In 2001 Google engineer Paul Buchheit started using his ‘20% time’ (the one day a week Google allows staff to work on new projects) to develop a new product. Initially codenamed Caribou, the product was, after nearly three years of development, released as Gmail and would reinvent the entire web-based email category, capturing 53% of the market.
Gmail, now one of Google’s most successful products, was not an idea formulated by management and developed in a classic top-down waterfall manner. Developing an email product was not even part of Google’s corporate strategy at the time. It was one engineer’s passion project, driven by the belief that email services should be better.
It is an example of how one ‘game changer’ can positively impact the destiny of not just one organisation but an entire industry.While there are lots of small businesses that appear to have created a game-changing culture, Google is unique and unlike many other large organisations in how it has maintained its gamechanging culture throughout its growth. It’s a great example of what success looks like if you allow game changers the freedom to play with their ‘obsessive imaginations.
So what makes game changers different
Most people see game changers as entrepreneurs in the classic mould – Steve Jobs, Anita Roddick, James Dyson, Natalie Massenet – singularly focused individuals who, through a combination of skill, passion, determination, sheer obsession and sometimes luck, have upended old industries or spawned entirely new ones in the process – creating economic value and employment.
But as our new study, The DNA of a Game Changer, explains, this notion of obsessive imagination and limiting our perception of who can be a game changer or how they should do things, limits the potential of organisations to harness game-changing capability.
With some notable exceptions, historically game-changing behaviours and corporate culture have been relatively incompatible. The classic entrepreneurial story is of an employee growing frustrated with not being able to get management to see the value in their new product suggestion or ideas. The consequence? They do their own thing or join a competitor.
In today’s business environment, it’s relatively easy for people to start up a business of their own and this makes it all the more important for organisations to protect their competitive advantage by ensuring these employees become partners within the organisation, rather than competitors outside.
Take Natalie Massenet, founder of Net-a-Porter, a website in magazine format for selling designer fashion. Credited by many as changing the way designer fashion is retailed, she began her career as a fashion journalist at Women’s Wear Daily and then moved on to Tatler in the UK, where she worked as assistant for the fashion director. What drove her to leave Tatler and start working as a freelancer before setting up Net-a-Porter in 2000? Was she unable to realise her game-changing potential within the organisation?
Game changing potential
Google is a good example of how organisations can realise game-changing potential. It has long been a pioneer of fostering the careers of game changers – or ‘smart creatives’ as Google calls them – within its organisation, one of the reasons it is consistently cited as the world’s best company to work for.
In fact the modern technology industry generally, with its willingness to embrace new ideas and employ a radical approach to traditional management principles, has shown what happens when game changers are given the freedom to thrive. To cite just two more examples: Twitter and Groupon – multi-billion dollar businesses – both started as ‘passion projects’ within other organisations.
However, game-changing behaviour doesn’t have to be on such a grand scale. An understanding that game changers can be found at all levels of an organisation, from the shopfloor right to the very top, is the first step in creating a culture in which innovation can flourish and deliver a positive impact. Empowering employees to think and act outside the bounds of their job descriptions can enable organisations to make improvements, both incremental and transformational.
A guard at the Massachusetts Department of Correction saved his employers $56,000 a year by suggesting new inmates were processed using digital cameras instead of film.
Most organisations still have some work to do to get to this point. As our study found, HR departments and business leaders are not prioritising the spotting or hiring of game changers. Almost three-quarters (72%) of business leaders interviewed said that less than 11% of their employees were game changers. Furthermore, only 18% of leaders said that game changers are the most sought-after group when recruiting.
Building an organisation in which game changers are given the freedom to contribute is now one of the most critical functions for any HR department. As our study shows, game changers are not necessarily self promoters – by their nature they focus their energy into their passion and ideas.
While our research identified one of the key traits of game changers as their ability to clearly articulate their vision or idea, the reality is that the majority of the time they are simply not asked or given the opportunity to do so. Old-fashioned notions of hierarchy and seniority still play a large part in preventing game changers from making a contribution.
When Ken Kutaragi, a junior Sony employee, presented a modified version of the Nintendo and suggested Sony consider developing a more powerful game console of its own, many senior managers were enraged at the initiative taken and tried to kill the project but calmer heads prevailed and the result was the PlayStation.
Leaders need game-changing individuals at every level across their organisation, who can see ‘ahead of the curve’, are willing to take risks, and have the drive to make change. Now is the time to change recruitment, talent management processes and organisational culture in order to avoid future high potential people being clones of what has gone before. We need to break the cycle of creating risk averse and innovation-stifling cultures.
These game-changing individuals who will appear at every level will often be seen as disruptive as they challenge the traditional ways of doing things. Our leaders and managers will need to guide and be guided as pockets of game-changing activity are embedded within their company or division.
The successful implementation of a culture where game changers can thrive will produce amazing results and ensure that you continually strive to do things differently and improve. This is absolutely essential in today’s competitive workplace.
The beauty of having these corporate catalysts is that your organisation could change in ways you haven’t even begun to think about yet.
So where does HR start with this process of transforming the corporate culture?
• Spearhead the change of elements of organisational culture to facilitate game-changing individuals. Organisations need to be creative to ensure there are mechanisms where people can feel ‘safe to fail’ within a traditional ‘fail-safe’ environment. By doing this, it will allow game changers to come to the fore and really thrive. It will facilitate a safe environment for them to experiment and push boundaries without having a negative impact on others.
• Train managers to understand the fundamental game-changing traits and identify both those in their teams and interview candidates who possess the potential to be game changers.
• Successful game-changing behaviours need to be celebrated and rewarded appropriately and organisations will need to be prepared to be questioned and sometimes mocked for challenging the status quo.