Rob over at BusinessPundit had a great post about IDEO the other day... he asks:
Is that really revolutionary? It sounds like the things a good business should be doing on a regular basis. When are b-schools going to stop churning out cookie cutter middle managers and start teaching students to be creative and customer focused?
What a great question Rob! Thank you for asking!
Here's my answer, or what I call: How Alfred Sloan Chose Your Career and Is Costing Your Company Millions.
Alfred Sloan - the successor to GM founder William Durant - was the guy who created decentralized divisions and departmentalized functions, improving on the mass production in the automobile industry that Ford introduced.... and subsequently dictated modern business as it exists today.
From the Division of Labor that Smith dictated years ago we now have corporate hierarchies and departments.
In other words: The birth of modern business, the death of customer relationships.
Of course this is nothing new, it's been written about hundreds of times. For instance, this was the central theme of the book Reengineering.
But think about it from another standpoint, not just from division of labor, or an organizational structure standpoint, think about it from a career perspective.
What you do, what most people do, is based on the fact that some guy figured he could grow his company by creating a hierarchical, departmentalized structure... (How Alfred Sloan Chose Your Career). Educational Institutions feed this by having someone major in a certain subject, and b-schools, from what I understand, are supposed to give people a taste of all of them, with a focus on management.
In other words: The rise of specialists, the death of problem solving generalists.
And we all happily follow this neat and tidy little way of doing business. Marketers Market. Accountants Count. And so on.
Taking this one step further, you get managers at various levels who (for whatever, but seemingly obvious reasons) determine that their department is vital and needs more money, more staff, more, more, more. And the organization grows and spends, and grows and spends. And they add more people who are feeding this further and growing for the sake of growing. We spend money on marketing studies, more advertisements, new software, new computers, better processes, benchmarking studies, strategy groups, focus groups, ad infinitum (How Alfred Sloan Is Costing Your Company Millions).
The inmates are running the asylum? Sort of. How about... the inmates get access to the wardens checkbook.
Then we wonder in amazement when we read about a company that teaches a bunch of 7-figure-salaried health-care executives that they're in the compassion business. Yikes! (credit to Mark Brady for that line, he said nearly that exact thing during a phone conversation).
NO... Staple yourself to a customer.
A great example of this is from the book It's Not the Big That Eat the Small...It's the Fast That Eat the Slow:
"After ASEA made a successful play for Swiss giant Brown Boveri, CEO Percy Barnevik promptly sent a message to thousands of the bureaucrats who worked at the head office in Zurich:
In the future, Barnevik is reputed to have said, the company won't be run like a government and administered from a central home office. Everyone at the head office has ninety days to find a real job within the company that has something do with touching a customer."
The authors (Jason Jennings & Laurence Haughton) go on to describe the tremendous accomplishments of the company since that statement (and imply that not everyone took it seriously - and were subsequently out of work).
That is fantastic. Huh?
Anyway, back to the point, we don't value generalists anymore; it's easier to hire some to put the round things in the round holes and someone else to put the square things in the square holes. Even if they don't add value all the time, it's nice to know we have them around if we need them. So we keep them busy with endless meetings and so on.
I kind of like the idea of everyone working in the "chip in and do whatever it takes to make customers happy department". Of course that's too long to fit on a business card, huh? How about, umm, The Customer Focus Department. Equal footing, everyone.
Punch in, check your ego, and pick up your assignment.
Yikes - would that fly in any company you've ever worked at that had more than 10 people?
BTW: I'm not taking a stab at IDEO here, nothing could be further from the truth, they seem like a great company. I'm just suggesting that we are all in the people business and those who forget that simple fact are doomed to spend tons of money on consultants to remind them.
I'll end with a cool story:
An architect once designed a cluster of buildings. When asked by the landscape crew where to pave the sidewalks, he told them to plant grass between all the buildings, wait a year, then, after the occupants had worn the most useful paths, the architect told the landscape crew to pave the pathways that the occupants had created.
That is all that places like IDEO do: they look for the pathways that users create, both physical and emotional.