33voices interviews Roger Martin
Roger Martin: Think about how you think
Dean Roger Martin, it is a pleasure for me to spend some time with you. As I mentioned to you briefly that your work has been top of mind specifically for me personally for quite some time.
I shared with you a quote that has been sitting on my desk for years. I think the quote goes back to ’94-’95, somewhere around there, when you were part of a Mastermind with Bill Taylor and Alan Webber as they were starting Fast Company.
The quote was something like this, “The role of big companies is to turn great people into mediocre organizations.” I’d like to start by just asking you if you still believe that?
Sometimes I guess I wouldn’t concur entirely with the quote, which suggests that it’s the proper role — I don’t think it’s ever been or should be the proper role of a company but I do think that many do.
I should say that that idea was planted in my head by a wonderful man at Procter & Gamble named Tom Laco who, after a long successful career there, he ended up as vice chairman under John Smale in the 80s. This would have been the mid to late 80s. When he retired he wrote a little memo to file, as senior people at Procter are inclined to do, thinking wistfully about the company and saying, we hire absolutely the best and brightest. There are days when I wonder whether we kind of turned them into something less than that rather than something more than that.
It was actually Tom Laco’s thinking that was on my mind I suspect when I had that quote because I then observed out in many companies that aren’t good as Procter & Gamble. I do think that big companies have to really think long and hard about how they can encourage the kind of thinking and work from their people that enable them to be fantastic rather than be mediocre. I think many of them don’t and aren’t changing fast enough.
As somebody who has spent 25 years of his professional career recruiting and developing individuals in senior level management, that to me was a wakeup call because I didn’t want to be part of that. Yet, as I continually work with organizations primarily more on the financial side — it was important for us to find out what was happening in the company — you still discover that there were a lot of individuals and corporations even in high level positions that weren’t very happy. As a result, they’re probably not growing.
I think it’s true. I think it’s kind of a love-hate thing that happens. I guess it would be my cut on it or diagnosis, which is these big companies like to hire talented people for their capability to handle complicated and difficult situations and come up with clever solutions to them. So that’s why they like to hire them but then they inadvertently operate in ways that they get hired for those same people to do the thing they are particularly peculiarly good at. I think it’s inadvertent for the most part.
In my last book I talk about The Design of Business where there is sort of a culture or ethic in the modern corporation especially big ones where you have to be quantitative, analytical, scientific and you have to prove things in order to do them. What these big companies tend to do is hire highly analytical quantitative people because they think of them as the smartest. And then when they are given a complicated challenge or it’s unclear what the answer is and you actually have to do something new and different — and you cannot prove new and different things in advance — they get told prove it, crunch the number, show me the analysis.
What the person in question then says, “I really can’t.” So that person gets trained only to think about things that are analyzable and to not think about things that do not subject themselves easily to analysis. That I think takes a part of their being, their brain, who they are, their soul away. That’s why they are unhappy in the ways you described Moe.