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What Makes Startups Creativity Tanks?

Posted on Saturday, Nov 10th 2018

By Guest Author Marylene Delbourg-Delphis

Peter Cappelli, Professor of Management at Wharton School and Director of the Wharton’s Center for Human Resources endorsed Marylene Delbourg-Delphis’ book Everybody Wants to Love Their Job: Rebuilding Trust and Culture, saying “The energizing culture of the start-up world can be imported to even the biggest organizations. A powerful case for bringing the human element back into management.”

Startups are inspirational for many reasons. The “human element” is definitely one of them. The human magic in startups is due to the cohesiveness that organizational literature sees as the secret of great teams — a smaller number of people federated around a project whose effectiveness is defined by five ingredients, well summarized by Julia Rozovsky at Google:

  • Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  • Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high-quality work on time?
  • Structure and clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  • Meaning of work: Are we working on something personally important to each of us?
  • Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

However, the employees of a startup are more than an ensemble delivering a performance. They see themselves as individually indispensable, and that’s why they feel free to have ideas. They consider that they matter, and that’s why they feel they can share them. They are empowered, which activates both their creative confidence and sense of control. They feel important.

The sense of one’s importance here isn’t an ego trip. Instead, it results from the energizing impact of belonging in an environment where everybody feels important and shares a feeling of “urgency, ambition, passion for excellence, artistic pride, and irreverent humor”: That’s how Andy Hertzfeld describes the ebullience of the original and “surprisingly egalitarian” Macintosh team in a book that describes with exceptional accuracy the dynamics of combined individual-and-collective creativity.

These dynamics are not associated with a romantic take on what genius is about. It’s down-to-earth math. The weight of an individual in a startup is more than its arithmetic representativeness, such as representing 1/10 in a group of 10 people. It’s the perception of her value and significance within a network: in a 10-person team, every single individual has 45 links (n* (n-1))/2) that propagate her influence. As a result, in a 10-person company, each individual experiences her potential influence as covering 100% of the company. Each individual sees herself as the company and as an embodiment of the whole group.

The creativity-tank is a real-time animated circuitry, and it seizes up when the company grows because the perception of one’s importance and potential influence can decrease dramatically if leaders don’t pay attention to this simple mechanism. If I’m part of a company of 10 people that grows to 100 employees, my arithmetic representativeness is 1/100, but the perception of the influence of the network that I represents drops down to 0.91% — the number of my links (45) divided by all the links in a 100 people organization (4,950). Now, if I am one employee out of 1,000, my arithmetic representativeness is 1/1000, but the perception of the influence of the network that I have drops to 1/10,000 — the number of my links (45) divided by all the links in a 1,000 people organization (499,500). In other words, the subjective sense of my potential influence is 10 times lower than my arithmetic representativeness. This results in frequent disenchanted remarks by employees, such as “the company has lost its soul,” “what I think doesn’t matter anyway,” etc. Employee withdrawal from the creativity process isn’t triggered by arithmetic growth, but by the annihilation of their reach and impact.

In order to be creative, employees must keep a positive perception of the significance of who they are as people and a belief that their thought-leadership will expand when the company gets larger. Therefore, thinking in terms of team design is way too restrictive: We have to think in terms on team linkage, visibility across teams upstream and downstream, cross-functional cooperation, and training, as well as creating lots of additional small groups (mentoring and reverse mentoring programs, internal gigs, intrapreneurship opportunities, etc.). If an employee is part of 10 formal or informal teams of 10 people, her standing in a 1,000 people company is 10 times what her arithmetic weight is. If, as a tech support engineer, she thinks of a good workaround for a bug, everybody will know about it.

As companies scale up and chart the organizational processes that ensure execution efficiency, they must also generate the “small world” that allows people to engineer a sense of personal importance and influence that compel them to share ideas. When companies don’t, they’re on track to nurture a classic phenomenon: When people see that they have less or no influence, they want power and start building power dams that dry up the human element and, with it, the connectional fabric for creativity to germinate.

The draining of the creativity tank can start very early in the history of a company. Millions of startups are poised to become human deserts before they even have 50 employees, because the “company” as an entity is more important than the people who compose it. Yet, it’s always useful to remember that companies don’t innovate: people do. That’s also why large organizations actually have a stronger potential than startups to become phenomenal creativity-tanks… the minute they start to flatten their organizational structure.



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