HBO’s Silicon Valley: Lessons from the Writer’s Room on Leading Successful, Engaged Business Teams

Jennifer Hurford
Jennifer Hurford

What could HBO’s Silicon Valley possibly teach you about running a venture? More than you might think.

During a recent talk at the Harvard i-lab, Dan Lyons, author of the recent book Disrupted and a staff writer for the show, shared some behind the scenes insights on the process involved in setting a vision for the show, which includes continually come up with new jokes and generating plot ideas through the — at times tense, at times hilarious, at times boring — brainstorming sessions.

I found a lot of similarities between my own experiences working at innovation and design firm IDEO, and Lyons description of writing for Silicon Valley. In particular, IDEO’s approach to design thinking and the lean startup mentality are similar to some of the processes — spoken and unspoken — described by Lyons.

Find a “tastemaster” to keep you on track

Brainstorming can be tough, especially when you are sitting in a room for days with writers trained as standup comedians and improvising building on each others’ ideas. As Lyons described it, it was not only highly stimulating but often felt like “riding around the world in first class but never getting anywhere.”

As a recent Harvard Business Review article highlights, high levels of collaboration require high levels of empathy, which, as Lyons can attest, can be exhausting. A collaborative work environment requires people to think with each other and see things from the other person’s perspective instead of tearing each others ideas down.

In order to find the gems, the most hilarious jokes, everyone in the writers’ room needed to let the conversation just roam, which often led off to obscure tangents. As Lyons explained, these meanderings needed to be encouraged and not stopped because you never knew what jokes might be uncovered.

But Lyons said key to this co-creating process was having someone who could sift through all the nonsense and decide what to keep and what to forget? What is needed in any brainstorming environment is a “tastemaster” at the top, curating the content.

In a business setting, Lyons’ tastemaster is the combination of the creative tastemaker and the action oriented taskmaster. Successful teams need both to cultivate ideas from the bottom up, enabling a divergence of perspectives and yet a convergence of ideas which, in the case of a television show results in a tastefully mixed palette of jokes and characters. For a company, it allows for individuals to feel as if they are part of the process of collectively moving the business in the right direction.

But tastemaster can be a tricky job: How do you tactfully inspire and empower ideas of others without killing people’s inspiration and their desire to contribute, especially when the output of brainstorming often doesn’t make the final cut, in showbiz parlance? Steve Jobs was a particularly adept tastemaster; although he shot down more ideas than he accepted, his process and high expectations inspired his employees to work harder to create products that were innovative, unique, and awe-inspiring.

How did Jobs do that? He got them to believe what he believed.

“We follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to. People don’t do what you do, they buy why you do it and what you do serves as the proof of what you believe,” according to management theorist Simon Sinek.

Bottom line: Allow people to share their ideas, but also make sure you have someone who has been accepted as the person who can differentiate the good from the bad without bruising too many egos.

Hire people that make the room “work”. Hire for more than function

At Silicon Valley, the team of writers each had a specific functional role as well as other “unspoken” roles. While it should be obvious that they are all creative and fantastic writers. What was more important to the success of the show was that they could each find ways to add value to the team in intangible ways.

In the Silicon Valley writers’ room, Lyons described various roles people would play. One writer always made fun of himself and others when a joke fell flat, but, most of the time, he was harder on himself. Another writer, for some unknown reason, thought it would be a good idea to live on Soylent for 40 days to simply see what would happen.His experience led to the creation of lots of content for jokes. There were so many different roles, including one guy whose skill Lyons described as just “making the room work.”

The lesson in these anecdotes is that the function you hire a person for might not always be the place where they add the most value.

Regarding the importance of hiring the right people, Simon Sinek says, “That the goal is not just to hire people that need a job, it’s to hire people who believe what you believe. If you hire people because they can do a job they will work for your money. If you hire people who believe what you believe they will work with their blood, sweat and tears.”

Create a culture of open communication, make fun of yourself, and don’t take it personally

At Silicon Valley brainstorming sessions, everyone arrived as Lyons characterized it, “with prototypes in hand.” But in the end, you couldn’t be beholden to anything, no matter how clever you thought your idea was. “Strong ideas, weakly held is the name of the game,” Lyons explained.

The way the writers’ room works best is for people to share their ideas and let others build on them using the old improv trick of “yes, and” to further a joke instead of a “no, but.”

The culture that was created also led to a lot of making fun of everyone so that no one personally feels singled out as the one with the idea that got no traction in the team meeting. For the Silicon Valley staff, quantity led to quality. Making fun of everyone creates a culture of psychological safety and allows people to relax and be themselves.

If everyone knows their idea has an equally good chance of being both mocked and accepted, they stop trying to perform and rather let their true capabilities shine, which adds real value to group discussions. Too often in corporate meetings we come in concerned about what we are about to present, worried more about how we will be perceived rather than the actual content we intended to deliver.

Collaboration is at the core of how HBO’s Silicon Valley is created. Startup founders should take a page from this script by welcoming critiques, and learning from them, instead of feeling like failures.

Be intellectually honest with the pros and cons of your business model. Turn the “tastemaster” role on its head and allow your employees to break down your own ideas and innovate with you by establishing an open environment for communication.

And remember to be able to laugh at all your bad ideas.