Monday, August 9, 2010

The Smarter Company

When discussing the most innovative and successful companies over the last decade, people will most likely mention names like Apple, Facebook, Google, or RIM.  These companies are known for utilizing innovation in products, processes, services, and technology to give them a distinct advantage over their competitors.

But how do these companies maintain their edge?  Are the people who work at Apple or Google really any smarter than those who work at other organizations?  It's no secret that these companies have their pick when it comes to recruiting, but is that what keeps them more innovative and profitable than other companies around the world?  In my opinion, yes . . . and no.

It Takes More Than Talent

I will never downplay the importance the talents of people to a company's success.  Companies like Google and RIM are staffed with very smart and talented people which has undoubtedly helped them to introduce highly successful products year after year.  But without the leadership, culture, and systems that encourage and support innovation, there would be no way to consistently turn the ideas of these people into commercially viable products.

I have worked with a number of companies throughout my career and met many highly talented people who, for a variety of reasons, were unable to utilize their talents effectively.  In contrast to companies like Apple, the cultures and systems in many of the companies for which these people worked interfered with their ability to use their creativity.  The really sad part of the story is, the longer this went on, the less the people were willing and able to be innovative.  It's as if the ability to innovate atrophies when not used or developed over time.

It's the Company that's Smarter

The difference between the average company and a company like Apple, for instance, is that the leaders at Apple understand that innovation is a key to their success and they've created an environment that encourages creativity.  They have remained focused on creating a culture that fosters the use and continual development of team member creativity, and aligned systems to quickly turn their ideas into products.  In my opinion, this makes Apple a smarter company than most.

It is strange to think that a company would hire someone because of their talents and allow barriers to exist that prevent the person from utilizing these talents, but it happens fairly often.  It's not intentional, but for a variety of reasons, the environment in many companies encourages behaviors that interferes with success.  Mismatches in purpose, strategies, and values lead to confusion, frustration, and de-motivation of employees, interfering with sustained levels of success for the company.

Becoming Smarter

So how do leaders make their companies smarter?  How do they create the type of environment that enables people to utilize and develop their talents in a way that leads to success?  It obviously depends on a company's particular circumstances, but involves addressing one or more of the following areas:
  • Purpose:  Be clear and consistent on the company's fundamental purpose.  Why it exists, what need it fulfills for its customers, and why it is different than other companies that serve the same markets;
  • Strategies:  Determine, clearly communicate, and implement the best way for the company to compete in order to be successful (i.e., achieve its purpose).  Will it compete on the basis of innovative products and services?  Low costs?  High quality?  Assure that the company's culture and systems are aligned with the chosen strategies;
  • Values:  Identify the company's personality.  Be very clear on the DNA of the type of employee who will make the company successful in the achievement of its purpose;
  • Hiring:  Take time to hire the right people with heavy emphasis on a person's fit within the organization's culture.  Make sure that, once hired, they are able to utilize their talents effectively;
  • Train/Develop People:  Continually develop the collective skills of the company's team in support of its business strategies;
  • Foster Teamwork:  Identify and remove the barriers to teamwork on a continual basis in order to get the organization acting as one and focusing on common objectives;
  • Value & Respect People:  Assure that people feel respected and valued for their contributions to the company's success.  Create systems and develop leaders that will encourage participation in the achievement of objectives:
  • Continually Refine Environment:  Develop and refine the company's culture to assure it is aligned with business strategies.  Assure that the environment encourages, rather than hinders, implementation of the strategies.
I don't believe that a company needs to be innovative in order to succeed.  It is much more important for a company's offering to be "right" than "fast."  With that said, however, the faster a company can offer a new product or service that is right, the more successful it will be.  Determining the strategies and assuring that all internal systems and values support the implementation of the strategies will make the company smarter.

So to answer to the question:  I don't believe that the people at Apple or Facebook are any smarter than those at other companies, but I do believe that Apple and Facebook are smarter than other companies.

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