I have found myself in discussions about designing the organization of the future - one deeply rooted in a culture of innovation. The longer the conversation goes on, the more uncomfortable and restive the organizational leaders get. Finally, one says, "This all sounds [interesting, wonderful, or impossible]. Show me where it is being done it in the real world."
One place where it is being done - and has been for over 50 years - is W. L. Gore & Associates, the manufacturer of Gore-Tex and over a thousand other products from guitar strings to industrial sealants and vascular grafts used in heart surgery.
Bill Gore started the company in 1958. He quit DuPont to start a business aimed at imagining and commercializing new uses for polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)-the material used in Gore-Tex. But he wasn't only interested in inventing new materials or selling products, he wanted to create an entirely new kind of company that unleashed and inspired every person in it, and put as much energy into finding the next big thing as bleeding the last big thing, one that was strongly profitable and uniquely human.
The questions that drove Gore in the beginning are crucial questions leaders everywhere must face today:
Is it possible to build a company with no hierarchy - where everyone is free to talk with everyone else?
Can there be a successful company where there are no bosses, no supervisors, no managers and no vice presidents?
Can a company preserve a sense of family and collegiality even as it scales up?
Can there be a successful company with no "core" business, one that is as focused on creating the future as on preserving the past?
Gore found ways answer "yes" to each of those questions. And W. L. Gore & Associates became a model for both organizational and product innovation (not to mention a remarkable business success).
Gore's organizational model remains a critical part of its success as the company builds on entrepreneurial innovation. It has evolved through ongoing and often dramatic external changes-globalization, IT breakthroughs, heightened competition, and economic ups and downs, among others-and the company's organic growth.
Because the goal was "maximizing innovation" rather than "maximizing profits," the company was organized very differently, in ways that would make traditional leaders shudder:
Gore has been included in every one of Fortune's "100 best companies to work for."
Here's what the company says about its culture on its website:
We work hard at maximizing individual potential, maintaining an emphasis on product integrity, and cultivating an environment where creativity can flourish. A fundamental belief in our people and their abilities continues to be the key to our success.
How does all this happen? Associates (not employees) are hired for general work areas. With the guidance of their sponsors (not bosses) and a growing understanding of opportunities and team objectives, associates commit to projects that match their skills. All of this takes place in an environment that combines freedom with cooperation and autonomy with synergy.
Everyone can earn the credibility to define and drive projects. Sponsors help associates chart a course in the organization that will offer personal fulfillment while maximizing their contribution to the enterprise. Leaders may be appointed, but are defined by 'followership.' More often, leaders emerge naturally by demonstrating special knowledge, skill, or experience that advances a business objective.
Associates adhere to four basic guiding principles articulated by Bill Gore:
Gore's philosophy is that individuals don't need close supervision; what they need is mentoring and support. Each new associate is assigned a sponsor to decode the jargon, demystify the lattice, and circulate him or her among several teams, helping find a good fit between his or her skills and the needs of a particular team. A sponsor makes a personal commitment to an associate's development and success. As the organization has grown, teams of sponsors have begun to meet annually, to take a broader look at the possibilities for the associates under their guidance. Associates are free to seek out a new sponsor if they wish.
Gore also believes that leadership has to be earned. It embraces what it calls "natural leadership." Leaders at Gore gains influence by developing a track record for getting things done, and excelling at team building. They have to be talent magnets. As one associate explained "We vote with our feet. If you call a meeting and no one shows up, you're probably not a leader because no one is willing to follow you." Once in a leadership role, that person's job is to strengthen and make his or her team and colleagues successful. Because Gore associates are involved with multiple teams, they may a leader on one and a regular member on another.
Thousands of executives have visited Gore over the years, but there's not much talk about the company, and very little emulation. Lattice management distributes the power; command and control does not exist in an organization that is is about as flat as it gets.
What would an organization have to do to transform in the direction that Gore has taken?
1. Rethink the fundamental reason for the organization. At Gore the fundamental reason is innovation. If the fundamental reason is profit over innovation, the Gore model will not be a good fit.
2. Shift power away from the top. Very few people in power want to change management when it means giving up power, and those who believe it's worth giving up the power don't believe that anyone else is willing to do it.
3. Be adequately committed. A superficial or half-way commitment is not strong enough to fuel an organizational shift this deep. People will detect ambivalence and hypocrisy and will not enlist.
4. Cast off. Many organizational changes are implemented full speed ahead without untying from the dock or raising anchor. This leads to much wasted energy, frustration, possible exhaustion, and virtually no head way or progress. An organization needs to release the bonds to the old ways as it shifts.
5. Make sure the shift has integrity. An organization does not have to emulate everything Gore does, not should it. But the combined components of the shift have to come together as a complete, working system. As most organizations will chose to do no more than they have to do, the shift needs to be viewed as a whole system with the recognition that carving it up into smaller parts will not work. See 3 and 4.
Complexity and 10 Traits of Creativity
Of all human activities, creativity comes closest to providing the fulfillment we all hope to get in our lives. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it full-blast living.
Creativity is a central source of meaning in our lives. Most of the things that are interesting, important, and human are the result of creativity. What makes us different from apes-our language, values, artistic expression, scientific understanding, and technology-is the result of individual ingenuity that was recognized, rewarded, and transmitted through learning.
When we're creative, we feel we are living more fully than during the rest of life. The excitement of the artist at the easel or the scientist in the lab comes close to the ideal fulfillment we all hope to get from life, and so rarely do. Perhaps only sex, sports, music, and religious ecstasy-even when these experiences remain fleeting and leave no trace-provide a profound sense of being part of an entity greater than ourselves. But creativity also leaves an outcome that adds to the richness and complexity of the future.
Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, devoted 30 years of research to how creative people live and work, to make more understandable the mysterious process by which they come up with new ideas and new things. Creative individuals are remarkable for their ability to adapt to almost any situation and to make do with whatever is at hand to reach their goals.
If there is one world to express what makes their personalities different from others, it's complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an "individual," each of them is a "multitude."
Here are the 10 antithetical traits often present in creative people that are integrated with each other in a dialectical tension.
1. Creative people have a great deal of physical energy, but they're also often quiet and at rest. They work long hours, with great concentration, while projecting an aura of freshness and enthusiasm. This suggests a superior physical endowment, a genetic advantage. Yet it is surprising how often individuals who in their seventies and eighties exude energy and health remember childhoods plagued by illness. It seems that their energy is internally generated, due more to their focused minds than to the superiority of their genes.
This does not mean that creative people are hyperactive, always "on." In fact, they rest often and sleep a lot. The important thing is that they control their energy; it's not ruled by the calendar, the dock, an external schedule. When necessary, they can focus it like a laser beam; when not, creative types immediately recharge their batteries. They consider the rhythm of activity followed by idleness or reflection very important for the success of their work. This is not a bio-rhythm inherited with their genes; it was learned by trial and error as a strategy for achieving their goals.
2. Creative people tend to be smart yet naive at the same time. How smart they actually are is open to question. It is probably true that general intelligence is high among people who make important creative contributions.
Howard Gardner remarked in his study of the major creative geniuses of this century, a certain immaturity, both emotional and mental, can go hand in hand with deepest insights. Mozart is a familiar example of this combination.
People who bring about something new seem able to use well two opposite ways of thinking: the convergent and the divergent. Convergent thinking is measured by IQ tests, and it involves solving well-defined, rational problems that have one correct answer. Divergent thinking leads to no agreed-upon solution. It involves fluency, or the ability to generate a great quantity of ideas; flexibility, or the ability to switch from one perspective to another; and originality in picking unusual associations of ideas.
Yet there remains the nagging suspicion that at the highest levels of creative achievement the generation of novelty is not the main issue. People often claimed to have had only two or three good ideas in their entire career, but each idea was so generative that it kept them busy for a lifetime of testing, filling out, elaborating, and applying.
Divergent thinking is not much use without the ability to tell a good idea from a bad one, and this selectivity involves convergent thinking.
3. Creative people combine playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility. There is no question that a playful attitude is typical of creative individuals. But this playfulness doesn't go very far without its opposite, a quality of doggedness, endurance, perseverance.
Nina Holton, whose playfully wild germs of ideas are the genesis of her sculpture, is very firm about the importance of hard work: "Tell anybody you're a sculptor and they'll say, 'Oh, how exciting, how wonderful.' And I tend to say, 'What's so wonderful?' It's like being a mason, or a carpenter, half the time. But they don't wish to hear that because they really only imagine the first part, the exciting part. But, as Khrushchev once said, that doesn't fry pancakes, you see. That germ of an idea does not make a sculpture which stands up. It just sits there. So the next stage is the hard work. Can you really translate it into a piece of sculpture?"
Despite the carefree air that many creative people affect, most work late into the night and persist when less driven individuals would not.
4. Creative people alternate between imagination and fantasy, and a rooted sense of reality. Great art and great science involve a leap of imagination into a world that is different from the present. The rest of society often views these new ideas as fantasies without relevance to current reality. And they are right. But the whole point of art and science is to go beyond what we now consider real and create a new reality. At the same time, this "escape" is not into a never-never land. What makes a novel idea creative is that once we see it, sooner or later we recognize that, strange as it is, it is true.
Most of us assume that artists-musicians, writers, poets, painters-are strong on the fantasy side, whereas scientists, politicians, and businesspeople are realists. This may be true in terms of day-to-day routine activities. But when a person begins to work creatively, all bets are off.
5. Creative people trend to be both extroverted and introverted. We're usually one or the other, either preferring to be in the thick of crowds or sitting on the sidelines and observing the passing show. In fact, in current psychological research, extroversion and introversion are considered the most stable personality traits that differentiate people from each other and that can be reliably measured. Creative individuals, on the other hand, seem to exhibit both traits simultaneously.
6. Creative people are humble and proud at the same time. It is remarkable to meet a famous person who you expect to be arrogant or supercilious, only to encounter self-deprecation and shyness instead. Yet there are good reasons why this should be so. These individuals are well aware that they stand, in Newton's words, "on the shoulders of giants." Their respect for the area in which they work makes them aware of the long line of previous contributions to it, putting their own in perspective. They're also aware of the role that luck played in their own achievements. And they're usually so focused on future projects and current challenges that past accomplishments, no matter how outstanding, are no longer very interesting to them. At the same time, they know that in comparison with others, they have accomplished a great deal. And this knowledge provides a sense of security, even pride.
7. Creative people, to an extent, escape rigid gender role stereotyping. When tests of masculinity/femininity are given to young people, over and over one finds that creative and talented girls are more dominant and tough than other girls, and creative boys are more sensitive and less aggressive than their male peers.
Psychological androgyny is a concept referring to a person's ability to be at the same time aggressive and nurturing, sensitive and rigid, dominant and submissive, regardless of gender. A psychologically androgynous person in effect doubles his or her repertoire of responses. Creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other one, too.
8. Creative people are both rebellious and conservative. It is impossible to be creative without having first internalized an area of culture. So it's difficult to see how a person can be creative without being both traditional and conservative and at the same time rebellious and iconoclastic. Being only traditional leaves an area unchanged; constantly taking chances without regard to what has been valued in the past rarely leads to novelty that is accepted as an improvement. The artist Eva Zeisel, who says that the folk tradition in which she works is "her home," nevertheless produces ceramics that were recognized by the Museum of Modern Art as masterpieces of contemporary design. This is what she says about innovation for its own sake:
"This idea to create something is not my aim. To be different is a negative motive, and no creative thought or created thing grows out of a negative impulse. A negative impulse is always frustrating. And to be different means 'not like this' and 'not like that.' No negative impulse can work, can produce any happy creation. Only a positive one."
But the willingness to take risks, to break with the safety of tradition, is also necessary. The economist George Stigler is very emphatic in this regard: "I'd say one of the most common failures of able people is a lack of nerve. They'll play safe games. In innovation, you have to play a less safe game, if it's going to be interesting. It's not predictable that it'll go well."
9. Most creative people are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well. Without the passion, we soon lose interest in a difficult task. Yet without being objective about it, our work is not very good and lacks credibility. Here is how the historian Natalie Davis puts it:
"I think it is very important to find a way to be detached from what you write, so that you can't be so identified with your work that you can't accept criticism and response, and that is the danger of having as much affect as I do. But I am aware of that and of when I think it is particularly important to detach oneself from the work, and that is something where age really does help."
10. Creative people's openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment. Most would agree with Rabinow's words: "Inventors have a low threshold of pain. Things bother them." A badly designed machine causes pain to an inventive engineer, just as the creative writer is hurt when reading bad prose.
Being alone at the forefront of a discipline also leaves you exposed and vulnerable. Eminence invites criticism and often vicious attacks. When an artist has invested years in making a sculpture, or a scientist in developing a theory, it is devastating if nobody cares.
Deep interest and involvement in obscure subjects often goes unrewarded, or even brings on ridicule. Divergent thinking is often perceived as deviant by the majority, and so the creative person may feel isolated and misunderstood.
Perhaps the most difficult thing for creative individuals to bear is the sense of loss and emptiness they experience when, for some reason, they cannot work. This is especially painful when a person feels his or her creativity drying out.
Yet when a person is working in the area of his of her expertise, worries and cares fall away, replaced by a sense of bliss. Perhaps the most important quality, the one that is most consistently present in all creative individuals, is the ability to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake. Without this trait, poets would give up striving for perfection and would write commercial jingles, economists would work for banks where they would earn at least twice as much as they do at universities, and physicists would stop doing basic research and join industrial laboratories where the conditions are better and the expectations more predictable.