Innovation by firing people

If the goal is to get a stagnant project to be more creative or productive, the best move is often to get people out of the room. Young ideas are fragile. The more people that are involved, the higher the odds someone will find a reason to kill good ideas before they’ve had a chance to prove themselves. The more people in the room, the more politics and private agendas negatively influence conversations. Diffuse authority can mean no one feels they’re accountable, or even wants to be.

Firing people, or eliminating positions, is on one extreme end of the spectrum and it has its place. Sometimes there is no other way to create room for progress to happen. But on the more conservative end of the same spectrum, simpler decisions available include:

  • Get people off the project by assigning them elsewhere
  • Reduce the invite list for creative meetings
  • Clarify who is in charge of creative decisions (e.g. who is the equivalent of the film director)
  • Clarify whose role is to give feedback, but not to drive the show

If your meetings are too slow, or arguments go on for too long, rethink your invite list. Why do so many deserve a say on so many things if their feedback is so uninspired? Pick the least useful people and make their power over creative decisions match their usefulness.

Often referred to as Too many cooks, no matter how smart the people are, if they all think insist on fighting for their own vision, misery ensues. Start-up companies thrive in part because there are way more decisions to be made than people, granting individuals tons of autonomy. When there are 10 decisions to be made, but only 2 people, there’s little motivation to fight over decision making power. But when a company grows and the ratio of people to decisions runs the other way (2 decisions to be made by 10 people), the thriving ends and the bureaucratic misery begins.

Firing people, or simply eliminating the number of leadership roles, recentralizes authority. It empowers those remaining in leadership roles to do far more in far less time, since overcoming the objections of dozens of peers are no longer part of the process of developing news ideas and projects. In organizations were there are far too many project managers, producers, and middle-managers, roles prone to measurement and process, eliminating those roles is the only way to give creative leaders the space they need to excel.

When I was at Microsoft (’94-’03) the biggest inhibitor to innovation was too much democracy. Hard to believe, but it’s true. There is a long history of internal projects with great ideas that never made it out of Redmond – they were killed by the culture of rough consensus. If a handful of middle managers couldn’t achieve rough consensus on your idea, your project got thrown into the closet (and often you with it). Grand ideas are often divisive, and a rough consensus decision making system will kill them. Many companies I’ve visited over the years suffer from the same pattern of behavior. They mistakenly believe the problem is the quality of ideas, when in fact the problem is the conservative psychology inherent in democracy. Pure democracy is not the political system that will create the most change – it’s a system geared for stability, not for innovation.

I’ve seen many great designers, engineers, and even managers hired in to well known companies, who prototype great things, and propose grand ideas, but watch in slow despair as the corporate culture’s insistence on letting everyone have their say watered their ideas down into mediocre, barely recognizable, intellectual sludge. You could throw a Johnathan Ives, a Rem Koolhaas, or a Will Wright, into most of corporate America and the output of those companies would barely change. Why? Too many cooks.

Some would argue this is by design – consistently mediocre is better than what many companies produce, and it can be enough to be a market leader (Look around: the best selling music, food, or software is unlikely to be considered the best by anyone in that field). And that’s fine: success and creativity are two related but different things. However if you ask for more innovation without changing the authority structure, I’ll call you crazy. Consensus is prone to slamming on the brakes – Autocracy is prone to putting the pedal to the metal.

The answer for many organizations is to shift the pendulum of authority two notches away from democracy and towards autocracy. I’m not saying create a tyranny – don’t go all the way – but do identify the creative leaders and give them leadership power based on those talents. To be a VP, or a General manager depends on political acumen, not creative insights, despite how the hubris of power muddles the distinction. If instead a VP or GM grants the best creative mind on the team license to lead, and rallies the majority of the team to accept the role of followers, the rate of positive change will always rise. Look to the autocratic models of building architecture, film making, and pop music – one or two creative minds are granted huge amounts of authority, disproportionate to the corporate hierarchy.

So when in doubt – look around the room. If your team is flailing or struggling to resolve a creative decision, create more autocracy. Either get the dead weight out of the room, or pick the person in the you as the leader believe has the best perspective and grant them your authority – let them make the call. If you can’t change the balance of power by any other means, thin the herd. If you have no other alternative, pink slips might be the best thing for everyone involved: the talent you fire may find, or create, the autonomy they deserve elsewhere. But either way, do what you can to give the creative minds in your world the autonomy they need to thrive.

Also see: Innovation by Death

16 Responses to “Innovation by firing people”

  1. aditya

    I think it is important to look at what kinds of people have the power to veto an idea than how many. In a meeting when you discuss an idea, more people may mean a more exhaustive decision which can help improve the idea further. I would like to get your views on innovation in our corporate blog (

  2. Scott

    Caleb: Ah, yes. Good catch. Thanks.

    Although you’ve made me think of several bad jokes related to my typo:

    Flower power: Petal to the metal.
    Veteran power: Pedal to the medal (of honor).
    Nosy people power: Pedal to the meddler.

    Not funny? Well, I did say they were bad jokes.

  3. The Jibbler

    What’s most important is that you remain in charge at all costs and have the power to fire people that don’t believe the same things that you do. We’ve all read Dale Carnegie and Art of War by now. The most effective people in the global economy should be able to fire someone and make it look like a “business decision” or better yet, some kind of Soviet-era technocratic rationalism.

    The only way to create the correct productivity theater is by you, and only you being in charge. Because, you are the super hero here. Everyone else shall listen to you as you have proven most adept at enslaving the credulous to enrich your corporate masters. Hats off to the invisible hand and the infinite wisdom of corporations. If it weren’t for the them and the military-industrial complex enslaving the third world, we wouldn’t all be so happy wasting our lives waiting in traffic so we can get to work and be fired by a douchebag like yourself.

  4. Scott

    Hey Jibbler: One challenge of satire is making it clear who you are satirizing – Otherwise no one but you knows who you’re making fun of. Am I the douchebag? Microsoft? Executives in general? Capitalism? Business bloggers? I’d love to know, because what you’ve written is about 70% of the way to being good, but just not quite there, which is more frustrating than anything else.

  5. Todd Kasenberg

    It seems to me that Tom Peters devoted time to related concepts more than 7 years ago in his book “Re-imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age”. When it first came out, it was advocating pretty radical stuff in a very radical style – things like “chief destruction officer” and firms of one. What’s funny is that I pulled it off my shelf recently, and found it more relevant for 2011 than it was in 2003… it definitely needs to be rediscovered.

    Too much drag stymies progress. And those who march to their own beat and defy the drum, sadly, are the ones who often take it in the neck. So your comments are timely and welcome. We all need the gift of time; how much of it is drained by administrivia that should just be fired?

    Keep writing about these matters, Scott… they are valuable.

  6. Lee Winder

    Excellent post, though I think ‘firing’ is a tad harsh as you can do exactly this without anyone being fired!

    I’ve been in this situation many times in the past and even gone so far as to remove myself from meetings if I think there are to many, often over-lapping, opinions that bring little to the discussion.

    I often find that people are invited along because they /might/ know something, how ever small, about the domain being discussed, rather than key decision makers getting the facts before hand and removing the number of talking heads in a room.

  7. Jason Yip

    What about just changing decision rights and authority? For example, moving to a model of consent, not consensus. Or requiring decisions to be based on facts rather than the highest paid person’s opinion? Or not providing any official authority to the innovator, requiring him/her to convince voluntary recruits?

    Autocracy creates poor feedback and dragging feet. Buy-in creates speed in execution. Phony consensus creates the same effect as autocracy.

    As an aside, there is a problem that many people mistakenly equate populism with democracy, but that still does’t make populism democracy.

  8. Bill Meade

    Apple is the archetype success organization by this approach. Think about it, working for Steve Jobs (patron saint of Aspberger’s) is like working in Hitler’s bureaucracy. Hitler pitted one branch of the bureaucracy against the others. Hitler managed with a psychotic iron fist (I’m reading A FIRST RATE MADNESS and it was INTERESTING to learn that Hitler was daily IV amphetamines which worsened his mental illness see after Kindle location 2844, but … so was JFK who was so sick (Addison’s disease) that he almost died of the clap after the Vienna summit).

    When I was at HP 1997-2001, it was the same environment of pathologically politically correct ersatz democracy. When many people become involved, somehow, the rule of common sense is suspended. When you go further and mix one dummy into the meeting, the proposals get crazy as everyone has to self-hypnotize in order to force themselves to attend meetings, and then once there, tiptoe around the stupidity of the one dummy, so as to not dump a tar baby on the conference table. HP pretty much hired broad minded people, and then rammed them into narrow jobs. When one dummy makes it in, it can slow down a 10 billion dollar business with unending attempts to not look dumb, each of which spawn’s much study in order to send the proposal off into the woods so it can die quietly of exposure away from a conference room.

    Great post Scott!

    bill meade

  9. Tony

    “Pure democracy is not the political system that will create the most change – it’s a system geared for stability, not for innovation.”

    Nicely said.



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