Atlassian’s Scott Farquhar on why startups need “creative conflict”: ‘The day of the lone genius is dead’

The successful startups of the future will be the ones that create open environments and encourage “creative conflict” among team members, says Atlassian co-founder Scott Farquhar.

And that’s because this “creative conflict” zone, where all employees feel safe to make contributions, is where ideas are born.

The day of the “lone genius is dead”, Farquhar said during a speech in Sydney today at this year’s StartCon startup conference.

Farquhar was speaking about the future of work — a future he believes will be built on strong and efficient teams.

“Teams will be the ones to cure cancer, and they’ll be the ones to colonise Mars,” he said.

Telling the event that one of the key things holding back growing startups is “poor team culture”, Farquhar detailed Atlassian’s efforts to identify the “perfect team”.

The company, which specialises in software for teams, looked at hundreds of company teams across the globe and throughout history, he said.

The team they found was a 120-year-old team of steelworkers in Pennsylvania, which were the subject of a famous experiment and case study. The team specialised and optimised the work each individual did, including discovering the optimal shovel weight, and ended up quadrupling their efficiency.

However, despite the incredible efficiency and success of this team of steelworkers, Farquhar emphasised that modern-day teams in growing startups “absolutely should not” optimise for efficiency in the same way the steelworkers did.

“That team of steelworkers lived in a static and predictable world, their jobs were stable from one day to the next, and they walked into that factory every day and did the same thing,” he said.

“Because their world moved slowly, optimising for efficiency was absolutely the right thing to do. But who here goes to work every day knowing exactly what they’re going to do?

“We live in a dynamic and changing world, and change is coming faster than ever before. It’s impossible to predict what’s coming next.”

With this in mind, Farquhar says teams should no longer optimise for efficiency. Instead, the way forward is to move away from centralised decision making and make sure every member of an organisation is better at making decisions.

“We’re indoctrinated to think variability is a bad thing, and it’s not — we need to learn from failure,” he said.

“The days where the boss is the smartest person in the room are gone. My team reminds me of that all the time.”

“Open company, no bullshit”

To do this, an approach of working openly should be instilled at all levels of an organisation, said Farquhar, with a culture of openness allowing teams to foster greater trust, and operate at higher speeds. The speed in which a startup can function is determined primarily by how fast information flows from one part to another, he said.

This mean smashing open a “siloed” approach to organisations and information sharing, with Farquhar explaining one of Atlassian’s key tenets is “open company, no bullshit”.

“When was the last time you had a good idea? Or at least you thought you did until you discussed it with your team and realised you could all come up with something way better. We need to allow safe environments where we can have creative conflict because that’s when ideas can come from anywhere and we can tap into the entire team’s genius,” he said.

“This also means an open way of being. Workplaces who are truly doing innovative things create environments where people can bring their ‘whole selves’ to work instead of their ‘work selves’.

“When you operate an organisation where everyone feels empowered to bring their authentic selves to work, that’s when you truly unleash the potential of every team.”

Atlassian — which itself has grown from a team of two people to 2000 over its 15 years of existence — has packaged its “best practises” for growing teams into a freely available playbook, which Farquhar encourages startups to use and learn from.

StartupSmart travelled to StartCon as a guest of Freelancer.com.

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