Friday, September 26, 2008

The Aims of Education and the Aims of Industry

Every year, to begin the academic calendar, the University of Chicago invites new students to attend the Aims of Education address. A well-loved, accomplished faculty member is invited to give a talk, and is given no guidance on its content or themes. He or she is only told: We are inviting you to talk about the aims of education.

The talk takes its name from a speech (and later an essay) by Alfred North Whitehead. Why should we bring it up here? In fact, wiser heads - those with more practical opinions - might wave us off the topic. We are often told, mostly by the consultants who help manage our marketing and advise us on our "branding", that the University of Chicago is viewed as being too cerebral, overly theoretical. Dragging a British mathematician and philospher into our discussion of a reading about how Pixar manages talent can't possibly help change this belief.

But give us a few minutes. This is all about managing talent, and we will map out the connections.

One of Whitehead's more provocative claims in his address, originally given in 1916 to a roomful of fellow mathematicians, was this:

In the history of education, the most striking phenomenon is that schools of learning, which at one epoch are alive with a ferment of genius, in a succeeding generation exhibit merely pedantry and routine. The reason is, that they are overladen with inert ideas. Education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful.
To set this in a context, 1916 was in the middle of the First World War, a period in world history viewed by many as the moment when old ideas (about political life, social class, and the organization of the economy) where discarded and new approaches became accepted. One new realization that remains with us: after the War, and throughout the twentieth-century, we became more aware of the inevitability and persistence of change. We live in flux, and all of our activities, including business, need to be engineered so new ideas, new opportunities, and new technologies can take root.
It is clear, as we begin the twenty-first-century, that we can't afford to forget this lesson. Workplaces that are overly routinized or "inert", to use Whitehead's word, will in time become dreary, stagnant places. What is true about schools, is true about workplaces: to succeed they need to keep alive "the ferment of genius."
The brilliance - and success - of Pixar's management culture is that they recognize that genius is a product of organizational design. You need smart, talented people, but you also need to create processes - in Pixar's case, their incubation teams - where good ideas can be improved on, and benefit from the insights other talented people can provide. You also need an organizational culture that stresses trust and respect and mutual responsibility. Where employees can't trust one another, no one takes risks, and everyone falls back on routines and conventional practices. A workplace like that can't "ferment genius" and can't consistently promote creativity.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The one meaningful failure: failure to work well with others

Digging deeper into the reading we began discussing in our last entry, Ed Catmull's account of building an environment to foster creativity at Pixar, we were inspired to ask some questions not taken on in the very useful essay. To start with: in a workplace where bad ideas and missteps are brushed aside, rather than a cause for punishment, what is the defintition of failure? And when would someone be terminated?

Reading between the lines, it seems clear that the one unforgiveable failure at Pixar is the inability to work with others. Whether it is because someone is slow to learn the workplace's culture, or she lacks the necessary social intelligence to participate in the give and take that characterizes a collaborative workplace, someone who continues to throw blame, or ridicule others' ideas, or seeks to claim credit for a co-worker's effort will upset a workplace that depends on trust, respect and reciprocity. Careful recruiting and attentive mentoring should limit the number of ill-fitting employees. But if someone gets through the net, and takes up residence within the firm, and fails to learn the culture and live up to expected norms, it seems clear an employee who lacks the talent to work with others, even if she is remarkably talented in many other respects, will be let go.

But Pixar, like other organizations, also needs its people to produce. So, for those who consistently fail to meet production deadlines, for example, the firm needs to take appropriate steps to limit damage to the company's work processes, reputation, and bottom line. So for those readers who are wondering if the type of workplace Catmull is describing is utopian, be comforted - a collaborative, trust-rich workplace is more forgiving, but it isn't blind to persistent failure.

It's the talent, stupid

Since we seem to have a handle on something, let's introduce a new reading, which will be shared at tonight's Smarter, Better Workplaces information session at the Gleacher Center. Ed Catmull is one of the founders of Pixar Studios and serves as the studio's President. His recent article in The Harvard Business Review, "How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity", provides superb illustrations (pun intended) of how some of the things we have been talking about can be implemented. It weaves together our concerns about talent and the value of trust, respect, and reciprocity as social goods crucial to workplace success, while introducing something new to our conversation: the idea that creativity is the product of successful collaboration, not individual sweat and genius. Smart, talented people produce original, breakthrough ideas, but those ideas need to be refined and realized through collective effort. This is a fact too often ignored as we celebrate "great leaders" and "innovators." Consumers don't buy ideas, they buy products, or tickets to films, or sign up for new services, and the effort required to transform an idea into any of these marketplace-ready offerings requires the contribution of many, many people.

The trick, Catmull argues, is finding ways for talented people to work together, confident that they won't be pushed aside, or denied acknowledgement, or blamed if their contribution fails to solve a crucial problem, or produces unanticipated difficulties. This requires, as we have been proclaiming over the last several weeks, the engineering of a particular type of workplace, one where frequent interaction, across extended networks, produces social capital, that is, trust and respect and familiarity and expectations of reciprocity.

In too many workplaces, getting on the agenda - having an opportunity to have one's ideas reviewed by senior management - is a full-contact, competitive sport. In Pixar, the entire organization works to generate and incubate and improve ideas. Instead of elbowing past others, Pixar employees are encouraged to build on ideas offered by colleagues, not tear them apart. When bad ideas are offered up, the creative group sifts through other contributions looking for good ones. They don't waste time castigating the contributor who stumbled, because that weakens his confidence and his trust in the creative process, undermining his ability to collaborate further.

This belief - that creativity is a product of collaboration, not individual genius - doesn't suggest that employers shouldn't look for talent. Talented people generate good ideas. But an employer who recruits talented people, but inserts them into a workplace where competition encourages workers to keep promising but imperfectly fleshed-out ideas a secret for fear they will be stolen or ridiculed, won't succeed in producing many blockbusters.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Mentors and networks

Picking up our discussion of the article by Peter Cappelli, "Talent Management for the Twenty-First Century," let's return to a topic introduced in the last entry. The last comment focused on the need to bring social capital concerns to our efforts at updating our approaches to human capital management. Our criticism of Cappelli's helpful article was that it didn't focus enough on ways to help advance the acculturation of new employees. If the new model is "talent on demand" as Cappelli phrases it, then the parallel requirement is to get the most out of these new employees quickly. Under old approaches to talent development, firms would hire more young talent than they needed, run the new employees through training, and then park them on the bench until needed. This is costly, because you are paying employees who are not yet contributing, and a mistake, because talent your firm has recruited and trained become frustrated as they sit on the bench, and they walk out the door and are grabbed up by competitors.

We don't have an argument with Cappelli's central concern - it does make sense to bring in talent when you need it - but it seemed that he hadn't thought enough about ways to get that talent involved in company affairs right away and help it make meaningful contributions as soon as possible. We saw a helpful contribution to the discussion in the work of Robert Putnam, who argues that systems work better when individuals have expectations that they can trust their colleagues and any cooperative gesture will be reciprocated. If the extisting employees within a firm have developed habits of trust and cooperation and reciprocity, they will reach out to new employees with openness and trust and share intuitive knowledge about the firm, its processes, and expectations; will share their on-the-ground knowledge about procedural and organizational shortcuts; and will, in general, help make the new worker more comfortable and more effective.

Taking our conversation one step farther, another complaint about the Cappelli article might be that it is mainly about how organizations should bring new talent on board, and it says very little about how to keep and develop talent. One very helpful article, which could assist us in opening up the conversation in this direction, is an essay by Monica Higgins and David A. Thomas, "Constellations and Careers: Toward Understanding the Effects of Mutiple Developmental Relationships." Higgins and Thomas, in a very carefully mapped out research study, discover that efforts to match new hires with senior mentors within a firm are useful, because it helps improve employee satisfaction. Mentored employees feel, among other things, that they have more visibility within the organization, and they have a better chance to get on the agenda. However, Higgins and Thomas discover, if the goal is to improve the new hire's career outcomes - encourage retention, promote advancement, and amplify the employee's contribution to the organization's overall objectives - then it is important for the new employee to be part of a much broader network of mentors and peers. When inserted into this type of network, employees feel more fully supported, they feel more integrated into the work of the firm, and they acquire more information about the firm and its processes and procedures.

This seems, to us, to be yet another argument for incorporating social capital analysis into your organizational development plans. Not only does social capital help make new workers more effective more quickly, the networks that facilitate social capital development also help make employees feel more fully supported and at home over the long span of their employment within a firm.