Intellectual Honesty Is What Defines Great Companies
Behind every successful company are good leaders. As someone who has worked with leaders from amazing companies like Facebook and Oracle, I’ve noticed a common thread in all of them who were not just good but great: they were intellectually honest.
What is intellectual honesty? It means always seeking the truth regardless of whether or not it agrees with your own personal beliefs. For a business, this means that decisions are grounded by facts, not by the stature or position of the individual within the company presenting it.
The great leaders approach problems and decision-making as rationally as possible. They are not afraid to show vulnerability or admit when they are wrong or don't not know something. They appreciate that facts and information may likely change, requiring a shift in execution. When great leaders see change as an opportunity for growth they are able to pivot and execute effectively.
Intellectual honesty, if implemented in the right way, creates a framework for open, objective discussions, and allows companies to effectively address problems and achieve long-term goals by:
1. Allowing for the best ideas to emerge.
Efficient problem solving with rapid iteration is critical, particularly for emerging companies and those in creative areas. In our day-to-day work, the first proposed solution is often not the best one. Great leaders view ideas based on evidence, not on their beliefs.
At Storm8, our game development ideas come from across the organization -– from the art team to the engineers who write the code. But with any subjective creative endeavor, it’s a challenge to assess whether one idea is better than another. This is why our idea creation and discussions are grounded on facts that answer basic questions that move our decision making process along. Once our team identifies the audience, theme and artistic appeal of a proposed game, we dig deeper and always try to be as honest as possible about why any particular idea is the right step for us to take:
- Does the game support our existing company strategy?
- Do we have the right talent to make it come alive?
- What makes the gameplay unique and fun for our players?
- Is there an opportunity to become a category leader?
It’s important to note that not every question necessarily needs to be answered; rarely do situations have clear black and white answers. But creating an environment where critical questions can be raised and addressed based on a clear set of goals fosters objective creativity, which is key to getting to the best idea and a path to execution.
2. Constant learning and improvement.
When employees feel that their ideas will be treated fairly and objectively, it encourages more sharing. In turn, there is an opportunity for everyone to learn and potentially challenge each other, fostering a culture of innovation, trust and transparency. Nurturing a culture of learning and sustained improvement can be achieved by putting processes in place to have open, iterative discussions.
For example, consistently hosting review meetings where product owners present an analysis of a project’s performance -- whether good or bad -- to all key stakeholders helps surface problematic areas right away and facilitates the team to identify ways to improve. For us, these types of reviews happen weekly and include data to answer questions like: "Why did this particular feature work in Game A but not in Game B? In what ways could we increase player engagement? How did we increase engagement 3X with this content? Can this best practice be applied to other projects?"
Discussions should include an honest assessment of how the desired results were achieved (or not) and, in any scenario, room for potential improvement. If something is unclear to the team, or something didn’t quite work, take that as an opportunity to learn and work through them rather than cover it up and make excuses. At the end of the day, great leaders give the credit to their team for success and own the outcome for any of the failures. But only through constant open dialogue among all levels of employees will a company achieve sustainable collaboration and constant improvement that ultimately drives a company’s long-term success.
3. Efficiency and changing market needs.
Intellectually honest organizations embrace the fact that change is not only inevitable but also needed to stay ahead of constantly shifting market dynamics. This is especially true for consumer facing tech companies and, in particular, the mobile app industry. Over the last two decades, progress in digital and mobile connectivity has made consumer preferences change more rapidly than ever. As such, efficiency and speed in execution have never been more important to keep up with evolving market demands.
At Storm8, while we benefited in many ways as an early market mover, it made us susceptible to sticking to legacy systems simply because “they work.” While it was challenging to abandon existing processes to invest in something more future-proof, consistently asking key questions helped us arrive at the right answer:
- Are we bringing our products to consumers fast enough?
- Are we reaching all potential audiences using our existing technologies and processes?
- Is this the best experience we can deliver?
- Is the experience on par across different platforms?
- What is the long term return-on-investment for any of the alternatives?
Intellectual honesty allows teams to move fast as it takes away the nostalgia and protectionism over existing ideas to pursue what’s best for their product, and ultimately, consumers.
Always seek the truth.
Truly great companies foster a culture of innovation, which is driven by collaboration and the ability to embrace change. The best companies have employees and leaders who have the curiosity to learn and improve -- and an innate desire to discover a better and more efficient way of doing things. They don’t cover up what they don’t know, or let personal beliefs interfere with their pursuit of the truth. So the next time you’re faced with a challenging work decision, don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions -- ask for data, dig into the facts, embrace the technical debate. You will create a much stronger company as a result.