No Room for the Searcher


A cogent response to Brodey’s utopian business vision from a seasoned executive.

I’d like as much as possible to keep the reflections which follow from becoming merely an open letter to Warren Brodey (Chapter 5), but I have to admit that they began as a visceral reaction to his comments on searchers and their environments.

My reaction was not so much against Brodey or his business, which I've never visited, but after twenty years' work as a crusty businessman-searcher for new products and profit, I tend to distrust the school of thought which designs tremendously attractive but synthetic forms of human interaction. Brainstorming, T-sessions, Brodey's own “playpen” concept remain virtually impossible to integrate effectively into the life of a large corporation. Corporate officers who must do everything possible to meet the incremental demands of sales growth may dabble with that kind of experiment, but it is dangerous for the creative searchers Brodey describes to count on those techniques too highly. The main reason is that such groups rarely get a budget. They are peripheral. The ideas that originate in them can seldom be followed through sufficiently to become seriously recognized as superior replacements for on-going, budgeted programs.

Little groups can reinvent the wheel a thousand times, yet seldom see those wheels rolling off a production line. Nothing in a big corporation becomes very tangible without a budget—without real money being spent in accordance with real annual plans. It is a rare manager indeed who will seek to change approved and budgeted plans for untried pie-in-the-sky stuff—even if he and the group around him viscerally prefer the newer approach. Can you imagine trying to convince Ford management that the T-Bird was a better venture than Edsel at the time? As a matter of fact, to have presented the T-Bird might have been to kill it forever. Management will perceive projects like Brodey's “toys” as playful, good for the “future,” or a soporific to the board or stockholders, and they will allocate their heavy money to more serious matters.

The problem of search in the big company is a very real problem indeed. In the first place there are many more big corporations, $200-million sales and above, than ever before. At that size there is no longer just one search going on, there are many searches—all competing for the eventual blessing of the budget. So, of course, it is easy for ideas and people to get lost among the long-range plans of the corporation—and it is quite possible that the only satisfying playpen the searcher can find is not an artificial one paid for by the big corporation, but his own small company. The real searcher may—by definition—have to strike out on his own and learn business the hard way.

This may not be true in the high-technology companies which are acutely aware of the special needs of their creative scientists; but in my experience with the large consumer-oriented corporations I have found it extremely difficult to satisfy all but a few of the “searching,” creative, entrepreneurial types within the framework of traditional corporate goals of large-scale production, growth, and profit. There is no question that the multiproduct Goliaths have the most need, but it is also there where it is easiest for a highly creative person to get lost in the shuffle—to become frustrated and, finally, to leave.

Small businesses don’t have quite the same problem. The smaller the group, the friendlier it is to the searcher. An awful lot of young companies—particularly in science—have much of the spirit, if not the physical design, of Brodey's playpen. There is a close, informal atmosphere. A feeling of adventure; a more casual interchange of ideas and a correspondingly greater chance for a person with ideas to understand how to affect the plans of the organization.

Some of the large companies who are concerned with the problem of sustained innovation try to design a small-business feel into their divisions, 3M’s product champion system is just one example. Unhappily, few of them really succeed or understand how to accomplish this. The reason they fail is not that the managers of large corporations are unsympathetic to idea people; though it can certainly look that way to a prophet but creatively out-of-step person in the middle levels of a large company. Of course, often as not, the small company would not have existed without that first burst of innovation. The businessmen may themselves have been creative entrepreneurs; for businessmen do grow from searchers. They become businessmen when they find their ideas can’t exist without an organizational framework.

But there are necessary rigidities and habits that must accompany the growth of businesses and which discourage budding entrepreneurs. The result is that many of the creative searchers leave to form their own companies—and I think they ought to. I think it is almost inevitable that large businesses will lose their share of creative entrepreneurial people. But if they are careful, they don’t have to lose more than their share.

In too many cases, life inside a large corporation is the very opposite of the entrepreneurial life. Low risk, low gain. Safe, but unexciting. That's certainly not the case with all big companies—but if it is the case with yours, don’t expect to get much out of your most creative people.

The company which doesn’t encourage searchers, for example, rarely fires anyone. Very few specific people are blamed for failure—a department or a division gets the blame. But in the same way, nobody gets much credit as an individual within the corporation. That isn’t just an unhappy accident—it’s a necessary way corporations are kept glued together. They can’t afford to overreward the entrepreneurial type. The man who thought of the product can’t be given much more credit than the man who packaged it, or the man who sold it.

If Harry Searcher, all by himself, thought up the program which saved the company this year, what on earth can you really do for Harry inside your supercompany? Say he’s getting $17,500 a year as second manager of one of your divisions. If you give him full credit for what he did, there’s virtually nothing you can do for him that’s good enough. Do you make him president? Do you give him a raise of $50,000 a year? Or a special bonus of $50,000? If you do that, though, you throw the whole system of rewards out of balance. Others will want the same sort of recognition and treatment. Soon you can’t afford the people who are working for you. So instead, you share the credit around. “Harry’s division really came through this time.” It makes more sense for the company that way; but after a while it doesn’t make much sense to Harry. If he’s got the gumption, he’ll go out on his own. If he doesn’t have the gumption, he may just stop bothering to think. The company’s needs are translated by the kind of folksy rhetoric: “Well, we share the blame together, and we all share the credit.” That may be necessary for the organization—but it can be very discouraging to the man with ideas.

The creative person inside a company, at the best, must learn a delicate balance between the internal pressures of his entrepreneurial spirit and the actual requirements of the company.

One very real problem is that companies can afford only so many ideas, even good ones. Since an idea is worthwhile to the corporation only if it can be turned into a marketable product, the management must inevitably pick and choose from among the many projected ideas using various criteria of cost, feasibility, and so on, beyond the elegance of the idea per se. Out of this requirement to stay within long-range corporate goals, many men and many ideas must be frustrated. The corporation and its goals come first.

If the idea man has business savvy he will try to find that balance point between his ideas and the corporate capabilities. He will analyze what the corporate game plan is and learn to develop his ideas within the rules of their game. That requires the development of a business maturity—knowing how to develop your ideas within the capabilities of a business organization.

But not enough large businesses are sensitive to the fact that creative people are individuals, that they even mature at very different speeds. A company has to be patient with the creative person—and continually make it clear to him that it is open to his ideas if they make business sense. Otherwise, he will quickly come to believe that it doesn’t pay to have ideas at all. Not the big ones that rock a few boats.

Of course, to do this effectively, the company must really be open to new ideas. Too many companies aren’t. In that sort of company, getting to the top is like a balancing act. Many people reach the top without ever taking a single chance. The potentially creative guy is stunted from the start. There’s no reason for him to take risks. He sees that the man who invented the gadget we’re selling this year left the company two years ago; and the guy who never stuck his neck out for himself (the product) is head of the division.

In that sort of place, only the young people can afford to be outspoken idea champions. They are just starting out and don’t know it’s wrong to have bold ideas. Also, even the most rigid corporation allows the young puppies to bark and nip a bit without penalizing them. In that sort of company, there’s a certain leeway in the first few years, but after that they’re expected to settle down. After they’ve built up a few benefits and some position inside the corporation, they’re expected to be less abrasive and outspoken.

Unhappily, in those companies, this atmosphere reduces creativity and idea championship to the level of least experience. The young can say what they think, but the seasoned men who have come up the long trail tend to wait it out—to see what emerges. If a winner comes along, they’ll begin to throw their weight behind it, but not so hard they’ll fall on their face if it doesn’t work out.

When a large company becomes rigid and hierarchical, financial and general management begin to look askance at their creative people. “Well,” they say, “they’ve got some ideas, but they’re not too reliable in money matters.”

Naturally, they may be completely correct. The idea people in question may have no sense of business whatsoever; but the process of growth in business must involve a continual reeducation in which the idea men develop the business sense to put their ideas to work and the general management are continually reopened to the possibilities inherent in new ideas.

What happens if the two groups become isolated can be disastrous for the company. The mature businessmen begins to think of the idea people as “different,” and that word can imply “undesirable” to many. The differences are accentuated by differences in style, dress, and beliefs—and soon you have precisely the situation Brodey describes. The creative people either leave the company or retreat into irony and indifference. Once that process of division begins in a company, it accelerates rapidly. It is sustained even in the hiring practices. The personnel department tends to hire new employees who are the models—albeit very young—of the top or middle management. Models, that is, of the people who have already proved successful in the corporation but who may have little talent for the creative process and as a result are suspicious of it. So after a while, the odds of a real searcher getting through the screen and staying there are pretty low.

At that point the company starts to fossilize, and it’s a difficult process for top management to recognize that what they are being told is innovation really is not.

So the problems which Brodey discusses are very real. Large companies—particularly large consumer-oriented companies—are definitely prone to follow an initial period of success by becoming increasingly rigid, hierarchical, and resistant to creativity and innovation. In that sort of company, the creative or adventuresome person runs into a lot of walls, and that’s why so many leave to form their own, more innovative, outfits.

But the solution which Dr. Brodey and others like him have suggested seems very unlikely to produce any real changes inside those companies. In his article, Dr. Brodey suggests setting up corporate playpens with wildly improvisational toys for scientific and creative people to play with.

That, he believes, would foster creativity and also make it more attractive for creative people to work inside the company. From my experience in some of the largest consumer-oriented companies, I have to say it just wouldn’t work.

The man who wants to get ahead in a big corporation is unlikely to bound into Brodey's playpen, because he'll be scared someone’s watching and laughing at him. Not to mention the fact that his desk will be vacant. Few corporations—even the most flexible—are likely to reward eccentric behavior with promotion to general management. The man who wants to reach the top will insist on projecting his image as a responsible future leader.

What is more, the financial managers are unlikely to look very kindly at a playpen for searchers. They tend to consider the whole research and development department a playpen—“all those funny fellows with their funny test tubes . . . they must be playing. They don’t seem to care much about the serious side of business.” Of course, that attitude has very real consequences for any potential playpen—slim budgets.

But I don’t think Dr. Brodey's creative playpens would be very helpful even for the pure research people who have no particular ambition to get into general management.

Based on my experience over the years working with scientists from many large corporations, I would doubt that many of them would be happy without long-term research projects for which they have been trained. Most men are not the brilliant Bell Labs’ Ph.D.s. More often than not they take a job where they find the priority ventures involve such marketing considerations as making a detergent a little bluer or pinker, or developing a cake mix with a little more fluff to it.

There are genuine frustrations built into that sort of job. None of the work seems that important to a man with a scientific bent who was educated, just like the top Ph.D.s, to think of science as a series of profoundly exciting breakthroughs. You can’t solve his frustrations, however, by sending him off to a creative playpen. He probably won’t be very likely to come up with anything, and, if he does, it is pretty likely to be way out of line with what the company is capable of making and marketing.

If there is a solution, it is in the other direction—to make the researcher more aware of the company’s success in packaging and marketing his modest innovations, because that’s where the major excitement and satisfaction of a consumer-oriented company lies.

Even for first-rate scientists—the kind of searchers capable of genuine breakthroughs in knowledge—I don’t think the creative playpen makes much sense. It has been my experience that the real searcher doesn’t need one. The unique, innovative, searching mind, I believe, is different from others. He doesn’t need someone else’s funny games to play in order to think the kinds of thoughts he is able to think and, by the same token, no lab frills or artificial inducements are really going to do very much to help the mediocre create the miraculous.

I have an important reason for stressing this point about first-rate scientists. On the one hand, I think these men are perfectly capable of doing their creative work in such playpens—I think they are capable of being original under virtually any conditions. But there are real dangers for good scientists who lend themselves too much to the sort of experimentation Brodey and the others advocate.

Some companies, for example, set up innovative task forces to go sit by themselves in a hotel for a week or so and just think. Lovely—but the problem with that is, while they’re off in the hotel, the office politicians are busy carving up their budget and their space. They find when they get back that they’ve lost ground in the company. They wind up with no budget and no way to champion what they discovered at the meeting.

It’s very risky for a good scientist to involve himself in experimental structures while he’s also doing creative work. The mainstream, the main budgets, and the main way of doing things in a company tend to win in the end. A scientist isolates himself only at very great risk to the projects he cares about.

So that’s the problem, and, as Brodey said, it’s very real. The large company finds it difficult to provide a place for the searcher, for the idea man, for the entrepreneur. That’s why so many small innovative companies spring up with people like that right in the middle. In the last year, I’ve heard of 50 new boutique agencies—little ad agencies. They do product development as well as advertisement, and I understand only five of them had failed. It’s the same with the small high-technology companies which spin off from the big companies and labs. A general recognition is developing among creative people that they can go outside the big outfits, do their own thing, and make it. Business will come to them and buy. Then business can go back and do its own, perhaps cumbersome, but checked and balanced, which is quite different.

I think the big companies will lose a lot of those creative people no matter what they do. Small business provides too nice a setting for creativity. But by being particularly attentive, big companies can keep enough of the creative people to serve their needs—and it can make the transients happier and more productive for as long as they stick around.

Maybe one thing we need is a clear recognition that there are stolid as well as flamboyant types in the business world. In the ad agencies, it’s practically taken for granted that creative people will move around. The businessmen stay put; but the copywriters, artists, television producers move all the time. They get bored and look for new situations. There is no reason for a company to try to hang on to a creative guy who really is not interested in the business. I suppose you try to keep him around by giving him a title or something; but if he’s not a good businessman as well, he won’t like it and the appointment won’t make much sense for anyone.

It is better to create a reward system specially for him. You pay him more, but everyone recognizes he won’t share in the power structure of the company. The businessman in the company might say, “We can’t afford to give out credit and blame among ourselves; but why not give credit more freely to the idea people who will be drifting in and out of the company anyway? You just make the rules clear to everyone: We’ll give him lots of credit for the XYZ gadget, and that should be so much food for his soul that he doesn’t really mind not getting to be general manager of the division which produces it.”

That requires a lot of understanding and communication on the part of the corporate management. They have to sit down with the idea people and explain the ways in which they are exempt from company mores, the freedom which that guarantees them and the limitations it imposes.

Unhappily, the very heart of the problem is likely to be that general management has lost touch with the needs and ambitions of the company’s creative staff.

The creative people don’t understand the amount of pressure management is under from competition, regulation, and stockholders; and on the other hand, too many company presidents become so preoccupied with those pressures that they lose any real interest in new, good ideas. They want to grow at 7 percent. They want to have earnings at 8 percent, and they want the income ratio to improve incrementally each year in ratio to sales. If they can do that and stay out of strikes, and have their stock grow as smoothly as Wall Street thinks it should in a competitive climate, then they don’t have much energy left to care whether the company does it with canned dog food or a revolutionary breakthrough which is going to save mankind.

And the bad thing is—even if they do care—it may not penetrate very far down into the company. Several layers down, the creative people may be tremendously frustrated because the middle management is resisting new ideas. But the president of the company won’t find out—unless he takes a really hard look—because his middle managers will tell him precisely what he wants to hear.

The one time when top management does find out exactly what is happening in the company is when trouble. Falling sales or profits force managers away from their desks to take some good, hard looks at the operation.

And trouble periods—oddly enough—can be the most fruitful for innovation. The executive hierarchy gets broken up. People have to question what they’ve been doing—and that can do wonders for the entrepreneurial spirit.

I’ve taken over divisions when they were in deep trouble, and that can be very exciting, though I don’t recommend the experience as a way to do business all the time. Companies need times of flustered expansion and times of stability and consolidation. I’ve been an executive under both conditions; and I do have to say that the searching which accompanies trouble can be tremendously productive.

One time I was told to get the division of a company out of trouble. The president wanted action and told me to take a very free-swinging entrepreneurial approach. Some of the old guard must have thought I was crazy, but they sort of said to themselves, “If the president is behind it, we have to go along. So maybe we better play with the crazy man for a little while. Naturally, we’ll watch him really close and if he gets things moving again, we can always take it back over and be sure to run a tighter ship than we did before.”

So, they left me alone for four years—hiring, getting rid of people who didn’t make any contribution, forming what must have appeared to be an anarchic group of very bright entrepreneurial men. I created more psychic rewards than financial ones, because we didn’t have the financial rewards to offer. But I find that psychic rewards are just as important to creative people.

The group did a fantastic job of innovation. They changed a lot of the old ways of doing things in the corporation and really got it moving. Even the old guard got religion.

Yet I watched most of them leave to go into other businesses or into bigger jobs at other corporations. (I should say that many of those who went into other large corporations left them, too, for smaller businesses. They were never able to recreate the psychic energy they had in our operation.)

That small-business, entrepreneurial feeling is very difficult to sustain inside most big companies, nor is it necessarily all phases of a company’s existence. Unchecked too long, it can bankrupt the store. There must be, at some point, a return to sanity. However, in time sanity will grind the creative juices out of a company again and it may find itself doing what had been successful in the past but no longer succeeds in the present.

It’s as though some Martian landed here and left a few machines and techniques for the natives to play with. The natives go on pushing the buttons... just as the Martians used to do, but nothing much happens.

I will conclude by simply saying this: In business, as in anything else, nothing is more important than a feeling of excitement, love, and the sharing of common goals. Most of this is built into the small business venture but it becomes harder to sustain as the business grows. Nevertheless when this atmosphere is gone, all the synthetic extracurricular activities on earth—all the playpens, encounter groups, or what-have-you—won’t bring it back. Only a top management that is willing to continually reappraise its methods, shibboleths, and people can do that.