April 15, 2012

Are you part of a stir-fry, marinade or just stewing?

Filed under: Business,Coaching,Futures — by xrematon @ 8:40 pm
Tags: , ,

Which competitive advantages have staying power? What skills matter most? How can you weigh up risk and opportunity when the fundamentals of your business may change overnight?

These questions appear in a recent Fast Company article about Generation Flux – ‘The Pioneers Of The New (And Chaotic) Frontier Of Business’. The piece includes snapshot of individuals who fit the this pioneer profile – people such as DJ Patil, 37 who has been all of the following: researcher at Los Alamos; Defense Department fellow; virtual librarian for Iraq; web-security architect for eBay; head of data team at LinkedIn, where his team created People You May Know.

The article then goes on to tell us:

Nuke Nostalgia. If ambiguity is high and adaptability is required, then you simply can’t afford to be sentimental about the past. Future-focus is a signature trait of Generation Flux. It is also an imperative for businesses: Trying to replicate what worked yesterday only leaves you vulnerable.

As someone who worked for the same company for ten years, I must confess I am feeling a little vulnerable. And I am not so keen on this emphasis on constant flitting between jobs – another way of describing this flexibility is to say that it provides only a shallow understanding of what a position requires. And what about the time it takes to build trust between teams?

Though it is undeniable the Pioneers in the article are very talented and high achieving, it is possible to find other models of success. They are based on people who have worked at the same company for years, slowly but surely working their way up to get to grips what the place where they work is really about. An obvious example is Terry Leahy, who joined Tesco in 1979 and spent 14 years as chief executive. In Jim Collins’ ‘Good to Great’, it is leaders who manifest personal humility and who understand their success is contingent on the many but minor accomplishments of others that build companies with the best financial performances.

To take a culinary metaphor, I am thinking of a marinade – a chance to soak up the culture and values of a place. The Pioneer model is more akin to stir-fry  – throwing different people and skills together to create something fresh and different. To be fair, there is a risk inherent in the ‘stuck it and stay’ approach – namely that the employee does not marinade but stews, becoming soggy and without ‘spark as a result.

There is a third way which takes something from both. It’s when people stay within the same company but change roles. It’s something that happened at Nike during Phil Knight’s reign as CEO – apparently he liked to shuffle people around, keeping them on their toes.

As Knight moved executives here and there, someone who was a boss one day could find himself a subordinate to his former charges the next. Rotating titles meant there might be half-a-dozen people in the company who had served in any one position, giving them license to critique the performance of the newcomer. In this setup employees learn quickly that the only way to get things done is to come up with ideas and build alliances. Brashly making demands won’t get you far.

And what of the freelancer – well – I think they are more like an ingredient which is added in and needs to work well in any corporate cuisine – versatility will be critical. Sorry – the first thing that comes to mind is Quorn, which as the website itself says, is ‘many things to many people’.

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