Matthew Atwater | Crain's Orlando

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Matthew Atwater

Background:  

Tsunami Tsolutions is a business and engineering solutions company employing 140 people at its facilities in Glastonbury, Conn., and Melbourne, Fla. Founded in 2003, Tsunami’s consultants work on some of the largest, most complex programs in aviation.

The Mistake: 

From the start, I assumed that my role as chief executive officer required me to play chief mediation officer as well. It was my view that a good place to work should be free of contention and disagreement. In a broad sense, this is probably true for things like office politics and access to opportunities. But not allowing management to find resolutions to problems within their own ranks forced them to seek arbitration from me over nearly every dispute. And in trying to make everyone comfortable, I’d ended up created an environment where nobody was comfortable unless the CEO had weighed in.

Minor project decision points would escalate to my desk daily and as the company grew so did the number of mediation sessions I had to facilitate. Worse than the drain on everyone’s time though, was the drain on their engagement level. It’s a corrosive and disempowering feeling to have decisions made for you and total disengagement can happen when those decisions appear arbitrary, detached or made by third parties with a particular bias.

Conflict is not only unavoidable, but completely necessary to an innovative team.

The Lesson:

I learned that people can and will often handle their disagreements comfortably and with nuance if the forum and opportunity are created. But first, I had to accept that conflict is not only unavoidable, but completely necessary to an innovative team. Once you know that some level of creative abrasion happens when smart people try to solve tough problems, you can start adjusting the environment and culture to get the best results. This is far preferable to the impossible attempt to banish all discord. However, you need to get a few elements in place to harness the power of dissent in a company. 

For us, this meant some major organizational changes. We altered how we set up safety nets to allow failure, we rethought how projects are accepted and sized, we flattened project hierarchy to hear more voices, and we created different physical spaces to allow collaboration at the working level. I had to release the reigns and allow intercommunication among the management team. 

While building culture is never finished and the road to optimizing human systems is full of surprise turns, I think we’ve made tremendous progress since the early days of our organization. Crucially, quelling my own fear of team conflict was the first challenge. 

Photo courtesy of Tsunami Solutions.

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