Lunch at the City Limits

City_limits_diner Tom Guarriello and I met for lunch yesterday in a little diner in Stamford. 

Three things came up. 

Something 1 (aka innovation and the corporation)

Tom Abate left a comment on this blog that was still ringing in my ears when I met with Tom Guarriello.  (I may not always respond to comments but I take them all to heart.)  Tom A. suggested that innovation is the buzz term of the moment and that it is now a untrustworthy term, over used and under thought.   

Tom G. and I fell to thinking, "What if he’s right?"   What if the problem is not innovation?  I think Tom and I decided that the real problem is probably dynamism, specifically that the world has got more various, more changeable, more discontinuous, and therefore harder to stay in sync with.  (Tom will forgive me, I hope, if I am misrepresenting him.) 

In this view, innovation is a symptom of a larger problem.  Innovation matters because dynamism is upon us and the corporation is in danger of falling out of sync.

To make "innovation" our key concept is to invite two particular errors. 

1.  that all the corporation and senior management needs to do is to tap more and better ideas

2. that the managerial problem is therefore innovation management

In point of fact, the challenge to senior management is much more grave. It is not enough to create a skunk works or hire more people who can "think outside the box."

The problem is to make the entire organization more adaptable, and to learn the secrets of dynamism management.  (CEO note to self: Buy copies of Virginia Postrel’s The Future and its Enemies for everyone.)  A mere skunk works won’t do it, not when every function and hire now needs rethinking and retooling. (I think it’s probably true that this expanded understanding of innovation is entirely clear to A.G. Lafley who has renovated P&G top to bottom.)

Something 2 (aka hiring at Google, or peopling the corporation with difference)

Tom and I also fell to talking about one of the stories in the new bite-size Wall Street Journal.  We had both read an article about Google and its search for the perfect hiring algorithm.  We agreed that one of the ways to staff the corporation with people who are "future-ready" is to hire people who are both loyal insiders, and devout and devoted outsiders. 

What Google wants is someone who is both really good a programming or systems design, say, AND have a deep and abiding interest in, say, the biology of Brazilian rain forest. (Least case, we are talking about people with a diversity of deep interests.  More dramatically, we are talking about people with quite different identities.) Why?  Because there is no substitute for someone who thinks about things from an entirely different point of view. 

This is an advantage that begets an advantage.  Once someone has mastered one additional identity (or deep interest) it is easier to master new identities in the same way (and perhaps for the same reason) that knowing one additional language makes it master more languages.  The candidate has learned to learn.  And this means that the candidate has solve the very pattern recognition that the corporation will need to prosper in a newly dynamic marketplace.  (The corporation is now a little like a star ship headed for many galaxies, each of which has new scientific and social puzzles to work out.)

This issue here is not just thinking about outside the box, but actually have a summer home there, long standing acquaintance, perhaps even "landed" status. Why is this useful?  It makes certain kind of problem solving vastly more likely.   I believe that Jonathan Miller discovered an essential secret about our culture’s idea of authenticity while directing a stage play in London.  IDEO learned something essential about the design of the emergency room by understanding the NASCAR pit. 

Something 3 (aka the virtue of small groups)

We know that the small is particularly beautiful in the corporation.  The team that created the iPod is tiny.  The team that created the Motorola Razr was tiny.  Small works well because it reduces the number of people who have to be party to (and sign off on) the act of creation.  The corporation often has really good ideas but these are murdered in committee, the victims of silos, turf wars and bureaucratic inertia. (I saw this very clearly when I worked in the museum world.  When you asked 3 people to create an exhibit they could astound you.  If you asked the museum "process" to do it, the results were stupefying.)

Small teams have a peculiar condition.  They demand that team members are capable of doubling up, assuming more than one function.  Silicon Valley learned an interesting lesson here in the last bubble.  The man who was the CEO for one start up returned to the CFO in the next.  The CMO would return as head of HR.  People were trading hats with each new iteration.  It turns out that new companies that had overlapping competencies of this kind worked faster and better. Everyone was better at solving every problem.  Small is not just beautiful.  It is brainier as well.  But only if this "many hats" condition is satisfied. 

All the "somethings" together, the case for multiplicity

The upshot of these "reflections" is the new importance that needs to be attached to multiplicity.  We need hires who bring multiple identities, in this case, extra-Google identities, with them when they enter the corporation.  (This helps supply the creativity on which innovation depends.) Second, we need hires who will be voraciously curious and appropriating once they take up residence in the corporation.  We need employees who will master their own positions and begin to "hoover up" the skill sets of the people with whom they work.  (This lets them do the double and treble duty on the small teams that innovation demands.) 

Oh, the things you can learn in a diner. 


Abate, Tom.  2006.  Comment to the post "Innovation and the University."  This Blog Sits At the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  December 26, 2006.  here.

My apologies, but I cannot find the WSJ reference for the Google story.  Mysterious. 

Thanks to  Agility Nut for the image of the Diner.  For more, to here.

6 thoughts on “Lunch at the City Limits

  1. tom abate

    Wow. That’s a mouthful and I have only a moment but if I read your post correctly then I agree that the goal is to make the entire company nimble, dynamic and proactive to its publics. Good idea but always tough to implement. The CEOs who do, like the wonderful gents, Hewlett and Packard, are revered for it.

  2. jens

    why do i like innovation?

    1. in the history of marketing/management-buzz after “brand” came “design” which quickly morphed into “innovation”. that is good. because it takes all potential misunderstanding out of the word design. it separates it from superficial styling and takes design where it belongs: INside the organization. INnovation.
    2. at the same time INnovation kills marketing. – driven by customers that are ever more resistant to advertising promises the arrival of “brand” was in large parts already a call for companies to not only bring their merchandise nicely wrapped to the market – but to show the true colours of the corporation at the same time. – many players of course – ill-advised by buzz-consultants – took “brand” as a veneer… – next came “design” . – and hurray! – the system could have been a lot more stupid: the design discussion was/is led in a much more sophisticated way than one would have ever hoped for. INnovation brings the discussion INside the organization – and kills the idiotic perspective of manipulative facade marketing. – a death that was long overdue.
    3. just as brand never really was a marketing job but much more an organizational challenge – design is even more – and “INnovation” can make that wonderfully clear. (at least to P&G… and even to anthropologists… so there is hope!)

    And then – talking of the dangers of burning meaning out of words: innovation also takes the heat of design a little bit. which is good – because design is very dear to our heart.

    see. it could all be much worse.

  3. ac

    Hello Grant,

    Have read your blog with great interest and amusement for a while now. I really enjoy how you come at things and where you go with them. Many thanks for the perceptive and challenging thoughts and observations, keep it up! Read your latest entry about your trip to stamford and the city limits, it brought a smile as I have been there and the facade is worth a picture though in my opinion the inside experience less so…. Anyway, interesting points about innovation, though I happen to think the argument rests more on the increasingly fragile complexity of all aspects of life around us. Whether it’s the unavoidably complex reality of backward compatible technology such as anything Microsoft, or communications standards meant to reduce complexity that actually end up simply adding another layer, to the reliance on gauging precise impact and return on what used to be viewed as relatively routine operations. Kind of explains some of the mind boggling success that Google has had with its simple search engine business plan … also feeds that Christensen mantra of disruptive anything/everything (fill in the blank). Enough for now. Thanks again for the perceptive insights!

  4. strangeknight

    “Innovation” as a business concept was dead from the beginning, imho, because it was really a combination of business case studies and how-to lists from HBR etc. Your new term “dynamism” is nice, but will be dead the moment HBS and McKinsey get their hands on it.

    Every case of innovation, imho, is unique and cannot be replicated with the stunning results case studies promise. The best you can hope for is to change your organisational structures to increase the likelihood that some sparks will fly. Unfortunately, changing the structure of the organisation is usually far from the minds of management.

Comments are closed.