Rebels should be encouraged

Simon Sagmeister

Rebels who are bold should be encouraged

Neue Zürcher Zeitung | Nicole Rütti | 03.01.2018


Simon Sagmeister explains what traditional businesses can learn from digital champions.


Mr. Sagmeister, you advise companies and organizations on how to shape their culture. What’s it all about?

The question is: What makes an organization tick? Culture defines how people in a company perceive, talk, think, feel, and act. For a long time, it was the preserve of HR departments to worry about that kind of thing. But the topic has now firmly established itself in the minds of boards and directors. After all, the world has become more complex, and the classic structures of command and control no longer work. What counts today is to create a culture which by itself fosters success and keeps a company alive. In the search for talent, too, it’s an important factor. The brightest minds aren’t swayed by salary alone, but look out for a culture which is a good fit for them.


Is there such a thing as the successful culture?

No, there isn’t a single perfect culture. A tech company will need a culture different from the one of a hospital. But what every company needs to ask itself is: Does our culture suit the situation in the marketplace? The companies that survive are the ones that are able to adapt to their environment.


With digitalization in mind—what kind of culture does it take?

For instance, digital companies don’t focus on avoiding mistakes, but on learning from them, and they make sure that this principle is institutionalized in their culture. One of Facebook’s mottos is “Move fast and break things” — “things,” in this instance, being rules and received ideas.


So do you expect traditional companies to simply copy that culture?

It is not about imitation, but about cognition. You have to understand how the new champions work if you’re to have any idea what you can learn from them. How do they deal with mistakes? How do they lead? How do they recruit talent? But of course you can’t turn a traditional company into a Silicon Valley startup overnight.


After all, Silicon Valley isn’t without dark sides …

Indeed. Few thoughts are spared for the weak. You can’t expect six weeks’ paid vacation at Amazon. And a company like Tesla may be great at fighting, but there’s very little stability and continuity.


What can leaders do to influence culture?

What’s important for the leadership team is to set an example. Staff have a very good eye for how they’re being led and respond accordingly. I know a traditional company in the automotive sector that hired a few fresh faces from Silicon Valley. Two of the new recruits left the company after just a few months, and the other new employees quickly realized that they could get through with half the work. A new culture cannot simply be planted from the outside.


Where does the problem lie?

It’s hard to create a sense of a new beginning, especially when companies have been successful in the past. Banks, the motor industry, or insurances are only at the beginning of the process of digitalization. Many companies need to ask themselves if their business model will still work tomorrow.


So how could such a sense of a new beginning be created?

Companies need to attract new ideas and new faces, and they need to tolerate thinking outside the box and promote rebels who aren’t bothered by convention.


And what kind of leadership do companies need in today’s environment? 

Leaders are needed who understand their job as that of a coach or team manager. They lead by virtue of their mission, no longer by direct orders.


Download PDF (in German)