MacGyver in the 80′s and Gregory House today are in fact, two characters built on the same basic premise. Of a maverick genius who thinks outside the box, solves the puzzle and saves lives. That is dramatic enough for television but in fact maverick geniuses in the real world are more likely to come up with ideas like google’s revolutionary “let’s be the site where people spend the least possible amount of time – but the one they visit a thousand times a day”.
Not exactly television dramatics, but in fact the core point is the same. IT can consistently trace it’s greatest successes to somebody with an idea that broke every expected “rule” about the industry using the available resources in novel ways for a new and unexpected outcome- which changes the game. When you change the game, your company makes money because you immediately one-up every competitor.
I’ll bet a lot of CEO’s out there are thinking “ooh, yeah, that’s me- the game-changing MacGyver of the industry”… and with a few exceptions – sorry, you’re all wrong. The exceptions are those engineers who made a gamechanging creation in a startup and became a CEO without ever having studied an MBA. Again Google springs to mind.
Where both shows get it wrong is that they portray these maverick geniuses as rare gems of humanity that hardly exist. In fact… I’m not at all sure that’s true- the evidence suggest otherwise. Consider that in a fairly random sampling of the population (like, say, your office) 10% of the people ought to be in the top-10% IQ range in the world… that’s a lot of very smart people and a few truly rare geniuses too. But the news gets better, most people of “average” and below intelligence don’t work for software companies, they work for MacDonalds. So that means you staff is really only selected from the top 50% – and that means 20% of them are in the top-10% and a full 4% should be in the top 2%.
This number varies – the better your company is at attracting the best of the best (a matter of payscales, benefits and culture) the higher those values will get as you push the selection from which your sample comes to an ever higher subsection of the total.
So it seems… the genius part isn’t what’s rare… it must be the maverick part. The great out-of-the-box idea that no manager would ever have approved. Gregory House and Angus MacGyver both rely on bosses who value their results over methodology (and occasionally to enforce just a bit of sanity on them by stopping them before they get too risky… we rarely hear Pete Thornton say “thats’ an order MacGyver” – but when he does, it’s because MacGyver was about to risk his life a bit too much). They get given the freedom to break the rules, because the results are worth it.
That’s where google and opensource (I don’t say free software here because I’m talking about the development methodology, not the ethical movement) mostly gets it right. They go out of their way to reduce the redtape and checks and balances for their engineers. You can test and QA later, in beta. First- get the ideas, ideas make money. Google’s greatest invention wasn’t map-reduce, it wasn’t pagerank, it wasn’t contextual advertising… it was 20%-time. Give each employee a day a week to work on any project they want, with or without help – to try ideas without risk of rebuke if it fails – but with great rewards (massive bonuses) if it works.
It was 20%-time that gave google products like gmail and google-talk and the chrome-browser. That was google’s biggest game-changer. The best thing is that this idea not only got them great products, it made them the most sought-after employer in the world. Every software engineer is a little jealous of the people at google… where staff get gaming systems for stress relief and company sponsored massages for an hour a week… but above all – 20%-time… time to be creative and innovative without restriction.
This popularity has allowed google to headhunt the best of the best engineers in the world – a cycle that then feeds back into itself as these top engineers are attracted to the freedom they get to create, and what they create made google rich.
Open-source gets gamechanging creativity by making it possible to start a software project with very little expense – without lawyers or managers approving it – and engineers do it because it gives us a chance to really be creative and innovative.
But most software companies have no gamechangers, just the same products and their easy to predict follow-ups. Because in a system of rules, regulations, controls, checks and balances – nobody innovates, you just keep your head down and hope to not get blamed. When the system is like that, you can’t dare take risks – without risk there can be no creation. This is why most software projects are late. This is why most of them suck. This is why a good software company hardly ever becomes a great one.
A great software company must open the door to risk if they are to open the door to reward.
So throw away the rulebook, get rid of the dresscode (seriously guys, what does Larry Ellingson, Steve Jobs, Sergei Brinn and Sandy Lehrman have in common ? None of them have ever been seen in a suit !), give your superstars the freedom to shine… and give everybody on your payroll the chance to be a superstar. Most of them – are not going to let you down.