More Thoughts on Speed, Innovation, and Leadership

Freakonomics has a great interview with Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors that provides some insights into what it means to lead and what it takes to innovate.  Sometimes, it’s as simple as moving barriers out of the way.

DUBNER:…one thing that really intrigued me is it’s been noted that you’re trying to do away with what have been called “bad entrenched habits.” Can you talk about some of those habits and how you’re trying to change them?

BARRA: Well, I think it’s empowering people…One of the things that we did when I was in H.R. is, we changed our dress code from 18, 20 pages to two words: “dress appropriately.” And I think empowering people and knowing you trust them — but you also are going to hold them accountable to do the right thing — I think just creates a different mindset.

DUBNER: I understand there were some managers who either pushed back or were just confused without that 18- or 20-page dress code. What did that tell you, that there was some reluctance to accept a two-word code instead of a multipage code?

BARRA: Well, it challenged leaders to be the leaders we needed them to be. Because it’s really easy to point to an 18-page document that says, “I’m sorry, I don’t care. You know, you can wear jeans, but the rule says you can’t.” It’s a whole other thing to have the judgment to say, “Well, yeah, that’s fine, you can wear jeans,” or whatever. And so, to me, it was eye-opening that we had to empower, encourage and actually train some of our first-line supervisors and managers of what it means to be a leader.

DUBNER: I guess if I were to interpret it in a slightly less-generous way than you did, I might say if you can’t handle this without the strict rules, without the rules to back you up, then maybe you’re just not, I don’t know, creative enough or smart enough or devoted enough to handle the important things of being an executive. Is that too ungenerous?

BARRA: I think it’s a little ungenerous — but here’s why. Because the people were capable. But if you as a company have a culture that has all these rules, people are going to follow them. And so, part of it was almost giving permission. And so, I don’t blame it on the individual. I think it was freeing them.

On COVID’s effect on GM’s plans for electrification of their fleet and how to expedite innovation:

DUBNER: Did the crisis accelerate G.M.’s E.V. plan specifically?

BARRA: It absolutely did. Because we saw the teams coming together and doing great work, even in a remote instance. And we saw that if we just empower the team, give them really clear directions, and get out of their way, they can take time out of the process.

On accelerating their EV efforts (in part to keep pace with Tesla and industry and global consumer shifts):

DUBNER: And this decision to accelerate — was it mostly supply-driven? Demand-driven? Macro?

BARRA: Well, I had been pushing for a while of, “Can’t we go faster? Can’t we go faster?” But we started to see some really interesting customer trends. I mean, if you look at the Cadillac Lyriq, when we did the confirmation clinics with customers, we even included non-E.V. intenders. And when they saw the vehicle, they were like, “I would buy that vehicle. I want that vehicle.” So, one part of it that really reinforced our need to accelerate was consumer perceptions changing about E.V.s and their willingness to own.

For me, this reinforces what I stated in my previous post: innovation is more than technology.  Innovation is often the result of addressing stale processes which serve to hamper creativity and innovation when organizations need them the most.  Smart, creative, curious people naturally want to explore, innovate, and create (and you’re hiring smart, creative, curious people — right?).  Often times, the important job of a leader is to simply move the barriers to innovation (and one’s own ego!) out of the way for your team and provide guidance and direction to shape the output.

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