Last year I did a 1 on 1 meeting with every member of the Simple Modern team. One of the questions I asked each person was,
“What is the best part of Simple Modern’s culture?”
I intentionally left it open-ended so that I could see what patterns emerged. One word surfaced repeatedly:
We live in a world with unprecedented access to information. Social media and smartphones have given us more insight into the lives of others than ever before. And yet, our hunger for authenticity and transparency continues to run deep. Why is that?
We share more with the world than ever before with the internet, but what we share is still highly curated. We present the image that we want others to see. Yet we all long for a world in which we are fully known and still fully accepted.
If you want to help others develop and grow it runs deeper than leading by example and doing the right things. It means inviting others into the motivations, heart attitudes, thought processes, doubts, and fears behind your decisions and actions. It requires vulnerability and allowing others to see your imperfections.
A few questions that help me to apply this principle:
Am I sharing the “Why” behind my actions and decisions with my teammates?
How do I respond when someone is transparent about something negative happening within themselves or the team? Am I receptive or dismissive?
Am I more concerned with projecting a good image or sharing the reality to those around me?
Recently I celebrated my 42nd birthday. I took some time to reflect on life and business. Here are some of the top things I have learned:
1. Relationships with depth, trust, and intimacy are the primary way to achieve lasting contentment in life.
2. Have a clearly defined personal mission. The reasons behind your actions have a profound impact on how others experience you—having a clear why serves as a north star during trying times and inspires others to join in the journey with you.
3. Who you are is more important than what you do. A wise mentor has emphasized this to me over time. Ultimately your character is far more important than your resume or accomplishments. The Bible says it best: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?”
4. Don’t be too proud to ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t change the past, but it does enlarge the future
5. Generosity is the antidote for greed. Be generous with everyone. Give to people and situations where you don’t stand to gain anything in return.
6. Affirmation and encouragement are among the most encouraging and life-giving things we can offer to others. The best part of all is that they don’t cost us anything. Be generous with your words of praise.
7. The best parts of life are a result of compounding. At 42, I can trace out how my favorite things have resulted from repeatedly prioritizing and working on the same essential things.
8. Be transparent and honest. It is tempting to try to manage how others perceive us, but it always backfires in the end. When there is integrity between the perception of others and our reality is much less stressful.
9. Ask others for feedback and be willing to change. We cannot grow unless we understand how others experience us. Instead of being defensive when we receive hard feedback, assume it is accurate and look for applications.
10. Think backward when making major life decisions. How will you feel about this decision when you are 80 or on your deathbed? It is incredible how much this helps me at forks in the road points in life.
11. Cultivate thankfulness in your heart. Find ways to deliberately identify and give thanks for the things that bring joy and happiness to your life. Thankfulness is the vaccine against bitterness as we age.
12. Investigating what the Bible says about Jesus was life-changing for me.
13. Fulfillment comes from a life that is devoted to something larger than self. Reject the idea that fulfillment comes from chasing all your internal desires.
14. Reading biographies is one of the easiest ways to learn from the experiences of others. It also makes people from different eras more relatable and accessible. The great people that came before us dealt with all the same challenges and desires that we experience.
15. Having discernment about when to forge ahead or strategically quit is a superpower. My tendency to persist has been my biggest strength and biggest weakness at different points in my life.
16. View mistakes as tuition. The lost resources (time, money, etc.) offer the potential to learn a valuable lesson for the future.
17. Develop a growth mindset. Intentionally challenge yourself to grow in areas that are uncomfortable or where you lack natural talent. The process of getting better through effort and determination is empowering.
18. The culture you immerse in will shape the person that you become. A steak gradually takes on the flavor of a marinade it sits in, and similarly, we become a reflection of the cultures we are a part of every day. Choose the friends, spouse, and jobs that promote a healthy culture.
19. Learn through doing. The internet has made it easier than ever to gain knowledge about any subject you desire, but we learn best through doing. Don’t settle for acquiring knowledge. Find ways to start applying that knowledge in your life immediately.
20. The world is more complex than ever before. Our natural response is to simplify, but complicated things aren’t simple or black and white. The answer to complexity isn’t simplicity; it’s focus. Reject simplistic narratives and embrace nuance.
21. Compete with yourself instead of others. Instead of fixating on being “the best,” spend time focusing on reaching “your best.”
22. Achieving excellence comes through iterative improvement. The paradox of excellence is that it can only be achieved by practicing at a less than excellent level for a long time.
23. Life is full of trade-offs and opportunity costs. Saying “yes” to one thing means saying “no” to countless other things simultaneously. Learn to say “no” frequently so you have the margin to say “yes” to the right things.
24. Help others to believe in themselves. Everyone needs an encourager that helps them to see their full potential.
25. Make asymmetric bets. Find places where you can invest time and resources with a fixed downside, but the upside could be 10x or 100x. Some examples are mentoring, investing, and going on a first date.
26. When planning a business, identify how you can create moats (sustainable competitive advantages). Building a company is hard work and will take years of your life. Build something defensible from the beginning so that you don’t have to watch the market erode what you have built.
27. Don’t settle when hiring. Be slow to hire and prioritize character, competency, curiosity, and hunger.
28. Entitlement is like emotional cancer. Pat Riley once described it as “the disease of me,” and in my experience, it is the number one risk to successful teams. Focus on treating other people better than they deserve instead of focusing on how you should be treated.
29. Constantly cast vision to those that you are leading. “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
30. The best entrepreneurs I know are like scientists. They are constantly forming theories and designing experiments to test those theories and learn more about the world.
31. The most successful individuals have plenty of failures in their careers. What makes them successful is that they keep taking swings. Be more afraid of never hitting a home run than of striking out.
32. If you start a business, bootstrap for as long as you can before raising money. One of the most freeing aspects of Simple Modern is that we don’t answer to outside investors. We are a stronger, more generous company as a result.
33. The very best way to learn about business is to join a high-growth startup. There is no better place to grow your skill set, advance your career, and learn how to build a company.
34. Focus on process over results. I have found that results and the process are often less correlated than I would expect. I cannot control outcomes, but I can dictate how I approach the process. Over time, this is a winning strategy.
35. Life requires a bias to action. There will be countless times when it is unclear what is the right next step; making an imperfect choice and iterating is almost always better than doing nothing.
Collaboration is one of the five core values of Simple Modern. We believe that teams produce better results than individuals, so collaboration plays a significant role in the day-to-day structure of our company. We view every interaction with our teammates, manufacturers, partners, and customers as an opportunity to work together. This environment of collaboration plays a critical role in our process of creating world-class products.
We define collaboration as solving problems by incorporating the strengths and ideas of the entire team. Collaboration is almost always helpful, but this is especially true in creative endeavors. Research has shown that in procedural jobs, the best performers are usually 2x as effective as an average performer. In creative endeavors, the best performers are a shocking 10x more effective than average. When talented and collaborative teams focus their effort on creative work, extraordinary things are possible. As Steve Jobs once observed:
“The total [is] greater than the sum of the parts. That’s how I see business: great things in business are never done by one person; they’re done by a team of people.”
Working in an environment where everyone’s perspective is valued and encouraged has several benefits
Leverages the gifts and talents of the whole team to achieve a common goal.
Allows leaders diverse feedback sources to incorporate into the decision-making process.
Amplifies everyone’s voice to be heard and helps develop junior team members into leaders.
Creates awareness of different points of view
Encourages bonding and communication among team members
In this setting, everyone contributes to the team’s effectiveness by bringing their individual experiences, perspectives, skills, and strengths to the table. It also results in better decisions and products.
Collaboration Strikes Back
Creating a movie is an excellent example of the collaborative process. For starters, the story can be about literally anything real or imagined. This wide range of possibilities creates an expansive creative canvas to collaborate. What is impressive to me is the sheer number of people that are involved in helping to make the movies that we love. If you look at the top 20 grossing films from 1994-2014, you have a subset of 1,000 different movie projects. These films averaged 3.5 writers, 7 producers, 55 people in the art department, 32 in sound, 55 in camera/electrical, and 156 in visual effects. That’s over 300 people before you even start counting actors and the countless other people involved in the production. These numbers can swell into the thousands. Iron Man 3 sported an enormous cast of 3,310 people!
When a movie is released, we see one cohesive story, but that comes from countless collaborative conversations and brainstorming sessions throughout the production process. When Toy Story premiered in 1995, Critics universally praised its humor, graphics, and creativity. Its path to glory was far from a foregone conclusion, however. In 1993, Disney canceled the film because of how cynical and unlikeable Woody was in the original screening versions of the film. Steve Jobs and Pixar were able to convince Disney to allow them to work on redoing the film. The ultimate result of the creative process was a timeless classic.
One more example of how the collaborative process often produces a better result is in the dialogue of a film. Below is a famous scene from The Empire Strikes Back:
This iconic moment is even more remarkable because Harrison Ford’s line in the script was “I love you too.” Ford intuitively understood that Han Solo would never have responded to Leah quite so conventionally. He insisted that the line should be “I know.” Ford’s suggestion was such a collaborative improvement that the crew never filmed the scene with the original line.
Collaboration and Leadership
My natural bend is to have a big tent mentality towards leadership. I like to incorporate the thoughts and voices of others. But over the years, as I have held various leadership positions, I have struggled with the balance of knowing when to make decisions and when to encourage collaboration and dialogue.
I have learned that enabling collaboration requires humility. It starts with creating an environment where the conversation is not guided by title and role but by the merit of ideas. Leaders may have the authority, but collaboration involves a conscious choice to bring others into the decision-making process. As others share their perspectives, leaders must then ask, “How do I turn these voices into a decision?” Leaders have the authority to make the final decision; they also have the responsibility to make sure other people’s voices help inform the decision-making process.
It is important to note that there will be instances when collaboration does not result in a consensus opinion. Input from more people can lead to better decisions, yet more voices can also result in conflicting thoughts and ideas. Though challenging at times, the lack of consensus may produce additional clarity for the leader. Ultimately, a leader’s responsibility is to create a collaborative environment and then chart a course weighing all the feedback if the group cannot reach a consensus.
Collaboration benefits leaders in several key ways:
The collaborative process can “stress test” proposed decisions to see if they hold up while also sparking creativity and new ideas.
It gives the leader credibility when they value the entire team’s perspective. Because they have shaped a decision, teammates will have more buy-in to the path forward.
Even when a leader enters a discussion with a strong opinion, it can be helpful to bring the idea or proposed decision in front of a group for feedback and peer review.
Steve Jobs: Champion of Collaboration
In many cases, the best collaborations are serendipitous and unplanned. No one understood this better than the late Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs, and he placed a high value on collaboration.
Jobs serve as CEO of Pixar through its early years of growth and becoming a public company. Though Jobs wasn’t involved in making Pixar films, he took responsibility for designing the Pixar Headquarters building. Jobs intentionally designed the building to mirror the left and right sides of the brain: creative offices on the right side and technical offices on the left. Jobs insisted on a central atrium in the middle of the 218,000 sq. ft. building.
Traveling anywhere in the headquarters required that individuals pass through the central atrium, thus encouraging chance interactions and collaborations with others throughout the day. Jobs believed that in-person interactions spark innovation, so he purposefully designed the building to bring 700+ employees together and encourage as much collaboration as possible. This atrium was the home to countless collaborative conversations that produced classics like Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-E, and Monsters Inc.
How To Be An Effective Collaborator
Everyone is a collaborator to some degree. Whether collaborating with a co-worker at work or a spouse in marriage, collaboration is a vital part of our life. It begs the question, “How do I become a more effective collaborator?”
One way to be an effective, healthy collaborator is to understand the difference between opinion, persuasion, and conviction level beliefs. We each have a hierarchy of beliefs that we hold with varying degrees of strength. These different belief levels—opinion, persuasion, and conviction—must be kept in check for the collaboration to be as successful as possible. Imagine a pyramid divided into three sections.
The pyramid’s base represents a person’s opinions: assumptions, desires, wishes, and preferences. Some examples would be “Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream is the best” or “The Oklahoma City Thunder are my favorite basketball team.” These opinions matter to me, but they don’t influence my treatment of others, and I can still get some ice cream with someone who mistakenly claims that Rocky Road is the best flavor.
The second level of the pyramid represents persuasion-level beliefs. Compared to opinion-level beliefs, persuasion beliefs are held more tightly and influence how we interact and work with others. These beliefs usually center around more consequential topics, influence our behavior, and shape our interaction with others. They are usually more tightly held because we believe that there is significant evidence for holding these beliefs. We can continue to collaborate and work with others with different persuasion level beliefs but will often try to influence those around us on these issues. An example of a persuasion level belief is how to educate your kids between public, private, or home school.
The top of the pyramid represents a person’s convictions: those few central beliefs that a person feels strongly and is unwilling to compromise. Collaboration on an issue where there are different conviction level beliefs is by definition almost impossible. One example would be the inability for Pro-Life and Pro-Choice activists to collaborate on legislation toge
Effective collaborators have a healthy balance of opinion, persuasion, and conviction beliefs. Just like most of the volume of a pyramid is in its base and only a tiny amount is in its tip, we should strive for a balance where our conviction level beliefs are far fewer than our opinion level beliefs. An unbalanced distribution of these beliefs can harm the collaborative process and affect the group dynamic. Having very few convictions and persuassions communicates that you don’t stand for anything and makes it impossible effectively contribute a strong point of view. On the other hand, having an excessive amount of conviction level beliefs makes us more closed off to different perspectives. Collaborating with people who believe their perspective on every issue is a hill to die on is often exhausting and unproductive.
Your Ideas are Not Your Identity
The challenging thing about collaboration is that it requires emotional maturity. Growing up, I realized something about myself. When I proposed an idea to a group that was well-received, I felt great. Conversely, when others disregarded or disliked an idea that I suggested, it was devastating. In those situations, I found that I would get defensive, shut down, and stop contributing to the collaborative process.
Over time, I have learned that ideas are objective things, not my value or identity as a human being. I have ideas, but they don’t define who I am. This allows me to evaluate ideas on their merits and not simply based on their origin. Effective collaborators don’t find their identities in their ideas. They can lead productive conversations and won’t be discouraged or hurt if people don’t like their ideas because that’s not where they find their identity. The best leaders and collaborators can advocate an idea and then drop it to support a stronger idea from someone else a few minutes later. Leading others in collaboration starts with leading ourselves.
Collaboration at Simple Modern
We believe that we are smarter than me. As a result, we’ve built our company to promote collaboration in everything we do. Our hiring process is a multi-person endeavor as we work together to find the best possible candidate. It’s not uncommon to find clusters of people gathered together at our office, troubleshooting a problem or brainstorming our next great idea. As founder and CEO, I meet with all of our employees a few times a year to ensure that they have the opportunity to offer feedback and have their voices heard.
I believe Simple Modern’s exponential growth and continued success are due to the high value we place on collaboration. We encourage our team members to collaborate, contribute to conversations, propose ideas, and defend what they think—in a low-stress, helpful and friendly environment. Once we make decisions, we move forward together as one team. I believe this attitude is a driving force of how we have grown to almost 100,000,000 in annual revenue in just five short years.
Here are a few questions I ask myself to continue to grow in this area:
Do I have a balanced belief pyramid? What is my distribution of beliefs between opinion, persuasion, and conviction?
Where am I finding identity in my ideas? How can I refocus where I am finding my identity?
How can I create an environment around me where people know their input and ideas are welcomed and encouraged?