Safi Bahcall is a second-generation physicist, a biotech entrepreneur, a former public company CEO, and bestselling author of Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries. He was also on President Obama’s Council of Science Advisors and it was during that time that he started down the path that would lead him to write Loonshots. I recently had the opportunity to speak with him for an episode of The Future of Work with Jacob Morgan. You can listen to the full episode below.
A few years after Safi started a bio-tech company his father was diagnosed with a rare type of leukemia. Safi figured that since he’s in the field, he would be able to help his father out. He quickly realized that nothing he did made a difference and his father passed away shortly after.
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According to Safi, “I had access to all the latest science, and tools, and technologies ’cause I was in the field, but nothing I could do made any difference and he died not much later. And then over the next few years, as our company grew, I just kept noticing everywhere I looked inside tiny companies or the biggest companies and buried in the basement of those organizations were promising ideas that could have helped my father. Not because any of the people involved are bad people. Because of some weird mystery that happens when people come together in a group. It sort of boils down to this one question of, why do good teams kill great ideas?”
And so, Safi’s journey to explore answer this began…
He uses a great analogy to explain behavior and corporate culture. Imagine a glass of water, if you put your finger in it and move it around, the water just sloshes around your finger. But if you lower the temperature to 32 Fahrenheit then suddenly the behavior of those molecules changes. But as Safi told me, “there’s no CEO molecule with a bullhorn saying, ‘it’s 33 Fahrenheit everyone slosh around, oh wait, it’s 31 degrees everyone now freeze!”
Inside of organizations, this all boils down to two core things, culture, and structure. Culture is the pattern of behavior that you can see on the surface and structure is what’s underneath that drives those patterns of behavior. Yelling at your employees to be more innovative or to be more engaged will have the same impact as yelling at a block of ice telling it to melt.
What Safi realized was that there is a better way to change the culture of an organization. When giving his explanation he uses the example of a glass of water. When the water is room temperature you can swirl the water with your finger and it will slosh around. But when the temperature is lowered and the water freezes it becomes rigid and you cannot insert your finger anymore.
He says, “You can think of culture as that pattern of behavior that you see on the surface. You
have a wildly political culture or a very innovative culture. You have molecules that are totally rigid or they’re sloshing around. You can think of structure as what’s underneath that drives those patterns of behavior. So in a glass of water, a small change in temperature can transform you between those two behaviors. So the reason it matters so much is that no amount of yelling at your employees to, “Hey, everybody, let’s innovate more,” or, “Let’s watch two-hour movies about brotherhood or sing Kumbaya.” All of that stuff won’t make much difference, just like yelling at a block of ice, “Hey, molecules, could you all loosen up a little bit?” It’s not gonna melt that block of ice. But a small change in temperature can get the job done. A small change in temperature can melt steel. And so that’s what the core idea is. It’s what are those equivalents of the small change in temperature or sprinkling salt in a glass of water, that can have a big impact on the patterns of behavior that you see on the difference between a political culture versus an innovative culture.”
How do you change your organization’s “temperature”? Essentially it is about what the leaders reward and what they celebrate. If you reward rank only, then your organization is going to have a very political culture because everyone is fighting against each other to get a higher rank. On the other hand, if you reward and celebrate intelligent risk taking and results, then Safi says you “naturally create environments where people are pulled to innovate rather than pushed or yelled at from the top to innovate.”
Leaders also need to get to know their individual employees in order to personalize incentives. Not everyone is motivated by money. Some people are motivated by new opportunities, some by having a choice in what projects they work on, some want to get public recognition. The more you can personalize rewards, the better.
Of course, CEOs of large companies don’t usually have the time to figure out what every employee is motivated by, and that is why Safi believes every organization should have a person or a team in place to create and maintain these personalized incentive packages. Just like organizations have a Chief Revenue Officer and a Chief Technology Officer, they should also have a Chief Incentives Officer.
“If you’re running a company, which would you rather have? A workforce that’s got the best gadgets of anybody in your industry or the most motivated workforce in your industry? Personally, I’d rather have the most motivated workforce. Yet, what companies have as they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on Chief Technology Officers. And then, you know HR is sort of a back office afterthought. But imagine if you thought of it strategically. You have a budget. How do you think just as strategically about using that budget to incentivize your people? Like you do with a Chief Revenue Officer to use your marketing budget or a Chief Technology Officer to get the best product. What if you could make that a weapon?”
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- How small changes can have a big impact on the culture of an organization
- The best way to approach incentives
- Safi’s unique advice for entrepreneurs
- Whether or not we should get rid of hierarchy
- The two forces working in every organization and how to manage them
- What is intelligent risk taking and why leaders should encourage it