From tech-industry giants like Uber and Google X to the smallest of start-ups, change is inevitable. The “digital revolution” is accelerating the rate at which this change happens. Companies who can effectively adapt enjoy massive advantages, such as successfully disrupting entire industries.
So, how can companies become more adaptable? No matter what your business, one important aspect of company culture stands out as paramount to successfully managing change: thoughtful communication.
When a company not only prioritizes communication, but actually invests in developing a culture where communication is valued, it gains a powerful tool. Here are our three ‘mantras’ for thoughtful communication — and why we believe they’re important.
Culture of Trust
“There’s no such thing as a stupid question, okay?” We’ve all heard it. Whether it was in a first-grade classroom, an advanced level philosophy course, or in the conference room at work. Yet, we’ve also all seen how this reassuring proposition — that no question will be met with shame or judgment — often does little to actually encourage students or employees to raise their hands and their voices.
The key component? Trust. It’s the reason why you’re hesitant to talk about your political leanings when you meet your significant other’s parents for the first time. Or why you don’t launch into how you aren’t a fan of Game of Thrones (except for the series finale) on your first day of work at a new job. You don’t fully trust your listener just quite yet.
When you are a part of an environment you trust, you aren’t worried about being judged for being confused. You aren’t worried about eye-rolls around the room when you disagree with something everyone else thinks is right. And you certainly aren’t worried about sharing your taste in television shows.
When you trust your coworkers, it opens up channels of communication that frankly just didn’t exist before. This trust not only flows sideways amongst peers but also up and down the chain of command. When employees trust their leaders, they worry less about bureaucracy and more about fully understanding their work. When leaders trust their employees, they worry less about whether good work is being done and more about big-picture improvements and opportunities.
Just telling your employees that they can ask “stupid” questions doesn’t mean anything. Taking measured steps and fostering a culture where people actually feel encouraged to ask every question does. Learn more on the topic in this article by Theodore Kinni on that topic if you want.
Another common saying among businesses is that there is an “open door” policy. If you have a genuine open door policy, you shouldn’t get one or two visitors a day and that visitor shouldn’t only stop by to share their fantasy football lineup with you.
The reason many people institute an open-door policy is to encourage employees to engage with one another. This can backfire when employees spend their time bopping around offices and being unproductive. It can also backfire when no one walks through the open door because they just aren’t sure what to say, are afraid to ask a question, or don’t want to bother you.
Obviously there’s a middle ground here, but that’s hard to imagine when thinking of a doorway. You’re either in or out. It’s either open or closed. Thinking along the lines of an “open” or “closed” door provides us with two choices. Either you’ve opened the communication floodgates (see: fantasy football lineup) or you’re not communicating at all.
Think of your office as a solar system instead of as a series of rooms and doors. Then, instead of an “open door” policy, institute an “orbit” policy. This means that everyone within your company is gravitationally connected. You are orbiting your coworkers. At any moment you can drop towards or away from them, but you never pull completely away. And you never collide.
Even a subtle change in the terminology your business uses can send a message to employees and institute real change. You are now facilitating connection. Instead of having some imaginary doorway employees need to cross through, you and your employees are part of a system that’s always connected.
The added benefit of this metaphor is that various teams can be their own “solar systems” orbiting other “solar systems.” Pretty soon you’ll have yourself a nice little universe. A place where your “orbit” policy cultivates collaboration and independence.
Small-Scale Movement, Large-Scale Shifts
Directly or indirectly, you’ve probably heard of X, formerly known as Google X. It’s the development wing of Google — their self-proclaimed “moonshot factory” — and is responsible for ideas such as Google Glass and Google’s self-driving cars. The director of Google X, Astro Teller, gave an extraordinary TED talk where he discusses how he instituted a culture that celebrates failure at X.
That’s right, failure is celebrated. We’re not even just talking high-fives. People hug each other, get bonuses and even vacation time when they finish a project. “Finishing” doesn’t mean succeeding. It means stopping. Or, as Astro Teller likes to say, “killing” the project.
X has killed countless projects over the years, and the reason for that is because X encourages its employees to think of every way imaginable that a project can fail first, before starting to work on the nuts and bolts. Most projects fail quickly, but Project Loon is not one of those.
If you’re not familiar with X’s Project Loon, it involves sending balloons through the air to provide Wi-Fi and internet access to rural and hard-to-reach areas of the world. The way that this project started? Someone asked “what if we could shoot Wi-Fi out of a cannon into the sky?”
In his TED talk, Teller speaks about how X employees always found a way around the problems facing them. No matter how hard they tried to fail, they just couldn’t kill this project. Now, what started out as one of the craziest, seemingly impossible ideas is one of the most exciting tech projects on Earth.
The reason this project exists is because the leaders at X realized a culture that celebrates failure would be beneficial for a “moonshot factory.” Now, can every company benefit from this idea? Maybe, maybe not. But there is something that every company can take away from Astro Teller’s story besides a commitment to audacious thinking.
In order to become a moonshot factory, X had to develop a culture where people felt comfortable thinking about moonshots in the first place. The reason is that uncertainty and failure makes people inherently uncomfortable. Astro Teller made failing more comfortable by instituting small changes rewarding failure. Change also makes people uncomfortable. So, in order to make large-scale shifts (i.e. changes) less uncomfortable for employees, you need to make small-scale movements (i.e. small changes) in your company more comfortable.
Reward people who participate in weekly discussions of company culture. Create an event where employees are partnered with another employee and compete to create the best storyboard for a children’s story. Encourage people to communicate in a thoughtful way with each other. Give them an incentive. As Astro Teller would say, make it “the path of least resistance” and your employees will do the rest.