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A simple chart showing one major problem with work

I won’t belabor this post. Let’s just get into the nitty gritty.

From MIT’s Sloan Management Review Summer 2017 issue, we’ve got an article called “How To Catalyze Innovation In Your Organization.” Approximately 59 trillion words have been written on this in the last few years. I’ve wasted a few bytes on innovation as well, including here and here.

If you get decently far in this article, which talks a lot about weak ties vs. strong ties, you will see this chart:

On surface, this seems like another business school professor-type writing about work and adding graphics. Nothing major and spectacular, right? Wrong. It kind of underscores a huge problem of most white-collar work.

Framing the problem

The inherent assumption of this chart is that an organization needs all three types of people to succeed and be innovative. Generally speaking, I would agree with that.

But look at the middle column, about central connectors. Find these words:

  • “Get things done”
  • “Quickly solve problems”

Those are in there, right? Right.

See, those two descriptors are what work is about for most people. They want to be seen as someone who gets things done (execution! scale!) and quickly solves problems. We deify speed now too, because of Silicon Valley (among other reasons).

Now look at “Brokers.” See these?

  • Bridge silos
  • Diverse perspectives
  • Focus on many things

No one really wants these things. They’re obviously ideal, but the dirty little secret of silos is that they protect us from what we don’t want to deal with. “Focus on many things” is normative in some ways now as businesses try to compete in new verticals, but usually that means “running in circles on unclear priorities.”

Look at “Energizers.” See variations of these words?

  • “Engage”
  • “Vision”

Complete lip service buzzwords at most places.

How is this a problem?

Look, there are some great organizations and leaders. But by and large it’s not at scale yet.

Most places are still focused on execution way above people, etc. Culture is something they just discuss. No one acts on it.

In such a place — still the norm — the only bucket anyone would ever want to gravitate towards is the middle bucket.

You want to be a “central connector” because it contains the only elements that will get you promoted.

It’s very rare to get promoted off doing things tied to “engagement” and “vision” unless the pre-existing executives already love you, in which case they’ll probably invent a C-Suite title for you.

Bridging silos? Diversity? A Jedi seeks not these things in terms of revenue plays.

So we need all three of these types…

… but the way we do incentives and reward behavior means that everyone with aspiration rushes to the middle, “central connector” bucket because that’s going to help them the most at the individual level.

And we wonder why innovation is so fucked at so many companies?

Now, obviously, it’s fucked for other reasons:

  • Bad hiring
  • Not understanding what “innovation” means
  • Creating products simply for revenue and not customer need
  • Politics
  • Silos
  • People who confuse”strategy” and “operations”
  • Over-focus on process as opposed to what the big idea really is
  • Incentive structures relative to position instead of output
  • Etc, etc.

But MIT is a fairly-vetted brand and here they are, telling you that you need three types of employees to innovate. But once you look at that chart, you know where 7 in 10 employees will want to rush to.

Bottom line here: we don’t just “innovate” in a vacuum. It’s deeply tied to incentives. We need to realize and embrace that.

Ted Bauer

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