbourne base and newer United States and European offices.
One of the first things you see when you visit Redbubble’s Melbourne office is a sign that says, 'Individuals welcome’. The company is a magnet for creative types who refuse to be censored by Google or the powers that be. But it’s an attitude that can shoot a growing company in the foot.
Redbubble faces the constant paradox of managing individuals against the need for more commonality as it scales up and grows. How much commonality, or how little, is a core challenge.
Leading and managing a change in culture and behaviour requires considerable skill, which executives can more easily develop if they understand that growth comes in phases, with associated opportunities and risks.
Business researcher Larry Greiner says growth can occur in cycles of evolution – when growth is consistent – and revolution – when it’s sudden, for example, because of a new competitor or process, the departure of key staff or the hiring of many new staff.
Whether growth happens gradually or quickly, it means what worked in the past isn't likely to work in the future, and the different growth phases can require different solutions, people, mindsets and behaviour.
As they scale up, start-ups begin to feel their growth pain points, which are signs of change. A new business typically moves from the founders creating and selling products or services through fairly informal structures to the need for many more staff, clearer management structures and even a new CEO or executive team if the founders no longer suit those roles.
Faced with the need to make more and more decisions, the leaders of a growing company begin to push decision-making down the line, often to people who don’t understand or expect the kind of responsibility they’re being given.
That’s when an institution like the Melbourne Business School can step in to help.
Executives of growing companies often try to keep managing and making decisions in the same old way, which is a big risk.
That approach can work for a year or two, but it reaches a point where they are simply too busy to make every decision. They eventually have an 'aha’ moment when they realise that, having brought on more people, they need to delegate and make people below them more accountable.
Delegating is an art
Delegating is an art, made more challenging by the need to maintain strategic alignment. It also requires leaders who can tolerate mistakes and encourage reflection, both in themselves and their reports.
Mistakes are part of doing ‘the great stuff’ and improving on it, but leaders must know when to step in to help people distinguish the important work from the not so important.
I see a lot of people who look busy but are often just spinning their wheels. In delegating critical decision-making, you must be sure to get strong strategic alignment to make sure what's being worked on is part of your plan. Leaders and managers need to cascade their strategy down to get alignment across their organisation.
The what, why and how of strategic alignment
An effective way to delegate and maintain strategic alignment is through back-briefing, which is where a leader briefs a direct report about what they want and why, and then lets the report suggest how to do it.
The leader might say, ‘I need you to fix up the code so customers can make a purchase easily and have a great experience doing it, so they’re more likely to make a repeat purchase.'
The direct report could then back brief, 'OK, what I heard was, you want me to focus on x, y and z, and my initial thinking about how to do that is …'
Back-briefing confirms strategic alignment and avoids spending months on work that's not important. But it requires regular check-ins to succeed. It typically involves spending about twice as much time on the check-ins as the initial brief.
But the time spent is worth it. No one at Pixar, Disney or Apple works on their own for months on end. They work openly together and check their alignment regularly.
Independent wills, collective goals
Organisations operate in a fast-changing environment while trying to manage a collection of independent wills, who have finite knowledge, experience and time. So, how do you align those independent wills and finite beings to your collective goals?
The answer is not perfectly. There will always be friction, but that’s a good thing. You can’t run away from it. It might show up as one group being in conflict with another as work timeframes and needs misalign.
But if harnessed and managed properly, such friction can lead to the two groups reaching a better understanding of the problem at hand and the best way to tackle it.
Picking the right people
Hiring and retaining the right people is another major challenge for any business but especially for a growing business. It’s easy to say, ‘We need people now,' but that's risky terrain. I have seen many new hires not work out because they didn’t fit with the needs of a fast-changing company.
A recruit that meets all the requirements of a static position description could prove a poor choice if they lack ‘learning agility’ and are unable to adapt to new roles in a fast-changing environment.
Growing companies can also fill departures too quickly without thinking if they still need the role. They can also hold on to people for too long. A senior leader, for example, could be very good at establishing and looking after a team but not so good at integrating it across boundaries in an expanding business.
People mistakes occur when thinking is anchored in the past and fails to recognise change, especially of the revolutionary kind, or pay attention to the future.
Of course, too much forward thinking risks losing focus on executing strategy today and next week. You always need to be conscious of what you're doing now and why.
But leaders who don’t develop and communicate a clear and forward-looking strategy risk silos and a 'them and us' attitude developing in their organisation. If teams talk and think only about their particular work and how they’ve always done it, they won’t see what’s emerging on the horizon to disrupt them.
Inward thinking can happen on the same floor in the same office and is an even bigger challenge when a workforce is spread over different buildings or continents.
Managing people, getting uncomfortable
Leaders can’t afford to forget that their company’s success starts and ends with people, who need their support. At some point, they must stop running the business and start managing and supporting its people, even if that prospect makes them feel a little uncomfortable.
I've been coaching a senior manager at a major retailer, who has 40 people under her. She can’t stop taking on other people’s tasks and working on the latest store plan.
I’m helping her let go and engage more with her staff. She needs to empower them and keep them aligned so they focus on their 'fat' challenges and produce great work. Her job now is to have coffees with people to understand their problems and help them stay on track.
It’s not a comfortable or natural experience for her. She’s having to change ingrained thinking and behaviour. But it’s not about her discomfort. It’s about the results she’s getting from being uncomfortable and engaging with her staff. She is learning to focus on strategy and support her team’s efforts to implement it, which makes the discomfort worth it.
Growth is never straightforward
Fast-growing organisations need to learn to live with uncertainty, the natural partner of growth. They also need to recruit and develop people who are comfortable with a little messiness, because growth is never straightforward.
There is no black and white way to grow and scale a business or to respond to changing customer demands. An organisation needs tops and middles, who can sit with uncertainty and handle paradoxes – whether to go down Path A, which could work well, or Path B, which could work just as well.
Sometimes, a stake just needs to be put in the ground. But once in place, you need a plan to guide action and to reflect regularly to adjust that action and, perhaps, the plan.
Strategy as intent
Business practice researcher Stephen Bungay talks about the importance of having ‘strategy as intent’. Strategy is really important, but it can’t be set in stone in a fast-moving world.
What matters most is the intent of a strategy – putting customers first, for example. The intent should be enough for autonomous people to decide how to act in a way that aligns with strategy.
Strategy as intent allows a leader to focus on the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of their business and to delegate the ‘how’ to their reports, who need to be agile learners and able to adapt to new ways of working.
You often hear people say that agility trumps strategy, which is a useful riposte to anyone who thinks strategy is immutable. In practice, a modern workplace requires strategy as intent and an agile approach to applying it. Getting the combination right can make all the difference.
Engagement and communication are central to getting the combination of intent and agility right. They also provide the foundation for building trust.
Leaders need to communicate intent and engage regularly with their teams to ensure everyone ‘gets it’ and can adjust their work to ensure they are all travelling in the right direction.
The process of engaging and communicating builds trust, which cuts both ways. When everyone understands what they’re doing and why, leaders gain the confidence to delegate, and reports gain the confidence to take on more responsibility.
A well-informed and engaged workplace doesn’t have to be comfortable or overly friendly. A successful workplace requires a healthy level of friction and competition, which is the natural result of everyone understanding their work’s purpose and the common goal they're working toward.
When leaders and managers inject that understanding into their teams and help them put it into practice, they get what every organisation wants, competitive advantage.
A well-informed and agile workplace is the oil in the machine. It allows a business to move forward with purpose and to adjust quickly to stay on track. Competitive advantage will always fall to the business that does that best.