People vs. Companies

One month after Japan surrendered World War II, General Douglas MacArthur met Japanese emperor Hirohito.

MacArthur asked the emperor – who U.S. intelligence knew had been questioning the war for years – why he didn’t surrender earlier. The emperor mentioned his generals, advisors, and prime ministers. Author Bill Sloan: “Hirohito drew his forefinger across his neck in the universal symbolic gesture meaning ‘I would’ve been cutting my own throat.’”

The Japanese emperor was considered a direct descendant of the Sun God, superior to all other people and destined to rule them. After the war the American government struggled to convince the Japanese people that he was, in fact, a human.

But even someone like that doesn’t always control the unpredictable power of organizations.

Hirohito relied on advisors – many fighting for power against each other – who pulled the emperor along through war with absurd predictions, dishonest reports of progress, and threats of coup. He was, in theory, the declarative leader of Japan, and signed off on the war. But the organization of the country’s government and military meant his wishes had to pass through a Rube Goldberg machine of tradition to maintain, face to save, and advisors to trust.

Big organizations can become their own dysfunctional creatures like that.

The benefits of big companies are obvious. Scale. Diversity of thought. Specialization of labor.

But big companies have their anchors and downsides. Three come to mind.

1. Good ideas that are hard to articulate are rarely given a chance; what’s easiest to communicate to a committee isn’t always the best idea.

Sometimes the best ideas are the things no one’s done before, which makes clear and succinct summaries hard. Hard even to describe to yourself.

Good storytellers with OK ideas are more persuasive than inarticulate people with the right answers. This is obvious because everyone knows how much money companies spend marketing their products. But how many companies realize their own offices could be filled with people who have the right answers but aren’t natural marketeers? Few. It’s hard.

Amazon managers have to write multi-page narrative memos when proposing new ideas. Jeff Bezos once said:

Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.

I’d like to see the correlation between beautifully written memos and the subsequent success of their proposals. My guess is you can’t look at that statistic, because the inarticulate memos die in the conference room and are never given a chance.

An honest Q&A with some companies about how they source ideas internally would look like this:

Why do you have a marketing team? Because messaging an idea in a way that grabs people’s attention is a unique skill. Pitching a product is totally different from designing and manufacturing a product.

So how do your design and manufacturing teams propose new ideas? They pitch managers in meetings.

But you just said pitching is a totally different skill from what they do.

This isn’t a criticism, because ideas have to be filtered, and the only reasonable filter is, “Most persuasive idea wins.” But individuals on their own can do something most companies can’t: Run with an idea they know to be true but struggle to articulate to others.

2. People want and fight for credit, because rising in a hierarchy demands it.

There’s a cool story from Seinfeld about how the idea for one of the funniest scenes in the show’s history didn’t come from the show’s writers. It came from the lighting crew – literally the guy who stands on a ladder with a big light to make sure the actors look good. The idea was so funny they had to shoot the scene more than a dozen times because Jerry couldn’t stop laughing.

Actor Bryan Cranston, who was in the scene, remarked:

I think a very smart CEO of any company, big or small, has a policy where they listen to every suggestion and idea — best idea wins. That’s how it should be. Best idea wins. And you never know where it’s gonna come from.

This is insightful advice because it’s not common. It’s not how most organizations operate.

Companies operate on hierarchy, because without it you get anarchy. You move up the hierarchy by getting credit for past performance. And people who know they need to be given credit for their work act and prioritize differently than people performing a task by themselves, for themselves. Presentation of an idea takes precedence over execution, or even legitimacy of the idea itself. Half the reason the consulting industry exists is because companies would rather pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for advice from someone in a nice suit than listen to a line worker who knows exactly what’s wrong with the company but has dirty fingernails.

3. Many people don’t know what they themselves want out of a job, so their bosses are swinging in the dark trying to motivate teams.

A few years ago I interviewed Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who had an interesting idea about stakeholders.

Every business has three main stakeholders: Investors, employees, and customers.

Investors are easy to please, Mackey said. They just want to stock to go up.

Customers want good products at good prices with good service. Hard but simple.

Employees are another story. Their needs are endlessly complicated.

“If you don’t pay them enough they’re unhappy. If you pay them more, they’re still unhappy if they lack opportunities to advance. If you pay them a lot and give them opportunities, they still may hate their boss,” he said. Or their coworkers. Or their commute. Or they get tired of doing the same thing. Glimpses of satisfaction followed by a gravitational pull towards wanting something else.

A lot of people don’t know what they want out of a job. But it’s hard to admit that to yourself. So you blame your career anxiety on your boss, whose decisions are an easy cause-and-effect target to make sense of your unhappiness. And your boss is trying to please a bunch of different people – including her own boss – many of whom have conflicting needs. You see your boss fixing one person’s problem and not yours, and now you’re disgruntled. And disgruntlement spreads fast. The bigger a company is, the harder this problem is to solve. And it’s something that people acting on their own, with no one to blame but themselves, can often gracefully avoid.

Growth is complicated. Size can be both the driver of a businesses success and the trigger of its failure.

Read next
All posts