Historically, the Olympic high jump has progressed through different techniques: The Scissor Jump, the Western Roll, the Straddle Jump. These innovations continuously improved the same basic approach, jumping over the bar forwards. Mechanically, there is a limit to how high one can jump this way. Then, at the summer Olympics in Mexico in 1968, Dick Fosbury upped the Olympic record by 7 centimeters, taking the gold medal with a jump of 2.24m. Just by jumping backwards. This was a disruptive change for the high jump. Fosbury was not only improving the present, he was creating the future. Today, all high jumpers use the Fosbury Flop. That’s the power of disruptive leadership.
We are all well aware that disruption can help create extraordinary results. The question is how to help your co-workers understand and embrace the idea of challenging the status quo through contributing with new and ground-breaking ideas. And is it possible, at the same time, to introduce and maintain a certain direction for the company without compromising innovation? I believe it is and it all starts with the company culture.
Culture is based on values
In recent months, we’ve reconsidered our company culture. When our organization was born 20 years ago, we believed that we disrupted a relatively conservative industry with our open software platform and partner community approach.
I will argue that we still disrupt our industry. We challenge it with our business model and our services, and this is reflected in our co-workers and in our culture. It is not a culture we strive for, it is a culture we have shared since the very beginning; A can-do culture, where one challenges the state of things (as well as the management team) and where it’s okay to make mistakes. However, the challenge with a culture where everybody’s encouraged to test new ideas is that you often end up with more projects than you have the capacity to handle, and there’s a risk that the direction for the company becomes unclear. This is something we have realized. So, what to do when you want to both ensure focus and direction and maintain and nurture an open and experimental company culture?
The answer to this is: A strong and deeply rooted set of values. At Milestone Systems, we work with five core values: Reliability, openness, innovation, flexibility and independence. Different companies have different values, but these work for us.
Openness is crucial
Let me explain why the value of openness is so important and characteristic for our company and the people working for us – and one of the reasons why our business is successful.
It basically comes down to our business model. Our core product is our open video management platform, and openness is also vital to our everyday working life. Our teams often provide feedback during meetings. This ensures transparency, honesty and an incentive to constantly do better.
Another example of why openness matters: In 2014, Milestone executed an IPO project. We had a very small team working on the project. In the beginning, they were the only ones who knew what was going. Traditionally, when working on an IPO, you are restricted by several confidentiality clauses. So were we, but it felt wrong not being able to discuss this important change internally. I got the greenlight to do so by our bankers, and I called our VPs together in a closed meeting and broke the news about what we were planning for the company in 2014. It was crucial to me as a leader to show that I acted out the important value of openness. However, for a value like openness to work, it requires a distinct form of behavior in the organization.
Behavior demonstrates values
Milestone have guidelines as to what kind of behavior is required for our organization to live up to our defined values. One keyword is empowerment. To me that means pushing forward and ‘trusting that your colleagues make the right decisions’, ‘taking responsibility’, ‘encouraging cooperation’ and ‘challenging status quo’. To do so requires trust in that your co-workers make the right decisions regarding new ideas, new products and services and how we run our business in the best possible way.
The following is an example of what empowerment means to us: In the beginning of 2016, we summoned our entire company in Copenhagen, where we presented our ideas for the next stage of the company’s growth. We asked our colleagues, all 500, to get involved, telling them that this was about their future. We needed their help in identifying our company’s weak points, better enabling us better to make our growth plan successful. This is what they preach in management books, but I rarely see companies do in real life. But we did, and we also Skyped with Dick Fosbury (the Olympic high jumper), who explained why passion makes a disruptive leader. The outcome was amazing: 4,000 ideas, of which 150 were so good that we took them into consideration in our continued work with our growth plan. This is what true openness and empowerment is all about.
Since then, our plans have proven correct and we now employ close to 800 dedicated people. This is a result of our growth plan, but more importantly, proof that we have been able to develop our company while nurturing and maintaining our company culture.
The spirit and DNA of our organization haven’t changed much since 1998. But realizing that our organization has grown, we are now re-thinking our behavior. Our values stay the same, but we will be changing the way we live them. One thing doesn’t exclude the other.
Many more high jumps await us out there – it’s all about being the first to make them.Lars Thinggaard's blog was orginally published in Danish publication Ugebrevet mandag Morgen. Read the full blog in Danish here