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When the best ideas win

This is an excerpt from 10X Culture, the new book of best-kept secrets of the world’s most successful teams.

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Meetings are the common operating system for teamwork. If we can innovate around how we collaborate, we can turn meetings into a new way of working that gives us a competitive advantage.

One advantage we have developed comes from the way that we share information and make decisions in meetings. It’s a process that helps ensure that meetings always surface our best ideas. To illustrate this, let’s look at a troublesome, unsolved problem that threatened to cancel the first trip to the moon.

The Saturn V rocket that delivered the Apollo mission to the moon was — and still is — the tallest, heaviest, most powerful (by total impulse) rocket ever brought to operational status. At 310,000 lbs (140,000 kgs), its record-breaking heaviest, largest payload included the Apollo command and service module and lunar modules — and the propellant needed to send them to the moon.

While this spacefaring giant was being manufactured in a Vehicle Assembly Building not far from the launch pad, the Apollo team faced a challenge of similar proportions to the rocket itself: how to transport it there. 

A vehicle that massive had never been made. The rocket stood as high as a thirty-six-story building — 363 feet tall (111 m). Even without fins, it was thirty-three feet in diameter (10 m), or about five times as wide as a normal car. Without fuel, the Saturn V weighed a mere 525,500 pounds (239,725 kg). There were no store-bought solutions to this problem. 

To keep up with their accelerated timeline, NASA began construction of the rocket before they had a strategy to move it. All of the work that thousands of people were doing to send a man to the moon would be wasted if they couldn’t even get the rocket to the launch pad.

Solutions often come from curious places. In the case of Saturn V, despite world-class engineering teams agonizing over how to overcome the challenge, the winning idea didn’t come from an engineer at all. 

The solution was an enormous “crawler-transporter.” Part aircraft carrier, part tank, and weighing in at a svelte six million pounds (2.7 million kg), the crawler-transporter holds its own world record: as the largest self-propelled land vehicle.

The marvelous idea for the crawler-transporter, which was used for more than thirty years, came from a member of the launch operations team, whose name is now lost to history. They got the idea for it after watching the strip-mining process. The solution for landing man on the moon came from the science of traveling in the opposite direction — excavating deep inside the planet.

Every challenge in business has the potential for to-the-moon levels of complexity. The ingenuity and creativity to solve these problems can come from anywhere, but only if you encourage ideas from all elements of the workforce. That means being transparent about challenges, and actively listening to people — even if they are discussing topics outside of their area of specialty.

This practice — acting as an idea meritocracy — is a secret weapon that can help you make better decisions and solve hard problems more quickly. Simply put, an idea meritocracy is an environment in which the best idea wins. We didn’t come up with this idea on our own; companies such as Pixar, Intuit, and Google have adopted idea meritocracies with great success.

In their book How Google Works, Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, and Jonathan Rosenberg, former Google senior vice president of products, discussed why they embrace the power of an idea meritocracy: “In most companies, experience is the winning argument. We call these places ‘tenurocracies,’ because power derives from tenure, not merit . . . Meritocracies yield better decisions and create an environment where all employees feel valued and empowered.”

In his book Principles, Ray Dalio outlines how to turn your organization into an idea meritocracy. Dalio says meaningful work and meaningful relationships are cultural precursors to operating as an idea meritocracy. Dalio also suggests you operate with radical straightforwardness, a combination of truthfulness and transparency where you deal with issues openly. In our organization, we call this absolute honesty.

In daily practice, we’ve found there are two other requirements to being an idea meritocracy. One is thoughtful disagreements. When you have thoughtful disagreements, it means there are reasonable back-and-forths in which people evolve their thinking to come up with better decisions than they could have come up with individually. 

It’s also helpful to have disagreement protocols to help people get past disagreements in idea-meritocratic ways. One example of disagreement protocols is to use a weighted vote, where the DRI has 3x the weight, those affected by the decision in terms of area of responsibility have 2x, and all other attendees have 1x. Another is to involve an external arbitrator. This could be someone from another team, who comes in when there is disagreement on what is the best decision, listens to the data, and makes a final decision.

If the concept of an idea meritocracy makes you feel both excited and uncomfortable, you’re not alone. Yes, it can be challenging on an emotional level, as it requires vulnerability and humility from everyone involved. But ask yourself what kind of work environment you want to craft for yourself and your team. Then try answering the following questions:

  • Do you want your team to make the best decisions?
  • Do you want your team to constantly improve and innovate?
  • Do you want your employees to be more highly engaged and become the best thinkers and learners that they can be?
  • Do you want your organization to be more proactive, agile, and adaptive?

If so, becoming an idea meritocracy might be for you and your team.

Idea meritocracy in action

It sounds almost utopian! But here’s the tough part: In an idea meritocracy, how do you decide which idea is best? 

First, let’s look at how you don’t decide. In an idea meritocracy, factors such as positional power, pay, and even experience become nearly irrelevant compared to objective measures, such as the quantity and quality of data and how it is interpreted.

To help determine which idea is best, Ray Dalio suggests you start by addressing your own opinion as one of many. Then ask yourself how you know whether or not your opinion is right. This will help shift your perspective by focusing your attention on the right criteria to make this decision. Dalio says this eliminates “one of the greatest tragedies of mankind . . . people arrogantly, naïvely holding opinions in their minds that are wrong, and acting on them, and not putting them out there to stress test them.”

Now that you’re viewing all ideas on the same level, come to a decision in a “believability-weighted way.” Do this by determining an idea’s legitimacy based on the track record and the ability of the idea’s originator to clearly explain their concept. If and when a disagreement arises, start by agreeing on the principles used to make the decision, and then explore the merits of the reasoning behind each principle.

Plant the seeds of idea meritocracy in your meetings

By now, you might be wondering why a chapter on ideas is in 10X Meetings and not somewhere else, like 10X Decision-Making. The reason is that while updating our worldview of meeting culture to be consistent with the way we work, we found meetings to be the perfect place to establish and reinforce the principles of being an idea meritocracy.

Here are a few other practices and ideas to consider as you implement idea meritocracy in your meetings:

  1. Team member contributions should not be defined by what they know or how much they know — but rather by the quality of their thinking, listening, learning, and collaborating.
  2. Mental models are not the same as reality — at best, they are generalized ideas about how the world works.
  3. Ideas do not equal ego. To have a right idea or a wrong idea is not to be right or to be wrong.
  4. Treat all beliefs as hypotheses to be constantly tested and subject to change based on better data.
  5. Mistakes and failures are opportunities to learn.

Conventional business thinking favors factors such as job title and seniority as a measure of idea value. That’s why startups that can overlook those factors can beat out established incumbent businesses. Surfacing the best ideas is as simple as choosing the right principles, processes, and tools.

This new way of working presents an opportunity for fast-moving teams to outperform others by leveraging the ideas of their whole team — including remote workers and decentralized teams.

One of our most valuable strategies at Hugo is to have many brains working on our greatest challenges based on information sharing across the business. Ideas often come from people on our team who aren’t directly responsible for the solution. 

You might think this philosophy conflicts in some way with our advice about having a DRI for every task or project, but it doesn’t. Even if someone owns a bit of work, the team is there to back them up. If you need input or a sounding board, or just want to question your own assumptions, there are other ideas and perspectives at your disposal. That’s how combining a culture of knowledge-sharing with an idea meritocracy unlocks so much potential for solutions, feedback, and opportunities from every aspect of the business.

Want to learn more teamwork secrets for innovative, fast-moving teams? Download 10X Culture free.

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