I recently read an interview with Amazon.com founder and chairman and CEO Jeff Bezos in which he discussed the topic of innovation. When the interviewer took him to task for spending large amounts of money on research and development—both in good times and in bad—Bezos had this to say: “My view is there’s no bad time to innovate. You should be doing it when times are good and when times are tough—and you want to be investing around things that your customers care about. For us, it’s such a deep-seated belief, I’m not sure we have a choice.”
When I founded Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) with a handful of scientists, researchers, and administrative staff, I simply wanted to create a good place to work. But as the business grew into the $9 billion-a-year diversified company that it is today, we soon realized that we would have to pay attention to our fast-changing organization if we were going to succeed over the long run. This meant creating a number of organizational innovations that were not typical for most businesses at the time, although some are becoming more commonplace today. Some of the key innovations included:
• Put people first. Since the very beginning, SAIC put people first—the organization was expected to serve customers, employees, and owners (who were the employees), not the other way around.
• Freedom (with strings attached). SAIC was specifically designed to be a fast-and-flexible organization where managers and employees would be free to pursue work they were passionate about, so long as it was profitable.
• Widespread employee ownership. SAIC built a culture firmly rooted in the simple idea that those who contribute to the company should own it, and ownership should be commensurate with a person’s contribution and performance.
• Participation in decision making. At SAIC, the expectation was that decisions would be made at the lowest level possible, and problems resolved at the lowest appropriate level, thus cutting red tape and providing customers with more responsive service.
• Organize for growth. At SAIC, the central organization provided essential policy guidance to its various business units and exercised substantial oversight and financial control, but otherwise kept out of the way as much as possible.
• No grand plan. Rather than following voluminous plans that laid out company initiatives years into the future, SAIC encouraged the organization to grow organically, following the interests and instincts of its entrepreneurial program managers.
• Everyone a salesperson. From its earliest days, SAIC’s leadership put a premium on hiring scientists and engineers who didn’t just do the work, but who also were able to sell the work.
• Extensive feedback and lessons learned. SAIC used informal and formal “lessons learned” processes to gather together feedback from employees who were directly involved in new initiatives or particularly complex programs.
• Experiment constantly. One of the hallmarks of SAIC has been the willingness of its leaders to constantly experiment with new business entities, corporate structures, and staff.
Ultimately, if there is one secret to successful organizational innovation, it is to involve employees at all levels in the process. Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned in business—and in life—is that no one person has all the answers, or all the solutions to a given problem. Truly, none of us is as smart as all of us. Hire very smart people, encourage their entrepreneurial spirit, let them focus on customers, and reward them for their contributions. When you unleash the power of your employees to innovate, your organization—and its customers and clients—will surely benefit.
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Dr. J. Robert Beyster (La Jolla, CA) is the founder of Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) and author of the book The SAIC Solution: How We Built an $8 Billion Employee-Owned Technology Company (John Wiley & Sons, 2007) with Peter Economy. Dr. Beyster served as CEO and chairman of the company for 35 years, and he promotes innovation and employee ownership through his Foundation for Enterprise Development and the Beyster Institute at the Rady School of Management, University of California San Diego.
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