Harnessing Genius

Sept. 17, 2012
These three tenets can help your company capitalize on its workforce, improve competitiveness and foster innovation and teamwork.

There’s a good chance you got stuck behind a school bus this morning on the drive into work. Apparently the school bus population explodes out of nowhere around the start of September, like some big-bang of backpack lugging children, then gradually falls away like the deciduous leaves of Autumn. So, while you were crawling to work in 20-foot increments, admiring the flashing amber lights, did you wonder at the potential of the youngsters sequestered in the giant, yellow road-snail? Row after row of screaming hooligans eager students who could grow up to be the next Steve Jobs, Mark Zukerberg or Jill Abramson.

Similarly, when you got to the office did you scan the cubicle landscape, wondering at the immense potential of your staff? Desk after desk manned by plodding workers eager employees who could lift your profits past the looming, year-end targets and develop innovations that will set the stage for next year’s success. If the aura of overwhelming competence didn’t hit you when you crossed the office threshold, then stop reading and take another look.

Walter Wriston, CEO of Citicorp from 1967 to 1984, contended, “The person who figures out how to harness the collective genius of his or her organization is going to blow the competition away.” A nice idea, but can you weave the magic harness for your organization? To succeed you’ll have to flip some entrenched corporate norms on their head. For instance:

Focus on Outputs, not Inputs – Amazon.com sets hundreds of goals for itself each year, a large portion of which it has no clear idea of how to achieve. This is only possible in an organization which keeps its eye firmly focused on the output – achieving the goal – rather than on the individual steps, tasks and costs that weigh down most companies’ progress. Rather than doggedly tracking your employees’ productivity, calls made, widgets produced or similar inputs, drag your gaze over to the outputs and empower your employees to use their smarts and ingenuity to hit the target. Similarly, when it comes to hiring temporary genius (a.k.a. consultants), focus on the expected value of the output, and the ROI, rather than the daily fees, the number of hours and the list of tasks. Issuing detailed RFPs for consulting work is a sure sign you are focused on inputs rather than outputs.

Give up Tried-and-True Approaches – Blockbuster Video built itself into a 60,000-employee powerhouse over a quarter of a century by customizing each store’s inventory using sophisticated database and warehousing techniques. By 2009, in the face of customers deserting them in droves to rent The Dark Knight though the mail, online and at kiosks, they clung so fiercely to their proven retail strategy that they tendered an offer to purchase Circuit City, another bankrupt retailer. As Marshall Goldsmith writes, “What got you here, won’t get you there.” Genius bursts forth as new ways of doing things. To tap into the ingenuity you need, look past the obvious names on your corporate roster and seek out the unknown and unconventional. It’s often found at the fringes of the organization and, on the outside, in tiny consulting companies with breakthrough ideas.

Eschew Internal Competition– In his monthly newsletter, Stephen Balzac recounts the downfall of Atari: “When the new CEO of Atari attempted to turn the company’s collaborative, team based culture into a highly individual, competitive environment, he destroyed exactly the elements that had made Atari great. The company never recovered.” Competition between individuals, departments and divisions are anathema to harnessing genius. Misaligned goals inside a company divert energy like a squirrel gnawing at a power line, with similar results. All the intellectual firepower in the world won’t do you much good when it’s used to launch mortar rounds across the hall rather than at the competition. Similarly, when calling upon consultants and other outside advisors to lend their genius to the mix, you will enjoy exponentially higher results if they are integrated into your workforce than if they are seen as the enemy.

There’s intellectual gold all around you, and only some old habits stand between you and blowing the competition away. Give that some thought as you commute home this evening, thankful that after-school buses have already deposited their energetic cargo of budding geniuses.

David A. Fields,managing director of Ascendant Consortium, helps companies find, hire and get great results from outside experts. His book, The Executive’s Guide to Consultants (McGraw Hill, 2012) can be preordered at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Contact him by e-mail at [email protected].

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