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"Un-Follow the leader"

"You sometimes hear "yes" to a question before you've even explained it," says Columbia Business School professor/scholar Michael Morris, who also runs a research lab in India. "It is great that people are so agreeable and eager to help, but, as a manager, I need my young programmers to propose how they think it should be done." Based on his experience and experiments in India, Professor Morris advices, "Un-Follow the leader."

Innovation requires people to assert their ideas, but folks in India know that most employees here – the newly hired, the senior, and all those in between – blindly align with their boss. Note that this alignment is not entirely out of respect for the boss or out of an unselfish attitude. Also, most bosses too support  – and even subtly impose – this culture becaue it helps them as well.

Unfortunately, the outcome of such employee-boss alignment is always mediocrity.

Couple of stories on how I avoided this dangerous tradition and how you can, too ...

Story 1

When my boss saw that the company's Western customers loved the user testing lab I had set up, he suggested that I build on that success by setting up a software testing lab as well. In fact, he encourged me, "We can make the necessary investments." [This, as you know, is a common fallacy – that similar things (departments) should be grouped together, but more on that in a later post.] My response was not "Thanks, I'm in!" My response was not even a politically correct "Sounds great, let me do some home work and get back to you," but a blunt, "No, I don't think that's a good idea because ... Let me know what you think of an idea I've been working on."

Back then in the late 90s, user perspective was one thing that customers missed in work done by tech-savvy Indian software teams. That is why they loved the user testing lab – so you don't want to mess that up. Sure, the boss found the people he needed to run a successful software testing lab, but what happened to my new idea? Well, I introduced a practice that while satisfying user needs brought a new perspective far more important to the customer organization: the business process perspective. This new practice delivered bigger successes for the company.

Story 2

When I asked my team's straight-out-of-college-newly-hireds, "What do you think?" they suspected I was evaluating them or something. They needed to be reassured by their colleagues that this is just the team's culture, which is based on the belief that people regardless of their seniority or position should think and can come up with useful ideas. The good news is: many of them not only adapted to this culture, but actually went on to dominate the world in their own area of specialization. Here's one example.

If it worked for me – and for my team members – it should work for you. So, go ahead and UnFollow your boss. Of course, you may want to continue to Follow your boss in Twitter!

Source: Columbia Ideas at Work, Winter 2013 (Professor Michael Morris' experiments)

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