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Mika Okkola

We Don’t Need Another Hero!

Have you ever worked in an organization with a strong hero-worshipping culture? I have – several times. In one of the companies we even nicknamed a colleague as Captain Speirs. Remember the TV series Band of Brothers? Speirs was a heroic character in the series, who resolved all the difficult situations. His true heroism, or how he was portrayed in the mini-series, is not significant. What is, however, is the strong symbolism often attached to the hero-worshipping in an organization. Our Captain Speirs was the wizard, who fixed all bugs, no matter how challenging. He was the last resort, a true hero-programmer.

Is it time for heroes to go home?

“And I wonder when we are ever gonna change?  Living under the fear, till nothing else remains.”

The chorus from Tina Turner’s old hit “We Don’t Need Another Hero” refers to Thunderdome, an arena for steel-cage battling in the Australian post-apocalyptic film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. I’m obviously not implying that all organizations with a hero-worshipping culture would be like the Thunderdome, steel-fenced arenas, where only the strongest will survive. However, there are similarities. The hero-worshipping is likely to lead into unhealthy competition, and a lack of trust and openness. An environment, which at its worst, will foster inequality, intimidation and fear. A culture, which is opposite to the one needed to foster agility and self-organizing teams.

At Innofactor, we, like many other organizations, are rapidly becoming a group of self-organized teams. Agile and empowered culture is becoming a norm in our industry, and the demand for agile development is growing fast. However, we haven’t embarked on this journey because there is external pressure. The drive and energy come from within. This is what we want! This is a natural continuation of our culture, which is caring and inclusive. One for all and all for one.

The transformation is not easy. The old habits die hard. But we have already changed, and we are learning as we go. In our playbook we state that:

  • Teams over individuals
  • Leadership over management
  • Customer over short-term optimization

We do not say that things on the right are worthless, but when making decisions, the things on left should carry more weight. As you see, the only hero here is the team. Also, I’d be tempted add one more:

  • Humility over ego.

We all have egos – some bigger, some smaller. Egos are important. They are a part of our personality. However, that doesn’t mean we may or should act egotistically. One of the key changes when becoming self-organized is the growing significance of teams vis-à-vis individuals. In a self-organizing organization, the basic component of work is the team – not the individual. This means that we need to put our egos aside and prioritize the team.

The era of idolizing heroes is long gone

In the old paradigm of centrally led organizations, hero-worshipping was very common. In many cases it still is. Hero-worshipping culture is extremely counterproductive. It assumes that from an individual’s point of view, accumulating information is more valuable than sharing. It creates inequality. It creates unhealthy competition and is detrimental in terms of openness and trust.

In the old paradigm we used to have a distorted view of expertise. The experts build their value on answers – not questions. The problem is that the questions are more important. All learning and development are based on good questions. The Finnish futurist Ilkka Halava and economist Mika Pantzar wrote a report titled The Emergence of Consumer-citizens (Kuluttajakansalaiset tulevat, 2010). In the report, as one of six changes of future working life, they launched the concept of neo-novicity. This is one of my favorite ideas for an innovative approach to work. Being a novice or a trainee is considered a tedious and unpleasant limbo, which people want to leave as soon as possible. This leads to people getting siloed in their comfort-zone and working in the areas, where no-one challenges their expertise.

Creative and innovative thinking would require moving between the siloes, challenging old paradigms, and asking stupid questions. Innovation cannot be based on experience, as it didn’t exist yesterday. Organizations should regularly encourage people to neo-novicity, where previous experience, taken into new context, can create real breakthroughs. This is often not the case, as professionalism, routine and reliability are valued more, and tasks are by default given to the “heroes”.

What does real heroism in the workplace look like?

So, I strongly agree with Tina. We really don’t need another hero. What we need is the courage to ask stupid questions, and the courage to be imperfect. The courage to do something, when there are no guarantees.  Brené Brown explains the power of vulnerability in her brilliant Ted Talk. In her studies she has found that vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love. Aren’t those the exact things that make work meaningful and worthwhile?

Maybe true heroism is letting go of who you should be and really be who you are? To fully embrace vulnerability. I strongly believe that this would help to build organizations, which are inclusive, open, equal and ego-free.

Mika Okkola

Director, Nordic Offering

A change agent, storyteller, organizational culture geek and agile-aficionado. Passionate about life, universe and digital transformation. Mika is responsible for Innofactor's Nordic offering. During his career Mika Okkola has worked with mobile app development, sales, marketing, professional services, consultancy and IT security. In addition to business roles, he has also worked with people and competence development.