Curiosity vs. innovation vs. turnover

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I need to lay out this argument in a couple of steps. Let’s see how effective we can make it.

Step 1: A quote from Ginni Rometty

Female CEO of a legacy brand (IBM), so there’s some vetting there. I think IBM makes some terrible decisions around work-life balance despite claiming to care about it, but still, I ain’t the CEO. And being a female in a “tech” CEO role has to be soul-crushing at times, so much respect to Rometty in that context. Here she is talking to Stanford MBAs — future world-builders, right? — and she says this:

But being innovative also means asking employees to learn new skills, which Rometty approaches in three stages. First, she says, you have to paint the picture of where the company is heading. Then you have to compensate employees for learning these new skills to help the company get there. Finally, she says, you must reinforce the process by rewarding those who put in the time. “You’d be surprised,” she says. “People will move. This has nothing to do with age. I think the most distinguishing characteristic is your curiousity. If you are a lifelong learner, I would like you.”

Bit to unpack there. Let’s start.

Step 2: Curiosity is important?

Yes, very much so.

It’s probably even more relevant because of how quickly business models have to “pivot” relative to the tech stack.

You really need curious people. Hiring people off 17 bullet points is dumb — because how relevant will those 17 bullet points be in 2–3 years? Answer: often, not very relevant.

Step 3: The problems with curiosity in a standard organization

  • It can’t be analyzed on a P&L or spreadsheet, so ultimately it becomes less important to true decision-makers.
  • It’s subjective, and HR doesn’t hire well for important subjective skills.
  • Ultimately curiosity isn’t what drives compensation — execution is.
  • Curious people want to explore and kick tires on new things.
  • But most of work is about strict adherence to process, and that runs exactly counter to what curious people would want.

Step 4: So what happens when curious people get in this world?

If they get choked by a middle manager trying to turn everything into a process point, they eventually leave. Curious people are usually intelligent too. (Not always.) They know they can make it work somewhere else. Options are understood.

Step 5: And what happens to a company when curious people leave?

Well, now you have a bunch of heads-down, target-hitting drones. Not necessarily a bad thing: work is getting done, shit is off the managers’ plates, and boxes are being checked. Most managers secretly want this type of employee because it’s just deliverables and no fuss. Curious people ask questions. Who has time for questions? I’ve got a 10:30 with Taiwan about Q3.

Step 6: You think you’re going to innovate with process-above-all people?

You’re not. You essentially just turned every department into HR. Good luck.

Step 7: And now, back to IBM

I don’t think IBM is killing it on the market or anything, but 45% of their products were created in the last two years. That’s “innovative.” It also might be “rushed product rollout.” That’s also a possibility. But half your stuff in 24 months? People are at least working on some new ideas in there. So her quote does make sense. I don’t know if they compensate these people well — I’m sure in some cases they do, but that part might be bullshit.

The bottom line

If you choke everyone on process and don’t reward curiosity in some way, you lose good people.

When you lose good people, you have mostly box-checkers.

Box-checkers don’t really innovate.

Status quo persists for years.

Bosses are happier — less shit to actually manage aside from process and financials — but company withers and dies, even if they can report a few growth quarters.

See how all the parts fit together?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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