Nested problems, nested solutions (7): Astro Teller on management and organisational culture

Yesterday’s post ended with the tension between designing systems and fostering a culture – writing scripts and setting tone – that will make it possible for an organisation to achieve its goals.

In this great – and perfectly timed – interview on the excellent Exponential View podcast with Azeem Azhar, (Google) X’s CEO (or “Chief of Moonshots”) Astro Teller talks about the difficulty of getting people to do what you want (!) and the role of unconscious signals in “setting the emotional path of least resistance” that will influence your organisational culture.


When I started being a CEO… I was never trained as a manager or a leader or a CEO – I sorted of ended up in that role. And I was very bad at it – extraordinarily bad at, actually. And so I had this crisis of confidence early in my first role as a CEO where I had to decide either, “I’m going to not do this,” or “I’m going to commit myself to getting good at this.” Those are the only two reasonable choices.

I decided on the second, so then I was like this clean slate. And for whatever reason I became fascinated between – every manager has this experience: you tell people, “Hey, let’s do this!” You give them a description, you put it on posters on the wall – and people don’t do anything like what the poster says. I became fascinated with “Why?” Why aren’t those two things the same? Because business books are essentially trying to tell you over and over again how to make the poster. But who cares how to make the poster if no-one’s going to do what the poster says?

And the answer is that businesses are cultures. Any organisation is a culture, and people respond to the unconscious and conscious level signals that happen inside a culture that tell people, “Here’s how we really want you to behave.” Now some of them are overt. You know: “If you do these things you will get promoted, and when you get promoted you will get more money.” That’s a pretty overt signal.

But on the other end of the spectrum… in this conference room there’s graffiti on the cement. That graffiti is not something we put there… it’s like notes from the builders about, you know, “Don’t drill here,” or something. We left that there because it’s one of 10,000 unconscious signals: “Don’t polish – this place is a work in progress.”

If there was mahogany panelling on the walls it would send people a signal that we value the polish-and-being-done part of the process rather than the learning, and the flow and iteration of trying to make something.

So what we’ve learned over a decade, all of us together, is how to try to set the emotional paths of least resistance so that that way people spend their time here actually leads towards radical candour, intellectual honesty, towards being very audacious – being willing to try almost everything – but being very humble and being clear that almost everything we try won’t work out.

It’s easy to say that, but then you have to pick a thousand signals that tell people that’s actually what you want them to do and embed them in how we behave.

Astro Teller on The Exponential View

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