“If you cage the beast, the beast will get angry,” said Wolverine. As we saw in the movie X-Men 3, this bit of wisdom helped “cure” the issue of mutant monsters. It can also cure an outdated workplace culture. The fact is, today’s employees (who are not monsters) demand increasingly flexible and personalized work environments. As employers who don’t take them seriously are quickly learning, people are apt to break free and take off if they aren’t happy. Since you can’t put a cage around your talent, create a place where people choose to work.
In the July-August 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review (HBR), the article “Marvel’s Blockbuster Machine” describes how Marvel Studios’ cultural policies and practices help break records with every movie—and add millions of devoted fans with each one. What authors Harrison, Carlsen, and Škerlavaj characterize about Marvel can help you create a blockbuster culture that wins the talent war. Not sure how to go about it? Based on information in the article and superhuman insight, start with this MARVELous advice:
1. Balance Continuity With Renewal
“Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?”
—Steve Rogers Captain America-The Winter soldier
With each new movie, Marvel balances a small, core group of talented people with the fresh voices and ideas of new hires. The success of each movie continually attracts talented people who want to enhance their skills and resumes by collaborating on a celebrated team. Each new team creates a singular movie that’s unmistakably Marvel and unequivocally different—both part of the family and innovative.
Today’s employees prefer companies where networks of teams work together on specific projects rather than roles assigned solely by classic organizational structure. Team members are selected based on their skills, interests, and work relationships; and contributions are valued based on talent rather than title. If your company is still organizing around hierarchy, time to rethink. You can still preserve your core, while inviting innovation and providing flexibility, by shuffling things up.
2. Hire For “Experienced Inexperience”
"Your ancestors called it magic, but you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same."
A Marvel new-hire typically has little to no experience in making blockbuster movies, but has in-depth expertise in a genre of film or other relevant talent that Marvel doesn’t have. Their goal is to take people out of their comfort zone so they can learn from each other on the job. They value the individual uniqueness that new people contribute and increase that value by teaching them skills they don’t have. Marvel doesn’t want to stifle innovation by telling people what and how to do things before they can contribute their ideas. They practice what they call “inboarding,” which allows new people to bring in their expertise before Marvel old-timers start “putting things onto them.”
This is the opposite of how most companies go about hiring. Typically, they specify every possible skill needed for the job and then some. When they find the person with all or most of the requisite skills and experience (who is probably exactly like the person who just left) they “onboard” them by telling the new hire exactly what they can and cannot do. This is not the right process if you want to foster continual creativity. It may seem risky to “inboard” instead of “onboard” but go ahead, create a bit of “magic” and take advantage of the opportunities that appear from new ideas.
3. Develop A “Zone Of Acceptable Violations”
“Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say, ‘No, you move’.”
—Sharon Carter, Captain America: Civil War
The “zone” philosophy allows directors a large amount of freedom to try new things and develop their ideas, while Marvel maintains central control over the “blockbuster aspects” of the actual movie making. This winning formula of “acceptable violations” preserves the stability of what’s been done before (along with the brand) and creates surprise and “wow” factors that delight audiences. It’s a powerful policy for all involved, and Marvel’s highest ratings often come from the movies that most violate the genre.
The overly structured, rule-based, hierarchical, inflexible cultures of the past, no longer work. Along with Gens Y and Z, older generations, who were brought up in those environments, are drawn to job sharing, part-time and contract work, flexible work options, and other acceptable violations of what used to be. Workplaces are now more humane. Everything you can reasonably do to make life better for your employees should fall into your “zone,” that is everything except your core values which should rarely, if ever, change.
4. Cultivate Curiosity
“Just because something works, doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.”
The Marvel universe brilliantly creates a feeling that you are engaging with a puzzle. There’s a common frame, but everything else is unique and unexpected: plots, characters, worlds, visuals. Curiosity about what they’ve done this time, keeps audiences coming back, along with great storytelling and humor.
This is exactly the kind of environment that attracts and retains employees. Within a framework of stability, we want to be engaged with everyone else, as part of a grand puzzle. We want purpose that may not elevate us to superhero level, but makes us feel good about who we are and what we spend a third of our lives doing. We want challenges so we can stretch ourselves to help overcome whatever odds appear and grow in the process. We want to be part of a whole and to understand where we fit within it. We want work-life balance. And we want to have fun. We do not want to be bored in an environment where nothing interesting or meaningful happens.
Every company’s story is told through its culture and the way people experience their unique employment brand. Wise leaders “Marvel” their employees and future employees into homegrown heroes with the power to create superhuman business results.