Job descriptions are about following the rules. Innovation is about challenging them. Which message would you rather have?
The other day I visited a fabulous company named Gripple. With offices in the U.S., England, India, Brazil and France, the company is an innovative manufacturer of a wide range of fencing, suspension and loading devices. The company is full of ingenious problem solvers. But one of the things I admired most about them was that no one has any job descriptions.
“Or you could say,” CEO Hugh Facey told me, “we all have the same one: If the ball’s dropping – catch it! That’s everyone’s job: mine, his, hers. That’s it.”
In fact, Gripple has no HR department at all. “We had one guy who, before he joined us, explained he’d booked a vacation. So that was fine. But then he came in and asked for a form. What for? We don’t have any forms. We don’t have HR. We think it’s everyone’s job to do their best, work hard and get along with everyone. That’s it.”
The problem with HR is that it reeks of compliance, of following the rules. But innovation and creativity aren’t about following rules but challenging them. So which message is more important: obedience or innovation? If you try to send both at once, you can’t blame people if they’re confused. I’m often struck that, as companies agonize over how to make their workforce more creative, they ignore the easy first step, which is just to identify and remove the impediments to creativity. Every time you describe a job, you prescribe areas of thought and innovation. Every time you tell someone what their job is, you’re also telling them what it is not. You restrict the room for movement in their minds – even though we know that so much innovation is about bringing ideas together.
So I wasn’t surprised that Gripple doesn’t have fixed working hours either; they trust people to manage their time, and their commitments, appropriately. And Facey says he’s rarely been let down. Nor is Gripple a simple business. Manufacturing involves critical, complex processes and the company itself has high standards of production and turnaround times: Any product ordered before 2pm will be shipped by 4pm. The business is committed to growing at least 10 percent a year, with new products every year. It’s clearly no place for slouches. But it is a living demonstration of the principle that the best way to get people to behave like adults is to treat them that way.
As we toured Gripple’s three manufacturing facilities, Facey was proud to point out the features that had come from the wit and ingenuity of the company’s workforce: the meeting area, decorated with a bucolic mural and floored with astroturf – “that was all their idea” – and the factory walls painted with trees – “done by one of the women who works here” – and the upside down lettering encouraging creativity: “challenge everything.” Needless to say, none of these contributions was in anybody’s job description, nor could it ever have been. The company is fueled by a passion and enthusiasm that does not recognize limits or definitions.
In the end, every leader has to answer this question: What matters more: Inspiring new ideas or preventing poor ones?