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The Least Powerful CEO In The World Shares The Secret To Success

Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen joined us at the HundrED Summit in Helsinki to talk about the conditions and culture that cultivates innovation.

Ilkka Paananen is the least powerful CEO in the world – and proud of it.

Supercell, a Finnish mobile game development company, has supported HundrED from the beginning of our journey. So we were thrilled to have CEO Ilkka Paananen join us at the HundrED Summit in Helsinki to talk about the conditions and culture that cultivates innovation.

“Games is a creative industry, it’s an art form. It’s all about innovation, crazy ideas – you need to fail. If you don’t fail it means you’re not truly innovating. Innovating is all about taking risks.”

Does top-down organizational structure in many companies impede innovation and creative ideas?  Paananen noticed that one thing that all of the most popular Supercell games had in common was that senior leadership had nothing to do with them. “I started to feel that all of these games were happening not because of us, but in spite of us.”

The key to these successful games? “It was all about people, all about how well the teams worked together.”

Whatsmore, these successes weren’t carefully planned, but a result of collaboration, spontaneity, and experimentation. “It was impossible to predict any of them, we didn’t see them coming, they were almost like accidents.”

Paananen goes on to note that the best ideas are almost always impossible to share on paper. Trial and error is key to innovation. But people need the freedom to do this.

Seeing this, Paananen started to wonder what it would look like if the creator, the game makers, owned the vision? “So we turned the structure upside down. There is no central process, there is no control. We replaced that with one very radical idea, and that’s called trust.”

“The game makers are the superstars, they make all the decisions. The more decisions they make, the less the CEO makes, the better. That’s when I became the least powerful CEO in the world.”

But if the teams are making all the decisions, what is the role of leadership?

"It's the leader's job to put together the best teams. It's the manager’s job to create the best environment for these teams to operate in. By that, I don’t mean a fancy office, just a place where these teams can have the best possible impact and nothing gets in their way. The kind of environment where these kinds of happy accidents can actually happen."

The most important qualities for these teams? The members need to be proactive, the sort of person who doesn’t need a boss. They should be curious, always wanting to learn. What’s interesting is that Supercell offers no formal training to staff, maintaining that the best training is to be surrounded by the best people. And there are so many ways to learn online now, too. All it takes is the drive to learn more.

Paananen is keen to point out that getting rid of top-down hierarchy doesn’t mean it’s all about consensus. “If you always seek consensus you risk producing products that are sort of OK, but not really great for anyone. The recent most successful games at Supercell, many people wanted to kill them.” The solution is to disagree and make that known, but still, commit.

“Trust that the team knows what they are doing and they’re doing what’s best for the company. When there’s trust, the organization moves quicker, people feel ownership, and most likely you end up making better decisions.”

“The biggest challenge we’ve had is it’s fun to talk about these kinds of things when things are going great, but what do you do when there is a mistake? The instant human reaction is ‘hey, let’s create a rule and not do that again!’ But in all those cases we have to remind ourselves, we hire all these great people, they are all smart, and we just don't need these rules.”

“It doesn’t matter to us if a team makes a mistake compared to the cost of what would happen if we would overrule a team and make all the decisions for them. it might make sense in the short term, but in the long term it would destroy the culture, and that is more important than anything else for us.”

“It turns out when you let go of control and trust other people, good things can happen”.


Like what you've heard so far? Find a playlist of videos from the HundrED Summit here