Tuesday, July 14, 2009

You are not a bystander!

I ran into a senior leader from my company in the men's room a few days ago. We had one of those quick urinal conversations. He asked me how I was enjoying my new role in a line marketing position. I told him what I liked about it. He then said something like "those standalone innovation groups never work in big companies" - referring to my previous role on just such a group.

We then had one of those quick washing the hands conversations and parted company.

Oh, I did zip up in case you're wondering, but that is not an important part of the story. I'm only telling you because I don't want you to think I'm one of those guys who talks about innovation at urinals and then doesn't zip. You know the type...

Anyway, it occurred to me later what an interesting thing had transpired. This senior leader had told me about what doesn't work in the company as if he was not part of the very machinery that makes things work or not work. As if what works or doesn't work is a matter of destiny and cannot be determined- or even influenced - by the will of a senior leader such as himself. How astounding!

On one hand, I would point out that this fatalistic attitude is precisely what dooms us to mediocrity. I would argue that we all need to charge forward as leaders. To take risks in line with our passions. To constantly seek out excellence in ourselves and inspire it in others. I would argue that such an approach to our careers - and, more importantly, to life - is what should determine what does and does not work. And I love James Baldwin's quote on the matter: "Those who say it can't be done are usually interrupted by others doing it." We too easily acquiesce to the apparent impossibility of an objective.

On the other hand, there is a certain truth to what this leader was saying. Should passion require us to entirely ignore experience? Does success require this? I don't think it does.

The fact is that people and institutions learn habits. And habits are very hard to undo. Institutional habits become notoriously difficult to disrupt. And people who try usually end up headless.

I don't know where I'm going with this train of thought. It seems to me that institutions that cannot change their basic operating model are headed for extinction. For some reason, people at big companies find that hard to believe in a way that I think folks at scrappy startups do not. Even though the business landscape is littered with very big failed companies, people always think it cannot happen to their company. But happen it can. Mmmmmm. Very powerful is the dark side.

I think most institutions will eventually destroy themselves because they cannot change. Really change. They have too many things that just "never work". We should cheer the death of these institutions. When they pass, they clear the way for progress.

Of course, it would be much better if we all could learn to adapt better - as individuals and as members of institutions. I certainly would love to see much more jumping into the breach, much more heroism, much more refusal to accept the fundamental status quo. I am inspired by such people and I hope to similarly inspire others. I feel sad for people who have accepted in their hearts that they are merely spectators.


Sean said...

I dunno brother - I kind of agree with both sides. Maybe the solution is for to have separate (Web) operating companies where we can be our own executives. Not saying it's ideal, but sometimes I think we're never going to get out of the gate (in a significant way) with our current model.

Adam said...

Yeah. I feel the quandary. You don't want to be too much of a maverick. That life is a very painful life. But you also don't want to be a sheep...