Every executive committee member of a large bank, exchange or insurance company should read Kirk Wylie’s latest post to understand why their cultures are broken and why they so regularly find their organisations blithely running off the edge of a cliff, comfortable in the knowledge that, “well, hey at least we’re all doing it so it must be ok” and safe in the knowledge that their is a big taxpayer airbag (or trampoline?) at the bottom protecting them from any nasty consequences. Of course they are unlikely to – except in the unlikely event that it gets published in one of the traditional echo chamber publications like the FT or the WSJ.*
I’ll resist the temptation to copy/paste the whole post here but please go read it as this excerpt doesn’t give it justice:
Independent, entrepreneurial techies can actually make the biggest impact in the organizations that fight against them the most: they’re the ones that need them the most. Use them as agents for change, challenging assumptions, challenging entrenched attitudes, challenging technical group-think. Otherwise, your worst employees (the ones who can’t really get a better job elsewhere) win, and you as an organization fail.
Kirk is speaking of technologists, but the same thing applies across the organization. But big organizations kill entrepreneurship, actually it’s in their DNA. It’s not news, tall poppies and all that. As I was leaving 16 years of working – mostly happily – in big organizations I spent a lot of time thinking about why this was (and also why I hadn’t noticed it earlier in my career.) The answer to the second question was really because of luck. For 90% of my investment banking career I had the good fortune to be right in the heart of building three new and transformational markets: first the Ecu/Euro market, then the European credit markets and finally the move to ‘electronic’ capital markets. Throughout this part of my career, innovation, entrepreneuralism and independence actually helped me succeed because there was no pre-existing status quo to upset. This only became apparent to me in hindsight.
The answer to the first question is now obvious to me, but it wasn’t always so and really only revealed itself when I left and was able to step back and look at the machine from the outside. The expression ‘well-oiled’ machine says it all. This is the ultimate compliment used to describe a successfully managed organization. So where does non-linear innovation, disruption, questioning fit in a well-oiled machine? It doesn’t. In fact the more ‘well-oiled’ the machine, the less tolerant it is of exceptions. (Which also explains why I operated happily for so long at DrKW!) Switching metaphors, entrepreneurship is seen as a virus in these companies and they produce potent ‘corporate antibodies’ to seek out and subdue any such viral outbreak and they do everything (pace Kirk) to innoculate themselves against them in the first place.
But what is a CEO to do? The ‘well-oiled’ bit is equally important. I am sympathetic to this. (I mean if I was in charge I wouldn’t want too many of me’s running around, that would be chaos.) It’s not an easy question to answer and is made even harder (especially if you are running a public company) by the fact that the visible benefits of the entrepreneurial genes are only realized over time – I’d guess at least 4-5 years at a minimum and sometimes it might take as long as a full business cycle. And yet the average leadership tenure in these organizations is at best at the short end of that, and the compensation and stock market cycles are much shorter. I’ll be frank and say up front, I don’t have an answer but I’ve got a couple ideas I think are worth trying.
The first is to set – from the top – a deliberate human resource policy of seeking to “doping” the organization with a limited and controlled number of people like Kirk. (Doping is the process of adding controlled impurities to a material – for instance a semiconductor, or metallic alloy – to improve it’s useful properties.) This needs to be managed very deliberately, like a program – put a senior HR person in charge of this and manage it: these people will likely have a higher turnover, complain more often, get into trouble, want to change projects and/or departments and so need their own career track. I’m not sure what the correct ratio is, but I would guess it’s on the order of 1-2% of total staff, not necessarily evenly distributed throughout the company. (I knew my Materials Science degree would come in handy one day!)
The second is to create – and then protect institutionally, not personally – a specific department dedicated to exploring ‘white space’. When I say protect institutionally, I mean frame it like a trust so it cannot be undone or hacked by successive waves of management and is insulated from the quarter on quarter, year on year vagaries of the economy and/or the companies results. If you don’t do this, you will inevitably fall victim to the problems Azeem enumerates in his great post on why corporate venture capital (almost always) doesn’t work. Before all the serious, “pragmatic” people out there roll your eyes all at once (if indeed any such types would consider wasting time reading a blog) this doesn’t and shouldn’t need to be a big ask. Again probably on the order of 1-2% (even less for the biggest companies), of resources. The best example in practice I can think of is Xerox PARC, although the irony there is that Xerox didn’t really figure out how to plug PARC’s non-linear thinking and brilliant innovation back into the company (or at least not very well.) But perhaps that is not a bad thing (in proving my point) because I would posit that all other things being equal, Xerox’s share price has been higher (than it otherwise would have been) because they owned this asset. This cheap, deep out-of-the-money call option on the future. As far I as can tell, this is also what BT is trying to do with BT Design led by my friend JP and it is heartening to see that – at least so far – he is being allowed to continue to pursue this vision despite (and hopefully even because of?) the very poor results of the past couple years. I don’t know of any truly analogous initiatives in big finance.
And indeed that is (one of the reasons) we decided to set up Nauiokas Park. Clearly we’re not the whole solution, but we think we can play a key role for big financial institutions: a way to have (some of) their cake and eat it too: by entrusting a relatively small amount of financial capital to us, we think we can create just such a verdant ‘garden of innovation’, allowing them to harvest the fruits of some of the most dynamic entrepreneurs active in their industry, while protecting and nuturing them, away from the noxious antibodies of the corporate organism. Indeed, taking a page out of John Seely Brown, I guess you could describe our mission as seeking to create a vibrant knowledge ecology for finance and markets, and help our stakeholders profit from it:
There’s a fundamental change from finding ways to innovate inside a corporation to leveraging the knowledge ecologies of many little companies in places like Silicon Valley. You find that the shift turns much of the classical R&D into A&D – that is, acquisition and development. Larger companies can buy the research they need and instantly acquire a diverse portfolio of research groups.
I’ll be honest though, it’s not an easy sell. Even for the corporate leaders who ‘get it’ the reflex instinct is to think (sometimes aloud) “makes sense, but we can do that ourselves”. Well, you can’t prove a negative, but we’ve spent a long time inside these same big financial institutions, and our many years of experience led us to conclude that it is bloody hard to do (for all the reasons above and more.) On the bright side, being challenged makes you think harder and forces you to refine and adapt your ideas, ultimately making them better. Hearts and minds. Hearts and minds. Wish us luck.
* Just to be clear, I have nothing against the FT or the WSJ per se, I read them regularly (well WSJ not so much) and think they are solid publications. I’m not suggesting they aren’t important sources of information and opinion – you’d be stupid not to read them if you are in finance – just that, and this is the wonderful thing about the world in 2009 – I think you need to read much more widely and in particular embrace at least a diversity of viewpoints, if not views.
Related articles by Zemanta
- Why corporations must return to investing in venture capital (entrepreneur.venturebeat.com)
- Andreesen explains his move to venture capital (news.cnet.com)