Books: Originality - the key business strategy

Steady but dull doesn't stand a chance. Henry Stewart hails Mavericks at Work, a book that urges firms to be open, disruptive and innovatory.

by Henry Stewart
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Mavericks at Work
William C Taylor and Polly LaBarre
Harper Collins £14.99

US companies spent more than $7.4 billion in one year to enhance their automated call centres. The result, Taylor and LaBarre explain, is that it is harder than ever to reach a real person. It used to be possible to press zero to get through, but now companies invent more complicated codes, like star/zero. Not only do they not tell the customer what the code is to get through to a person, but they change it if too many find out.

'We've lost count of how many executives have regaled us with plans to improve their company's products and services by "listening to the voice of the customer",' write the authors. 'Memo to the boss: answer the phone! Your customers are trying to talk to you.'

Mavericks at Work is about the companies that take a different attitude, that believe in building connections to customers. It is about 'business as if people mattered' and a critique of 'me-too' companies, who try to just be a little better than the others. As ING Direct's CEO Arkadi Kuhlmann puts it: 'If you do things the way everybody does them, why do you think you're going to do any better?'

Taylor was co-founder of the American business magazine Fast Company and LaBarre a senior editor there. Mavericks at Work will introduce you to some of the most innovative companies on this planet. If this book has a weakness, it is that there is no central theme, unless it is the belief that originality is the key strategy in any business. Or that 'a disruptive point of view combined with authentic values is what separates fast-growing industry leaders from companies stuck in the middle of the pack'.

There are plenty of examples. Board games company Cranium created a hugely successful and profitable business in a declining market by producing games where nobody loses: 'Our disruptive moment was when we said we're going to create lighten-and-enlighten experience, a unique combination of laughter and learning that gives everybody a chance to shine.'

The way to get truly great ideas, Taylor and LaBarre argue, is to learn from the open-source movement. Making computer code available online, and inviting anybody to improve it, has resulted in the creation of software such as Linux and Apache, challenging the dominance of Microsoft. The question is: 'Can a set of ideas forged by computer hackers become conventional wisdom in the boardrooms of the Fortune 500?'

For some it already has. The Goldcorp mining company went open-source and put all its private data about one of its goldfields online. With a half-million dollar prize for the best proposal, it attracted innovative ideas from across the world and transformed the company to a leader in its field.

InnoCentive exists to connect companies that have unsolved problems with its own 90,000 registered scientists. The 'seeker' companies - including Boeing, Procter & Gamble and Dupont - post a problem with a prize to the 'solver'. Many of these come from way outside the mainstream, such as the once-secret town of Chernogolovka in Russia, whose 22,000 residents include 250 PhDs and 1,000 PhD students, many signed up as InnoCentive solvers.

'One of the defining responsibilities of a 21st-century leader is to attract the best ideas from the most people,' argue Taylor and LaBarre. The way to succeed in future may not be to guard your secrets but instead to make them available and invite others to help.

Companies could learn from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The organisers create the framework but have no say in which acts are booked or where they appear. As departing director Paul Gudgin explains: 'What we have to do at all times is to make as few rules as possible.' The result is an arts festival that has become one of the largest and most innovative in the world, selling 1.25 million tickets for its three weeks of operation each year.

Or learn from Web 2.0 and build a service that gets better the more customers use it. DVD rental company Netflix defeated the mighty Wal-Mart with software so good that most of its rentals are based on other customer recommendations. Now, learning from MySpace, customers will be able to see what their friends are renting.

Mavericks at Work is packed with examples of companies challenging the conventional way of doing business. If this book does not leave you inspired to change, I'm not sure what will. By the end you may ask, as the authors suggest: 'Why can't my company work this way?'

Henry Stewart is chief executive of Happy; henry@happy.co.uk.

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