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Could Marissa Mayer Be (Gulp!) Right? The Argument of Creativity vs. Productivity

More creativity, says Yahoo

If you had to pick one, what’s more important to your career and company success right now–-productivity or creativity?

What if you’re the sixth CEO (in five years) of a troubled high tech firm in an era when your competitors’ new innovations are driving profit, reputation, and opportunity, almost overnight?

Then you might have done what Marissa Mayer did. Whether you like it or not.

The Backstory

In case the only news you’ve heard lately has been the announcement of the next Dancing with the Stars cast (Lisa Vanderpump! oooh!), then let’s catch up.

In July 2012, Yahoo named Marissa Mayer as their CEO. The announcement was notable (sadly) as much for the fact that she was a 37-year old pregnant woman, rather than for for her track record as a 14-year veteran engineer at Google (employee #20 of what grew to approximately 37,000 by the end of 2011).

According to Silicon Valley watchers, Mayer’s been hard at work to change the culture and expectations of success at Yahoo. [Among other things, she added free lunch, which reminds me of another company and the impact of free lunch on its culture.]

And last week (Feb 2013), the company made its boldest move yet by announcing that the troubled tech company is requiring all staff to begin working in the office starting June 1, 2013. “In the office” means on one of Yahoo’s physical campuses, as opposed to having an official work-from-home arrangement.

And the storm began.

“Communication and Collaboration Will Be Important”

You can read the entire HR memo that was leaked to AllThingsD here  (do we actually call them memos anymore? aren’t they just emails?), but the key paragraph was:

[blockquote]To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together. [/blockquote]

So Mayer and her leadership team are defining—and demanding—more of the cultural behaviors that they believe will define success going forward. Communication. Collaboration. Insights. Quality.

Wanted: “Soft” SkillsYahoo makes major changes for more creativity

Yahoo is asking for more of what we often call the “soft skills.”  I’d like to meet—and subsequently strangle—whoever coined that term, because these talents are not soft at all. In fact, they can be pretty hard—and very critical.

In my leadership development work with companies, I refer to these characteristics “adaptive” skills, as in the talents we need to adapt to nonstop change. These adaptive skills rarely follow a linear, step-by-step process, which makes them harder to teach and even harder to measure than technical or tactical (i.e, “hard”) skills. They also don’t always create the most productive environments, if you define productivity as getting a lot of stuff done, fast.

Adaptive skills can only thrive when there’s space for honest conversation, openness to different points-of-view, and room for mature debate and disagreement. And all these things demand a dose of productivity’s biggest enemy: time.

But Yahoo says they want speed, too. They’re not saying come to the office for free cookies and hugs. What creates speed? Collisions. Connection. Regular exposure over time to different people, ideas, and yes, even emotions and feelings  (which are often banned from the workplace but are essential to get us in motion.)

Adaptive behaviors + real human connection = creativity: the art of identifying and getting the right things done.  And I’m guessing Mayer believes creativity may be the trigger to keep Yahoo out of the boneyard of internet has-beens.

And the Questions Emerge

We probably wouldn’t even be talking about this if the announcement hadn’t caused tsunamis of outrage from several corners of Creativity comes with connectionthe working world, such as:

  • From women and family groups who’ve fought hard to break outdated standards and develop more flexibility for working families and traffic-clogged commuters;
  • From technology gurus who’ve innovated the fingertip, financially-accessible tools that gave us the power to work from anywhere in the first place; and
  • From the general business press, who know a hot issue when they hear it (and frankly, who sometimes seem to be watching any CEO—not just the US’s youngest—with a microscopic schadenfreude.)

They’re raising good questions about the impact, and in some cases, possibly dangerous precedent of this decision. But here are the other questions that come up that we should consider before we go pulling our hair out and labeling this is a bad decision:

  • Can you get the behaviors Yahoo wants when hundreds of your employees telecommute? I am sure you can (and companies are, with the right day-to-day management and good communication of clear expectations and consequences.) But can you get them as fast as Yahoo needs? Probably not. Enter a leader’s need for radical change.
  • Is productivity all it’s cracked up to be? Have we replaced getting a lot of things done fast with getting the right things done well? A lot of the stories my clients share with me say we’re doing more and more without seeing the corresponding  business (and personal) results.
  • Is there a difference between communication as a transaction and communication as conversation? You tell me. When’s the last time you had a heartfelt, personal talk with a colleague that led you to new insights about what she knows and how she works? When’s the last time you clicked less to connect more?
  • Will there be consequences? Absolutely? Will talented people who can’t make the shift seek work elsewhere? Will the reality of implementing the policy smush up against the reality of engaging the people Yahoo needs to win again? No doubt.

And finally, the biggest question of all. Will Yahoo survive? Will Mayer?

So What’s Next?

The jury is out on the answers. And who knows—by the time you read this, Mayer may have caved from the vast media pressure and reversed this decision. But I’m kinda hoping she sticks to the decision she made (which, based from all reports and past evidence, was based on data, not whim). In a year, I want her in a year to come out and tells us the story about what worked—and what didn’t–to create radical change, fast.

I’m not heartless to the Yahooers who will have to reshape their lives to continue working there nor to the challenges of long-distance commuting, two-income families, and the stress of finding another job. I’m not blind to the fact that this may be a thinly-disguised process to accelerate attrition and right-size the ship.

But let’s face it. The only way leaders succeed is when they make choices.  We can’t have it all, all the time.

So good luck, Yahoo. We’ll be watching.

YOUR TURN: If you were facing Mayer’s turnaround situation, what would you have done? Is a radical move like re-integrating people into physical locations a bold move, or a step back? Tell us what you think below or on Facebook or Twitter.

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