Gary Ng | Awakening Entrepreneur

How to Create a Culture of Lateral Thinkers – Part 1

boxed-employee-300x213 “Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress.” – Alfred A. Montapert Today I want to share some simple shifts you can implement in your business to build a team of lateral thinkers, instead of fostering a culture made up of doers. You can’t afford to have staff who look at their work and their life as a series of tasks, and who aren’t expected to solve problems creatively. If you do, then you have people who are playing the game on a lower level, and who will always look to you to provide the higher level strategies for business growth. Not a very sustainable approach. You may have no cause to doubt that your employees are motivated workers, but chances are high that they’re running in circles more often than they’re moving forward. The Information Age (or Distraction Age, if you prefer) is part of the cause for the popular tendency to mislabel being busy with being useful: we live in a world where email, Skype and meetings chew up a whole week. However, a much more important factor influencing how much your staff get caught up in the daily grind is your company’s culture. Operating a fast-growing company in the tech sector brings unique challenges and rewards, yet I believe the lessons that came with taking my bedroom start-up to one of Australia’s fastest growing companies (BRW Fast 100, Deloitte Fast 50) are applicable to companies in all industries and stages of expansion. Specifically, what I learned about people: how to equip them with the lateral thinking skills they need to be motivated, fulfilled and focused in their work. Like all the best lessons, this wasn’t something that hit home overnight.

Bringing McDonald’s into SEO

“If a better system is thine, impart it; if not, make use of mine.” – Horace As E-Web Marketing entered a period of exponential growth from 2006-2010, doubling our staff year-on-year, one of the biggest challenges we faced was finding skilled people to join our team. Good IT people are in chronic short supply, and experienced SEO practitioners are an even more obscure niche. Even in the middle of the Global Financial Crisis, there was no increase in the availability of IT workers, so recruitment for our technical positions was always difficult. Compare that with placing an ad for an accountant, for example, which always generated high numbers of applications. That’s when we had the brainwave to stop chasing phantoms and build a scalable process system that could fill our needs for skilled staff. We were inspired by the efficient models of multinational corporations such as McDonald’s and Kmart, which could take high school kids with no experience and have them running an entire business branch, in less time than it was taking for us to find and hire single suitable SEO candidate. And for a while, imitating the McDonald’s approach worked amazingly well. We set up a comprehensive internal training program that leveraged the skills of our experienced staff. We built up a Wiki-style online encyclopaedia of thousands of resource pages, and a company library of hundreds of books. Each new team member would go through an intense 12 weeks of one-on-one training and prescribed study materials. At the end they knew more about SEO than 95% of the other practitioners in Australia. We eventually refined this process to be so effective that the training time was reduced to 8, then 4, and then only 2 weeks. Another bonus of this system is that it enabled us to begin hiring for the essential qualities of attitude and enthusiasm, and demote prior technical experience to the “nice to have” category. This was invaluable in building our positive, supportive culture (#2 BRW Best Place to Work in Australia List 2012). Having that cultural backbone would prove paramount for our next major change in how we approached recruiting and enabling new team members. Looking back, I can see now how this was inevitable. After all, McDonald’s tastes good for a while, but it’s not something you can eat on an ongoing basis if you want to stay healthy and grow strong. mcdonalds-burgers-process-300x199

Upping the Nutritional Value

“Change is inevitable. Progress is a choice.” – Anonymous As fast as the world changes, the world of search engine optimisation evolves even faster: Google didn’t get to rule the online world through avoiding change. It didn’t take long for the flaws in the McDonald’s approach to start showing through. People would come out of our training program proficient in SEO techniques, but it didn’t take long before those techniqes started to lose their effectiveness as Google continued to evolve its ranking algorithm. Even worse, because our new staff had been raised in a closed classroom-style learning environment from day one, it rarely even occurred to them that other, better SEO tactics might exist. We had unwittingly created a culture of doers instead of thinkers. We knew we needed to transform our team into innovative, outside-the-box strategists if E-Web Marketing was to continue to prosper. An early attempt to create this culture shift was to implement a daily Research Hour, where people were encouraged to spend an hour each day researching, reading, or doing whatever they thought would help improve their knowledge of effective SEO. This caused some positive movements, but it didn’t eventuate in the groudbreaking results we’d hoped for. Few among the SEO team kept to Research Hour consistently – not because they didn’t enjoy learning, because they were too busy doing: checking off the tasks they had been trained to perform, and that their client-facing team members had been trained to expect of them. The issue was less one of motivation, but of mindset. Since E-Web’s management team had created a dependency mindset by telling people what to do, we decided to try creating a new innovation mindset – by telling people what to do. In retrospect, it’s obvious that this was doomed from the start. While a succession of top-down initiatives had some positive results – bolstered by the enthusiastic attitudes of our team members, which we had made a primary hiring criteria – we were still feeding the culture of creative reliance. And by the time a strategy was filtered through the layers of management to the coalface, about 70% of why it was being pushed had been lost in translation anyway. stop-walk-300x225

Taking Out the Additives

“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” – Laurence J. Peter The Big Moment came in early 2011, 5 years after being faced with the challenge of recruiting the right people fast enough to fuel our growth. In that period we had expanded from a small unit of 3 people to a team over 40 strong, moved to larger offices 4 times, and attracted household names such as Fitness First and Bing Lee as clients. But we’d gained something else in the process of expanding, which turned out to be at the root of all our dependency mindset woes – managers. The very definition of the word “manager” implies that staff cannot function independently; they need to be directed and controlled by a third agent, which automatically saps their motivation. As soon as someone knows that they are being managed, their creative faculties shift into a lower gear because the ultimate responsibility for succeeding belongs to someone else. The team devolves from a group of creative, go-getting thinkers to a herd of followers anddoers. As soon as we realised that innovation was being strangled by the traditional management hierarchy we had “naturally” grown to have, we made the decision to completely flatten the company structure. From concept to team buy-in to transformation, the process took less than 3 weeks, and has been the reality at E-Web Marketing for nearly a year now. So, has it worked? Find out when I publish Part 2 of this blog post next week! Please click here for Part 2 of this blog post.