How To Lead With A Sandbox Culture


One of the best ways to generate a culture of engagement that allows people’s skills and personalities to shine through is to enable what I call a “sandbox culture”.

For those of you familiar in the tech and electronic gaming world, a sandbox mode allows a player to enter an “open-play mode” and enjoy the game with free reign, many times without certain objectives or rules, but still within the confines of the game parameters.

A sandbox culture is similar, in that it’s an organization that has a firm parameter of core values and vision, but allows their people to freely explore and innovate, think outside of the box, and pursue new ways of attaining goals and objectives, all the while operating within the brand and culture of the company.

The groundwork for having a sandbox culture can be found as early as Tom Peter and Robert Waterman’s book “In Search of Excellence”. The introduction of “simultaneous loose-tight properties” in which centralized values were coupled with autonomy for individuals and team to get the job done.

Jim Collins further explored this concept in “Built To Last” over several chapters. His emphasis on companies that “preserved the core”  while “stimulating progress” showed how organizations can develop a “cult like culture” but allow their people to “try a lot of stuff and keep what works” on their way to success.

The reasons for having a sandbox culture are twofold and simple to understand, particularly when you think of children playing in a sandbox at the playground. Here is how this type of culture positively impacts your organization:

  • It establishes a solid and successful framework. Any successful business needs parameters in which they operate, without it, an organizations looses it’s place and erodes away. Much like the wooden or plastic boundaries of a sandbox, it keeps the landscape intact and prevents washing or drifting away from outside forces. Establishing a framework with solid core values, vision, and brand identity will keep your company together.
  • It allows for innovation within the culture. Place 15 kids in a giant sandbox, and you’ll find 15 different ways to play in the same area. Sand castles, burying toys, sifting through the sand, digging bare toes in are just a few of innovative ways children use free play in the sandbox. As an organization, if you allow your teams to freely innovate and problem solve, all within the context of your brand and values, you allow the ability to be creative and develop new approaches to goals and challenges.

Although they don’t explicitly mention it in these terms, companies such as HP and 3M historically have a preserved core in who they are but allow room in the innovation sandbox to pursue new technology and research. Many marketing and consulting firms have a similar method, such as Fahrenheit 212.

By having your people, including leadership, play in the sandbox can also allow you to explore how new business or innovation can stretch your framework while still keeping the core intact. Sandboxes can get bigger, deeper, and allow for more reach provided the vision and values stay intact and don’t inhibit creativity in any aspect.

Go out today and explore ways to play in the sandbox and develop a unique culture in your organization.

(image: wikimediacommons)

About Paul LaRue

My goal - To encourage you to lead & influence others with positive impact.

Posted on October.24.2016, in Leadership. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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