Sunday, February 3, 2008

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.

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