During annual workforce planning, Scott Ward, the President of Medtronic Vascular, used to say, “Hire us some more mavericks. They don’t always fit in, but we need them for innovation.” He defined mavericks as the technical people who were dedicated to solving the mysteries of the disease states we treated and the current shortcomings of our products. Cultural norms, bureaucracy, or structure seldom deterred them. They initiated many of the company’s biggest innovations.
Much has been written about hiring for cultural fit: the workers who love the purpose of a company, follow its value and ways of doing things, and get along great with coworkers. Having an alignment to a company’s purpose and values is essential, but if culture fits means hiring people with the same backgrounds who think like like you, never break your norms and follow all of your rules, your innovation will suffer.
There is growing evidence that hiring women and people of diverse backgrounds leads to higher productivity and financial performance such as McKinsey’s study on the topic and others sources.[i] But for innovation, the diversity that matters most is cognitive diversity. The problem has been that cognitive diversity is hard to measure in organizations.
A business’s culture can accelerate or undermine success.[ii] Yet, most executives give culture too little attention as they develop their organizations and implement their business strategies. Moreover, most organizations, while they hire for cultural fit, underestimate the more important trait of cultural adaptability among their new hires, and don’t even think about cognitive diversity.
Now researchers are using big-data processing to mine the ubiquitous “digital traces” of culture in electronic communications, such as emails, Slack messages, and Glassdoor reviews. By studying the language employees use in these communications, they can measure how culture actually influences their thoughts and behavior at work.
One set of researchers (Matthew Corritore, Amir Goldberg, and Sameer B Srivastava) recently published their findings in the Harvard Business Review. In one of their studies, they analyzed the Slack content of message exchanges among members of nearly 120 software development teams and partnered with Glassdoor to analyze how employees talked about their organization’s culture in anonymous reviews to examine the effects of cultural diversity on organizational efficiency and innovation.
Here are their three findings reported in their HBR article:
Culture fit is important, but what matters most is the rate at which employees adapt as organizational culture changes over time.
The researchers found that when managers think about hiring for cultural fit, they focus almost exclusively on whether candidates reflect the values, norms, and behaviors of the team or organization as it currently exists. A high level of cultural fit led to more promotions, more-favorable performance evaluations, higher bonuses, and less turnover.
But these companies often fail to consider cultural adaptability—the ability to rapidly learn and conform to organizational cultural norms as they change over time. Cultural adaptability, however, turns out to be even more important for success. The researchers discovered that employees who could quickly adapt to cultural norms as they changed over time were more successful than employees who exhibited high cultural fit when first hired. These cultural “adapters” were better able to maintain fit when cultural norms changed or evolved, which is common in organizations operating in fast-moving, dynamic, and innovative environments.
Cognitive diversity helps teams during ideation but hinders execution.
When is it best to have a cultural misfit — a maverick—on a team? Employees with cognitive diversity, who see the world differently and have diverse ideas and perspectives, often bring creativity and innovation to an organization. The researchers found they are especially helpful for generating novel, innovative solutions to complex problems, especially during the planning and ideation phases of an innovation project. However, the expression of diverse perspectives can quickly become a liability when the team needs to focus on execution and meet looming deadlines. It is during these times that team members have to unify around a common interpretation of the problem and come to agreement about what needs to get done to solve it. Team leaders must be adept at switching back and forth, learning when and how to promote the expression of divergent opinions and meanings and when to create a context for convergence.
The researchers also found that mavericks suffer from being cultural outsiders and not having broad networks across many functions in an organization. Thus, they were viewed as outsiders and their suggestions were not always considered seriously. Mavericks were more successful when they had strong social bonds with colleagues in a defined social clique in the organization. Leaders need to encourage mavericks to build these social bonds.
The best cultures encourage cognitive diversity to drive innovation but are anchored by shared core beliefs. Cognitive diversity helps promote innovation and efficiency. At the same time, culture should also be transparent and consensual in that employees know and agree on a common set of cultural norms that help them coordinate with one another, debate competing ideas, and make decisions.
Companies that hire for cultural fit need to broaden their thinking to also include those employees who will be cultural adaptors as the company changes. They also need to hire and enable mavericks who will generate many of the future innovations for the next blockbuster product, service, or business model.
Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and works with companies to improve their recruiting, HR operations, and develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and cultures. His new book is Hack Recruiting: the Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at www.VictorHrConsultant.com.
[i] McKinsey Global Institute. The Power of Parity: Advancing Women’s Equity in the United States, April 2016. Found at: http://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/employment-and-growth/the-power-of-parity-advancing -women’s-equality-in-the-united-states.; and Rachel Emma Silverman (December 15, 2014) “Men and Women at Work: Unhappy, But Productive,” The Wall Street Journal. Found at: http://blogs.wsj.com/atwork/2014/12/15/men-and-women-at-work-unhappy-but-productive/?mod=WSJ_Management_At_Work&mod=wsj_valettop
[ii] Dobni, C.B., (2010). “The relationship between an innovation orientation and organizational performance.” In-press, International Journal of Innovation and Learning; and John P. Kotter, Corporate Culture and Performance, Simon and Schuster, 1992; and Daniel R. Denison, Corporate Culture and Organizational Effectiveness, 1997.