Org charts look neat. Innovation is messy.

Cutting Through the Noise: Collaboration, Culture, and Innovation at Scale

By Alex Furman, Organizational Development at Invitae

It’s incredibly hard to have a real conversation about collaboration. On the surface, this is counterintuitive — workplace collaboration is one of the more talked about topics in all things organizational. A quick Google search returns ~380 million results extolling its virtues. It’s an easy, feel-good topic to rally behind. As it often goes, however, things get much more complicated once we dig in. In the real world, collaboration can mean very different things to different people, making it difficult to have a substantive discussion.

More importantly, the way we manage organizations tends to put near-insurmountable obstacles to meaningful collaboration.

If collaboration is something we truly want more of, we need to be prepared to rethink many business practices we’ve learned to take for granted. Not everyone is ready for that.

Years ago, recovering from my initial exposure to life as an employee of an up-and-coming high-tech consultancy, I came up with what I call the “Successories Test.” Here’s how it works. Take a word or concept you care about and look for motivational posters dedicated to it. The second you have one, you’re in trouble. Once you have more than one, you have your work cut out for you. There are three distinct Successories designs with the word ‘collaborate’ on them. That alone is a sign that any real conversation will take work.

The Enron Corporation famously had ‘Excellence’ as one of its 4 corporate values, and we all know how that ended.

There is a whole lot of background noise about these fuzzy, feel-good topics. Over the years, we’ve learned to dismiss it as just that — noise. In this case, there’s a good reason for all the attention. Collaboration, or lack thereof, can make or break teams and whole organizations.

I keep this on my desk as a reminder.

Years ago, we started Invitae with the goal of bringing genetics into mainstream medicine. Genetic testing has historically been expensive and complicated, creating a massive access problem. At the same time, relevant underlying technologies continue to advance at breakneck speeds. The cost/quality curve for genetic sequencing has been consistently outpacing Moore’s law, while advances in our ability to process complex data (up to and including things like machine learning) have been nothing short of extraordinary. We were first to the punch in using the latest technology to make comprehensive genetic testing truly scale, dropping prices, expanding access, while raising the bar on quality all at the same time. We also knew all along that competition would be fierce, and we would need to innovate at an ever-increasing scale. For the types of problems we’re solving, there can be no innovation without a high degree of collaboration across the different functional areas in the company.

To us, effective collaboration is not a nice-to-have, it’s existential.
A figure from Clayton Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma” that’s responsible for lots of sleepless nights for lots of people, myself included.

When dealing with complex problems, revolutionary change is almost always the result of cross-functional effort. Teams can (and do) make incremental improvements within their functional silos. A team of accountants can improve their processes to close the books faster. A team of software engineers can improve test coverage and reduce error rates.

But when a couple of engineers get together with a scientist or two, pull in someone from the commercial side of the house, and get an FP&A person to run some models, that’s when true magic happens.

At Invitae we’ve spent a tremendous amount of effort on building an organization that’s optimized towards innovation at scale. We now have a recipe for a collaboration-rich workplace, and it rests on three things:

  1. Create and maintain an incentive structure that rewards collaboration and penalizes anti-collaborative behaviors
  2. Give everyone on your team a high degree of context about how their work fits into the big picture
  3. Put the right tooling in place to facilitate cross-functional work

These three together, incentives, context, and tooling, create an environment where collaboration comes naturally.

Org charts are neat. Real life is messy and cross-functional. Snapshot of Invitae as a social graph in Q1 of 2018

We all respond to incentives. The performance review process, when done within functional silos, makes a massive barrier to meaningful cross-functional work. Managers responsible for their respective fiefdoms will invariably over-index on work performed within their domains over cross-functional efforts, despite the fact that the latter may be more important to the organization as a whole. This phenomenon is at the root of a particularly toxic breed of office politics, when the goals of various departments begin to diverge from the goals of the organization itself. Over time, minor misalignments turn to direct opposition. We’ve all seen this — R&D hates Operations, Operations is fighting with Finance, everyone hates HR — and it’s depressing. The only way to avoid this in the long term is to divorce resource allocation and performance review (and, consequently, compensation) from the functional org structure. At Invitae, we turn to network analysis to understand how the organization actually works cross-functionally, and use that to drive performance management.

The way to get ahead is to be the best teammate possible to people you work with, regardless of their functional area. It’s a game-changer.
A typical meeting at Invitae with people from multiple functional areas and disciplines represented. This happens a lot.

Without context there can be no meaningful collaboration. When the team is viewed as a stand-alone unit defined by its inputs and outputs, the most we can hope for are incremental efficiency gains. At Invitae, we rely heavily on published, shared metrics that help our team understand how we’re doing tactically. We also go to great lengths to make sure that we’re on the same page when it comes to strategy. This allows our teammates at every level of experience and seniority understand our overall needs, identify opportunities to move forward, and make sure we’re aligned in our longer-term direction. Being able to draw a line from the work we’re doing to the ultimate mission (in our case it directly translates to reducing human suffering and sometimes saving lives) is an invaluable morale boost.

This is Liz Brown and her daughter. You can learn more about their story here. Our work changes lives.

Enabling collaboration at scale is difficult without the right kind of tooling. At Invitae, we use tools to provide context and share information with the team (Tableau, Google apps, etc). For example, we have regularly scheduled all-hands meetings where anyone on our team can ask questions of management anonymously through a tool called MeetingPulse (www.meet.ps). We’ve also developed our own people analytics tool called Org1 (www.org1.io) that gives us a tremendous amount of insight into how cross-functional work happens at Invitae dynamically. We use these insights to drive our peer-review based performance evaluation process, aligning individual incentives and those of their teammates with the needs of the day. We also use it to promote a culture of healthy peer-to-peer feedback, identifying and reinforcing where we’re strong and helping us overcome or compensate for our weaknesses.

Tooling and automation help us have the meaningful human interactions to ultimately drive the mission of the company forward.

All of this together makes for a very different work environment. Having a high degree of context allows people to think and prioritize strategically. Aligning individual incentives with those of the team allows people to concentrate on advancing our mission without worrying about the minefield of traditional corporate politics. Our choice of tools for everything from communication to performance evaluation reinforce this unique culture and keep many of the typically unavoidable corporate dysfunctions at bay. Like most organizations, we’re constantly working to improve, team by team, employee by employee. While we can’t predict the future, we believe one of our key competitive advantages is a collaborative culture, as opposed to a typical rigid corporate hierarchy.