Want an innovative culture? Status differences blow


When it comes to bringing cool stuff in to the world, I’m a big fan of Honda.  If you’ve been around metacool for any period of time, then you know that I admire Honda a great deal.  I’ve written about Honda’s ability to innovate on a routine basis, about the fact that it is led by someone who really — really! — knows the business, about its ability to advertise truth rather than myth, about the pickup they make which I dearly want and am only waiting for the diesel model to arrive to purchase, and about kick-ass minivan race cars made by Honda’s own employees on their own time because, well, kick-ass minivans are a kick in the ass if you’re a racer.  Just about everyone at Honda, it would seem, is a racer, as explained in this great article in Fortune:

Unlike Toyota (TM),
which is stodgy and bureaucratic, Honda’s culture is more
entrepreneurial, even quirky. Employees are paid less than at the
competition, and advancement is limited, given Honda’s flat
organization. Their satisfaction and fierce loyalty to the company come
from being around people like themselves – tinkerers who are obsessed
with making things work.

At the risk of making a broad generalization, I would say that innovative startups and more mature organizations capable of innovating on a routine basis (like Honda) share two key elements in common:  first, a remarkable lack of status differences among employees, and second, a low-friction environment when it comes to the meritocracy of ideas.  I actually believe the latter is a function of the former.  Why? 

We all have 24 hours a day to live our lives.  We have finite time and energy at our disposal.  If we all start with the same account balance, some of us choose to spend it worrying about what our boss’s boss thinks about us, or on over-preparing for that internal review meeting, or on wondering what our growth path is.  Others say "this is this" and get on with being generative, pushing ideas as far as they can go, and helping others see what works by gathering real evidence from the world and letting opinions fall by the wayside.  Status differences are energy sinks.  Do you want to spend your life worrying or producing?  Dramatic status differences lead to dramatic wastes of energy. 

Show me a group of people who worry less about where others think they stand, and more about how things are really going and how they might do things better and cooler, and mark my word, that’s the group of innovators.