Technology innovation: the future belongs to the passionate
Date: Thursday , May 01, 2008
One often finds that passion is something associated with the liberal arts and fields such as advertising, publishing, singing and theatre. But, passion and technology? People generally do not seem to associate the two. Yet, most technology breakthroughs were possible because people who had the passion to experiment developed their ideas to fruition. Lest this be quickly dismissed as an individual phenomenon not associated with the technology industry, let me point you to a company that defines passion in technology: Apple, or Google, for that matter. It has also been my experience in managing tech startups, and larger IT organizations, that passion in people makes a fundamental difference to the results.
How does it work? Well, in a chip design startup pitted against the might of Intel, we found that what made us competitive was the passion we were able to instill in our people. To begin with, we hired for attitude and developed skills in them. The attitude was fanned into a passion to excel at whatever they did. We were able to out-design Intel, develop relationships with customers that were deeper and long lasting and mature processes faster for better products. It cuts across the board. Here is an example of a product company that was able to compete successfully against a dominant leader to gain a commanding market share for their products.
Services companies with motivated employees usually offer a better service experience for customers. This is usually the case with airlines and hotels amongst others. However, what about the software or network service companies? Here again, people associate passion with the customer facing aspects of the business ? sales or account management. In my experience, the technology development teams and network management teams often exhibit the most passion! The result shows in higher service quality levels, better process management, higher levels of customer satisfaction, and higher retention levels. It works equally well with the applications development teams. Faster development times, faster process maturity, a team that is continually learning and evolving, better team spirit, and higher retention levels. So, it works equally well for both hardware and software organizations in the IT industry!
If this is true, why is passion not easily associated with the technology industry? I suspect that’s because technology companies began with entrepreneurial engineers who hired for engineering ability and looked for serious minded, intellectual people. This was a serious business they felt, one that would change the world! Companies like Intel, Microsoft, IBM, HP, and Oracle led the way. Only Apple positioned itself as a cool, consumer friendly company that was passionate about what it did as opposed to having a serious intent that is common with the larger players. “How did they succeed then?” you may well ask. My hypothesis is that while the companies were started and run by serious people, they hired legions of young engineers who were passionate about what they did! This became evident as the average age of employees dropped to the late twenties over time. As the numbers grew, companies based on people skills like BPO and call centers were quick to adopt cultures and programs to motivate people and retain them.
Large technology services companies have been slower to do this, but are now looking at internal people engagement as a vitally important part of their human resources management. Often this has more to do with providing better facilities on campuses that are the envy of conventional industries. They also have focused on training. These are welcome changes, but still a far cry from being companies that are based on the passion of their employees!
The Internet brought in a sea change with companies naming themselves with tongue in cheek humor and whims. Yahoo! and Google are the best known examples, but there are hundreds more. These were started by people in college or just out of it, certainly people in their twenties, and reflect the passion and zest for life that the founders brought to the business. Google, for example, has raised the bar by keeping its employees motivated with free food, campuses and work areas that are like colleges, only a lot better, and many other benefits. Employees can even bring their pets to work!
“Is this excessive focus on passion?” one may wonder. I have found that, in the companies that I am involved with; it makes better business sense to cultivate a culture of passion! For it makes companies much better places to work in, and to meet business goals that include innovations. This, in turn, attracts better skilled and talented employees, gives them the freedom to be themselves yet challenges them to give their best. It results in higher retention, faster growth, faster adoption cycles for technology and standards, faster maturation of development or service processes, better customer support. It just works better than otherwise! Skeptical? Consider Google’s growth, profitability, and history of innovation!
Whatever area of technology you are in today, it makes enormous sense to be conscious of this. Whether you are in top management, HR, software or product development, or any other area, passion is something that can make a difference between good and great. Hire people who can energize the organization and build a winning culture that makes people passionate about what they do. Get volunteer groups to do this across distributed locations. Bless their efforts and let everyone know it’s alright to be passionate and have some fun in the process! You will find a winning combination that works for you. It is not enough to offer compensation packages so that people own the company and its results. It is important to give everyone stock options or a share of the profits. However, you need to consciously work at building a culture of achievement based on passion and it has to come from the top.
We come back to that bellwether of passion: Apple. Steve Jobs may have been ahead of his time with Apple back then. But he’s reaping the rewards now. Look at what Apple has been able to achieve over the last five or so years; redefine music distribution, create a revolution in music on the go with its iPod, create a new class of phone with the iPhone which has traditional handset manufacturers scrambling to copy its capabilities, a powered up version of the Mac Operating System that’s even better, one can go on and on. He built his company on passion, and today it’s breaking boundaries and redefining whole new markets, while large powerful players like Microsoft are scrambling to stay in the game through acquisitions.
The future belongs to the passionate. The technology revolution continues to innovate at a faster pace every year, with the average age of those that make outstanding innovations coming down. While youth and passion do go together, passion does not belong to the young alone. Consider Leonardo Da Vinci who was passionate and productive till a ripe old age. Or Steve Jobs who is still Apple’s driving force in his fifties. In 1998, he was quoted by Fortune magazine as saying, “Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get out of them?”
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that technology and passion do go together, and they have always done so! However, passion has to come from the leadership, and must be nurtured in the culture of the organization. The company that is able to do this will reap multiple benefits, not the least of which will be setting standards for the industry it operates in by being able to continually innovate. All of which will contribute to revenues, market shares, and raising the bottom line.