The Innovation Engine

'You Two Should Be Fired'


The response to our last article was fascinating and a bit unnerving.

The story, which discussed three types of people employers should fire now, was the most e-mailed on Businessweek.com for eight consecutive days, and has been in the Top 5 Most Read ever since our editor—whom some of you also thought should be fired—posted it two weeks ago. The piece received more than 1,100 comments (as of this writing) and readers have called and e-mailed us directly, tweeted constantly, and, we have been told, debated the column at industry conferences.

While hundreds of you supported what we consider the truthful simplicity of the ideas, the majority, as the above headline suggests, posted angry comments, on this site and elsewhere, noting the perceived untruthful simplicity of the ideas.

While no one likes criticism, of course, we are big boys and we don’t mind if people disagree with us on the merits or the timing of the article. But we’d like to explain a bit just the same.

First, an Apology

We can understand that we struck a nerve in part because we talked about firing people during a period of stubbornly high unemployment. Reader Tmwoodin said it was a “hateful article to print especially in this job market.” We sincerely apologize if we offended those suffering because of the economy or the missteps of others. We knew talking about pink slips during tough times might rankle folks a bit.

So why did we risk using the “F” word? Simply because we see so many companies reluctant to hire because their margins are being squeezed. We know that most successful new products produce higher margins. Higher margins produce jobs. This is good. People who hinder innovation by constantly acting like victims, refusing to believe the company can succeed, or resisting learning anything new, get in the way of the very breakthroughs that would create more jobs. This is bad. That’s why we suggested firing them.

And that brings us to the ultimate irony. When we talked about firing people, we were thinking about those higher on the org chart, not lower. We meant the boss and senior management team.

When a CEO signs on to hire our firm, she or he invariably asks, “Why would this innovation effort fail?”

Our answer is always the same: “If it fails, it will be because of the leaders you surround yourself with. If you have knowers, victims, or nonbelievers on your leadership team, you are doomed. This holds especially true when one of these labels describes the CEO.”

We thought we made this implicit in the article. Judging from the response, we didn’t. We should have made it clearer. As long as we’re talking about clarifications, let us underscore a few things that people heard that we did not say.

Things We Did Not Say

We did not say, as about 20 percent of the people who wrote in (Jseguban, Crypt0logic, and M51DX among them) believe, that companies should have only “yes men and yes women.” That is just silly. Innovation requires that you have people who know how to challenge the ways your company serves the needs of its customers. These people are curious and often skeptical. They feel comfortable asking “why” until it hurts. They don’t do it because they are nonbelievers. They challenge convention because they believe in their ability and the team’s ability to come up with ideas to change the world for the better. They are, as a famous Apple (AAPL) ad put it, “The Crazy Ones.”

And yes, of course, as Paganmegan, VN, and Irate-MBA, among others, wrote, the boss needs to understand specifically why people react negatively to an idea. There are almost always valid concerns about costs, timing, available resources, and the like. These very real issues should be challenged with the goal of creating differentiating solutions.

But if your first reaction, time after time after time, is to say, “Here’s why it can’t be done and why it won’t work,” as opposed to looking for and suggesting alternative ways to make an idea a success, then sorry, we don’t want you on our team. And from our experience, you shouldn’t want a person like this on your team either. Eeyore is a cute children’s character. He would make a lousy teammate.

What if your boss is a dumb, uh, donkey?

From our experience, we know that the best bosses create cultures where challenging, creating, and coaching are encouraged and modeled from the top down. To successfully build new things, we must all ask tough questions and demand better solutions. We must admit when we are stuck, and ask for help. We must question inaction and celebrate small failures and the people who share what they have learned. We must trust one another and press on.

The extreme opposites of creating, coaching, and challenging are acting as a victim, a persecutor, a rescuer. If your boss is creating this kind of dysfunction, we suggest you question your role in it.

Does that mean we (we are bosses, after all) think we have all the answers, as Rotary Dryer, Guest, and Seer Clearly said? Hardly. It means we are looking for people to help us learn, grow, and get better. We need people as committed as we are to failing forward and figuring things out.

Some Thank-Yous

After being compared to Hitler, we thought it was nice to read this from Robert, a student who discussed the article in class:

“This whole article isn’t about firing people who add to the workplace. Devil’s advocate, creative thinking, and expertise all add to the workplace. However, people [who] do nothing but add drama and no productive value … are counterproductive. Their position is better filled by someone who will add value.”

And as long as we are expressing gratitude, we want to thank the person who sent along this quote from Anatole Broyard: “To be misunderstood can be the writer’s punishment for having disturbed the reader’s peace. The greater the disturbance, the greater the possibility of misunderstanding.” It made us feel better.

A quick aside. Last week the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards took place at the New York Stock Exchange. As marchers were “occupying Wall Street” outside the building, inside 30 young adults from around the world were presenting their new businesses to a host of awestruck, smiling, and humbled seasoned entrepreneurs and business experts. The paradox between the two scenes was striking. These young competitors included winner Ludwig Marishane, who happily typed his 6,000-word business plan on a cell phone because he didn’t have access to a computer. Somehow, despite being a dreamer from South Africa, he managed to get his product idea in front of major corporations from around the world. When they bought it, we suspect they responded to his attitude and intelligence as much as to the quality of his concept.

One last thought. To all the people (JRG158, ThinkVision, Thosevikings1, and the rest) who suggested we be fired for putting what we truly believe in print: We all have bosses. But if we do get fired, it won’t be because we are victims, nonbelievers, or know-it-alls.

Again, let us offer sincere thanks for reading, and please keep those comments coming.

Next time: who to hire immediately.

Maddock_viton_new
Maddock is chief executive, and Vitón is president, of Maddock Douglas, an innovation consultancy that specializes in inventing and launching new products, services, and businesses. Maddock and Viton are the authors of Free the Idea Monkey (ISB Publishing, 2012), and Maddock is the author of Brand New: Solving the Innovation Paradox—How Great Brands Invent and Launch New Products, Services, and Business Models (Wiley, 2011).

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