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 But if any of those factors dramatically change, then the machine is obsolete and useless to its owners.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.

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