Wednesday, February 20, 2008

So why do I stay?

Several people have read my previous posts regarding the nature of large organizations and have read through the lines to surmise that I am not entirely happy in my current job. They are wondering why I stay.

Well here it is: Nobody is entirely happy. I'm not even sure that's the point of it all. More importantly, large organizations have the potential to generate significant impact. When they fail, they cause a lot of damage, and when they succeed they create a lot of value. It seems worth it to me to try and find a way to help a large organization learn the behaviors of nimble organizations while still benefiting from the advantages of size.

It is a difficult challenge. But if I can succeed at this, I will feel quite good about it.

Also, I have the best boss ever. And that makes work a lot more enjoyable.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Talent and innovation at big organizations

I've been getting some interesting emails from friends about my posts regarding ideas/innovation in large organizations.

One friend made an interesting point: that large organizations draw on an average talent pool "as opposed to the more chaotic and erratic nature of a creative culture."

I think he is right. Not in the sense of the quality of the people. I work at one of these large organizations and the people are of very high quality. But this whole notion of quality is misleading. There are different types of qualities. The talents required to move a project through a large organization are not the same as those required to develop blockbuster ideas, to motivate and inspire large numbers of people to try something radically different or even to solve small but really important problems like what the hell happens to the other sock.

Large organizations are machines. Large successful organizations are well-oiled machines. They have a narrow range of abilities but they use and service them very well. Including how they bring in talent. Large organizations know the kinds of people that will succeed at getting their stuff done so they hire those types of people. And pretty much only those types of people. And for their part, people know what it will be like to work at one of these organizations. And they self-select in or out depending on what they are good at and what they like to do.

I don't want to get into a chicken and egg analysis, but the facts are that certain types of people gravitate to and are accepted by large organizations. And they are usually not the visionaries, creatives or radical thinkers.

So in this sense, my friend was right.

BTW, I don't mean to imply that a large organization consists of a plethora of monotonous drones. The people can be nice, fun, interesting, smart. They are not even all the same. A machine needs many different types of parts. But still, the machine is designed for a specific purpose. And it makes sure to only get the parts it needs to accomplish its mission.

This is all well and good so long as that mission remains the right one, the environment in which that mission is defined stays the same, and so long as the technology of production (broadly defined) does not, itself, undergo transformational change. But if any of those factors dramatically change, then the machine is obsolete and useless to its owners. And you cannot be obsolete and useless for very long and expect to survive, even with the massive resources of a large organization.

The nature of institutions

I have received email from several folks regarding my earlier post about how large organizations eliminate anything interesting about an idea or vision.

There is quite a lot of social theory on this topic. As a psychologist, I do believe this phenomenon largely reduces to the cognitive systems and behaviors of individual members of these organizations.

Here's one way to think about it: People are built to do what works. To behave in a way that maximizes their chances of success in their environment. Since time is costly, people are built to arrive at good-enough decisions expeditiously. So we all have our rules of thumb that save us time and generally work. Some of these are common to all humans. Some we each learn individually as we go through life.

When we take a novel, interesting idea or vision and pass it through the gauntlet of a large organization, each jagged edge will offend some constituency. It will offend them because it violates a rule they have about what works or doesn't work. And so, as I mentioned in my earlier post, the idea is smoothed until it offends nobody - and offers nothing to the world.

Here's the rub about these rules of thumb and why they are so insidious. They work. They work really really well. Right up until the point where they fail catastrophically. We cannot walk away from these rules of thumb. They represent "judgement" or the learned pattern recognition of experts. But we also have to constantly be on the lookout for the change in our environment that will render these rules useless. That is, we must be able to drive using both the rearview mirror and the windshield - at the same time.

If we cannot find individuals who are good at doing both of these things, then we must setup our organization with constituencies that are responsible for each and insure an executive function that is adequately informed by each perspective.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The George Washington Bridge at night

Here are some pics I just took. It was pretty freaky walking along the path in the dark with nobody around. Anyway, most of my pictures didn't come out well. I definitely need a proper tripod for the camera I have. And some talent wouldn't hurt either.

How large organizations kill interesting ideas

It seems to me that the nature of most big organizations compels them to destroy new and interesting ideas.

We see this phenomenon at play in U.S. politics and in the output of our large corporations. Our politicians have to make sure to not say anything that will be too offensive to any group. And they must make sure to promise all the right things to enough of the groups. So what you end up with is neither liberal nor conservative. We get politicians who smoked marijuana but didn't inhale! Who wants that? In fact, we never really get anything other than the most bland content dressed up with the most inspiring rhetoric that the politician can muster.

In general, our large corporations give us the same. Of course there are exceptions but it seems that typically the most interesting and new ideas come from small companies.

Think of an idea or a vision as a crystal.

This crystal has a distinctive shape. It looks unique. It has jagged edges and depressions. It may be good. It may be bad. It may be beautiful. It may be ugly. But it is distinctive and it has an impact.

When we take an idea through the vetting process at a large organization, what happens is that each constituency sees a jagged edge that it does not like or a depression that it feels must be evened out. So it sands down the edge or raises the depression. By the time every constituency has had its say, the crystal has become a perfectly smooth and round sphere. It represents the average of everyone’s point of view. And average things have an average impact on the world. They are not going to flop. And they are not going to become blockbusters. Ideas, visions – crystals - on the other hand may generate average performance. But they could also flop or become blockbusters. Because they represent a singular distinctive perspective. If they are wrong, they fail. If they are right they can succeed massively.

Apple is a good example. Steve Jobs runs the show. Period. Apple’s products represent the vision of Steve Jobs to the minutest detail. If Jobs is really good at what he does, then his products will be brilliant. If not, they will probably fail. But they all have a shot at brilliance.

This doesn’t mean it has to be entirely autocratic a la Steve Jobs. Or entirely consensus driven like a more typical bureaucracy. But it is very important to be aware of the phenomenon by which crystals become spheres. If risk avoidance is the most important objective, then spheres may be the way to go. If revolution and blockbuster performance are the objective then crystals are the better approach. Wherever you fall on the continuum of objectives should help you figure out how much crystal smoothing to tolerate.

In the end, it is critical to always keep in mind the damage that is done to an idea when its rough edges are smoothed.

Some pictures I have taken recently

I enjoy taking photos - particularly of nature. But I can't help feeling like it's a bit inappropriate to do so. It seems very acquisitive - a way for man to exercise control and dominion over the universe rather than simply enjoying it. I do have a feeling when I see something beautiful that I want to "capture" it. And when I stop and think about it, I think that capturing the beauty of nature is not what the beauty of nature is all about.

But yet, I still take the pictures.

Welcome to my new blog

OK folks. I'm not really sure what to do with all this but I've been inspired by Jeremy Epstein ( to explore more of what modern technology has to offer.

So look to this page to see some random musings, my thoughts about various topics of interest to me like marketing, innovation, social science, etc. And as I feel brave, I may post items of personal significance.