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News bulletin: It’s not all about you

An abstract of a graffiti if a human mind“We live in extraordinary times. You know that the future is getting more uncertain when the International Monetary Fund predicted stable economic growth just months before the Global Financial Crisis or, when the most respected voter polls and journalists get election results 100% wrong. How can organisations plan effectively when macroeconomic conditions change overnight by an unexpected election result, and market sentiment is in a constant state of the jitters even before we start considering the impact of exponential technologies?”

We live in wild times. Either companies are clinging white knuckled to the steering wheel, or they’re looking back at yesterday’s inventions with a constant state of whiplash. Technology is moving fast, and Marc Andreessen‘s words are still true: software is indeed still eating the world. A generation of technology is now seen in one year, and that rate of overtaking will only speed up exponentially over the next decade. Competition could not be fiercer, and risks lurk around every bend.

Naturally, this frenetic pace of innovation affects the way we build our companies as well. Job loyalty is not high on the millennial agenda , as the stats keep reminding us. In fact, 41% of millennials plan to make a move after two years working in their current job. Opportunity is knocking all the time in this digitally connected world and the ‘office’ has taken on many unconventional forms. Benefits once viewed as bonuses are now essential to employee retention, such as career progression opportunities, training and development, and a good work-life balance. Essentially, that century-old assumption that we need the job is turning on its head. The new message is, the job needs you. Today, if you are good at what you do and if you are innovative, then it is highly likely that there are a wide variety of options out there for you… what organisation does not want an innovator in their attempt to be seen as innovative themselves?

And on the backdrop of this new paradigm is the niggly little truth that building a company takes time and it takes commitment. It takes years of effort and behind-the-scenes investment, along with gutsy and talented employees, to see an organisation succeed. A product’s speed to market may have been fast and nimble, but the company that won that corporate advantage put in the backend hours.

If you want to build a strong business you’ll have to go beyond the question, ‘what’s in this just for me?’  That truth will never stop trending.

You can’t have your Intellectual Property (IP) cake and eat it too

These days, we hear it said so often, ‘why should I give my ideas over to you? When the start-up down the street can pay me double and give me the kudos for my contribution, why should I even think about offering up my IP?’ On one hand, it’s a valid question. On the other, it’s a bit naive.

Young boy viewing the world through virtual reality googlesThe journey between a good idea becoming a great one and then making its way down along the monetisation funnel through hurdles of prototyping, testing, user market analysis, risk analysis, failure analysis, production scheduling, distribution mechanism, advertising, marketing and sales, just to name a few, let alone funding and capital raising, is a long an arduous one.

The notion of generating great ideas and then, hey presto, out pops a multibillion dollar industry is a nice one but more than a little romanticised. This is particularly so, according to leading academic Prof Roberto Verganti in his new book Overcrowded: in a world where coming up with an idea is not the problem, it is coming up with an idea that is meaningful and breaks through the ‘noise’ of thousands of ideas. As Verganti puts it, we were blinded in the darkness searching for the bright light of a great idea (the proverbial innovation light bulb moment) but now we are blinded by the light in a world awash with ideas.

There’s also a whole lot of risk that can cost you millions when things go wrong. Just ask pharmaceutical giant Merck who, in 2004, had to recall their painkiller Vioxx off the shelves, coughing up US$950 million as settlement for the irreparable loss or damage to lives caused. The obvious question here is, if you want the IP, will you be willing and able to absorb the liability as well? You can’t gorge on the benefits without eating the risks.

So that may be the Harvey Specter way of looking at the argument ‒ short, sweet and rather cold.

But there’s a more grown up way of seeing it too.

Self-seeking behaviour is short-sighted

A company is a lot like any organism. It works well when all parts are contributing to the best of their ability, according to their innate function and purpose to the whole. On a microscopic level, it’s a constant story of ‘give and take’ that breeds life and fuels motion. And the healthier your cells within the body, the greater chance of fending off disease and decay.

And the logic also applies to us. If the culture within an organisation inhibits employees giving their best efforts because their contributions are not being personally accredited, how can the business function at its best? It would just be a matter of time before terminal decline sets in. Not good for the company and not good for the employees.

Taken to the extreme, this kind of culture is toxic. If it is not curbed with strong, inspirational leadership that finds shared values and purposes, it runs the risk of ultimately destroying the organisation. The solution is a culture in which people are willing to open their fists and collaborate to keep the lifeline flowing and to see the higher purpose. As Todd McKinnon, CEO of Okta, says, “Give me five people who work together as a team, as opposed to the one person who’s talented at everything. They’re not, and it’s not worth the trouble.”

We all have to give a little

Organisational psychologist Adam Grant says that in every workplace there are three types of people: takers (what’s in it for me?), givers (what’s in it for you?) and matchers (what’s the right thing to say, depending on who’s watching?) In his survey of over 30 000 people across industries and nations, he found heaps of evidence to prove that when a strong giving behaviour is cultivated in a company, the whole company is better off. When employees are empowered and comfortable to be more open-handed with their knowledge and skills, the more mentoring is provided, and the better an organisation does when it comes to higher profits, customer satisfaction, and employee retention  ‒ even lower operating expenses. At the company level, when the predominant definition of success is more about contribution than about crushing the competition, companies have proven to do well.

Of course, a giving culture can’t really be taught; it can only be caught . You’ll never get a good thing going, where employees stop counting the cost, if leaders don’t model it from the front. That’s why future business might need to consider different ways of doing IP. While in some organisations, patents are seen as partnerships, where both the inventor and the company represented get the credit, increasingly the approach doesn’t reflect the reality of a rapidly changing market. Many start-ups offer shares in the company as a far better solution, which is a huge incentive for employees to keep innovating and implementing effectively. It communicates commitment and it kick-starts a culture where everyone is winning.

The sustainable winner may be the company but, in this case, it shares the winnings equitably with you.

Says Grant, “Being a giver is not good for a 100-yard dash, but it’s valuable in a marathon.” The question we need to keep asking ourselves is, which race do we want to run, and how do we want to run it?

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