insights & research

Maverick People Are Often Fired

A friend of ours recently sent in a link to an interview with Dr. Geoffrey West he thought we would find interesting. He was right, we did, and now we’re sharing it with you in the hopes that you find it interesting too!

What really struck us is not the findings of West and his colleagues that all companies will die – though it is interesting – but that research work that so greatly differed from ours in both the approach and goals– they seek to explore whether or not powerful research techniques and tools of physics can be applied to the biological and social sciences to attempt to answer the research question of whether cities and corporations extensions of biology and, if so, do they have life cycles similar to biological organisms – could come to such similar conclusions about the importance of creative cognitive diversity to organizational performance.

While we’re not going to get into the methodology West and his colleagues used, which can be found elsewhere, suffice it to say it is scientifically sound, and is based on an extensive sample of data on publicly traded companies gathered and analyzed over a number of years. Their research found solid quantifiable scalable evidence that companies, like biological organisms but unlike cities, eventually die. In the interview West attributes the death of companies to the absence of “crazy people” or “mavericks” in companies, those people with crazy new ideas that are the vital source of creative thinking that corporations need to survive.

This perspective offers support for our research showing that the people who prefer the generator stage activity (generators) are under-represented in industrial and business organizations and are more likely to be found in occupations normally found outside such organizations, for example, artists, writers, designers, and teachers. We have long stressed that organizations seeking increased creativity and innovation can improve their creative and innovative performance by understanding and recognizing the contributions made by generators, and by making generator activity more attractive for all members of the organization.

West proposes that the reason for the absence of “crazies”, based on their data, is that when companies hit the 50-100 employee level companies begin to become necessarily dominated by bureaucracy, by the administrative demands of effectively operating a complex organization. At this point he argues that the initial buzz of creative diversity of thought that characterized the culture begins to stop. 

From our experience, both practical and scientific, all organizations understand problem solving and implementing, but relatively few understand problem conceptualization, and even fewer, problem generation. An important reason why so many organizations struggle in creativity and innovation performance is that they undervalue the contribution of people who prefer generation work, as well as the special cognitive diversity they bring to the table. Generators prefer to start new things, discover new problems to be solved and new opportunities to be exploited, or deliberately seek out improvements to be made when everything seems to going along just fine. They are often perceived to be somewhat unfocussed or even disruptive, as their behavior reflects more of an orientation to generating a new problem  and less of an orientation to understanding or defining or constructing or conceptualizing an existing problem, or solving it, or implementing a solution to it. They become bored with work which requires applying routine procedures to increase efficiency or to execute already defined assignments, which is what bureaucracy-dominated corporate cultures typically demand.

Looking beyond the similarities between West’s research and our own, in the interview West cites a few different examples of corporations where you “don’t see crazy people”, including General Motors. Bob Lutz, retired Vice Chairman of GM, would likely argue this characterization of the current GM, but he would almost certainly agree that it fits the management culture at GM that has been fingered as the major reason for the company’s downfall. Lutz’s book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters, details his battles with executives who focus solely on budgets and spreadsheets instead of focusing on the product and on consumers. In a 2007 Economist article Lutz was asked what he would like to be remembered for at GM, he said: ““I'd like them to say I was the person who re-focused the company on uncompromising product excellence, as opposed to the attitude that asked how much do we have to do to be competitive.”

The last point we’d like to make is that Geoffrey West is likely a strong Generator himself, based on his research career. What other cognitive style fits this narrative? “I spent most of my career doing high-energy physics, Quarks, dark matter, string theory and so on. Between ten and fifteen years ago I started to get interested in the question of whether you can take some of the powerful techniques, ideas, and paradigms developed in physics over into the biological and social sciences.”  West states that some of this research has been very successful, and a prime example of this is his team’s application of fractal geometry to the study of the carbon dioxide absorption capacity of rain forests that has been featured in a favorite BAC television program, NOVA, episode Fractals: Hunting the Hidden Dimension, which will be airing again on August 31st, 2011.

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