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Monday, November 15, 2004

The Fabric of Creativity -Part I

Fastcompany has come with an excellent article about W.L.Gore where,it notes that innovation is more than skin deep: The culture is as imaginative as the products. W.L.Gore & Associates ranks #12 Among Fortune Magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For”. Excerpts from the article about how the process and people work together inside W.L.Gore :

Using objective measurements, to identify creativity and innovation proved difficult Patents can be counted and discover that IBM is the leader, with a record 3,415 awarded in 2003. But patents have come to mean a lot less than they used to. The most creative companies of the Internet era -- Amazon, Google, Yahoo, eBay -- have only a few patents apiece. You can look at who spends the most on R&D, but a torrent of cash hardly guarantees breakthrough innovation. Over the past decade, Microsoft has poured $5 billion or more a year into research, but its vast expenditures still haven't yielded the next big thing. For starters, we looked for a company with a long history of innovation. We needed proof of sustained inventiveness through multiple waves of technological and economic change. That knocked out Amazon, Google, and the other Silicon Valley startups. We also wanted a company that is as adept at product innovation as it is at process innovation. That eliminated Dell, which is highly innovative at making its operations incredibly efficient -- but not at bringing original and inspiring offerings to consumers. Apple, on the other hand, keeps coming out with dazzling new technologies, but count it out for process: The company relies too much on the inscrutable instincts of one man. We wanted a company where innovation is resilient and doesn't depend on the ingenuity of a single individual or even a small cadre of geniuses. That led us to a few big operations that have hatched countless new products over the decades -- justly famous names such as 3M and General Electric. But then we found an outfit that does it all, without the overwhelming size and awesome resources of a GE. In other words, a company that proves that brains beat brawn. Pound for pound, the most innovative company in America is W.L. Gore & Associates.Its most famous product: Gore-Tex fabrics, which have a transparent plastic coating that makes them waterproof and windproof but keeps them breathable. Gore is big -- with $1.58 billion in annual revenues and 6,300 employees Still, Gore makes so many products that the total is hard to pin down -- with all the variations, the count rises above 1,000. Gore's medical products, such as heart patches and synthetic blood vessels, have been implanted in more than 7.5 million patients. Its cutting-edge fabrics are worn by astronauts and soldiers, as well as trekkers at the North and South Poles and on the world's highest mountains. It makes the number-one products in industrial and electronics niches ranging from filters for reducing air pollution at large factories to the assemblies for fuel cells that convert hydrogen to electricity. In many businesses, Gore has come out of nowhere and seized the market lead, as it did with its smooth Glide dental floss, the first floss that resisted shredding, and its Elixir guitar strings, which last three to five times longer than normal strings. When Gore's people think they can create a much better product, they're fearless about attacking new markets. Gore is a strikingly contradictory company: a place where nerds can be mavericks; a place that's impatient with the standard way of working, but more than patient with nurturing ideas and giving them time to flourish; a place that's humble in its origins, yet ravenous for breakthrough ideas and, ultimately, growth. Gore's uniqueness comes from being as innovative in its operating principles as it is in its diverse product lines. This is a company that has kicked over the rules that most other organizations live by. And in its quietly revolutionary way, it is doing something almost magical: fostering ongoing, consistent, breakthrough creativity.

Epiphany in the Car Pool – What really distinguishes Gore is its culture, which goes back to 1958, when founder Bill Gore said"communication really happens in the car pool." At a hierarchical company, the car pool is the only place where people talk to one another freely without regard for the chain of command. He also observed that when there's a crisis, a company creates a task force and throws out the rules. That's when organizations take risks and make big breakthroughs. Why, he wondered, should you have to wait for a crisis? So Bill Gore threw out the rules. He created a place with hardly any hierarchy and few ranks and titles. He insisted on direct, one-on-one communication; anyone in the company could speak to anyone else. In essence, he organized the company as though it were a bunch of small task forces. To promote this idea, he limited the size of teams -- keeping even the manufacturing facilities to 150 to 200 people at most. That's small enough so that people can get to know one another and what everyone is working on, and who has the skills and knowledge they might tap to get something accomplished -- whether it's creating an innovative product or handling the everyday challenges of running a business
Gore doesn't have an impressive campus that proclaims the company's success. It consists of several dozen bland, low-rise buildings scattered near the Delaware-Maryland border. They're separated far enough from one another so that each can house a small, autonomous team. Diane Davidson, was hired to work on Citywear, an effort that has persuaded designers such as Prada, Hugo Boss, and Polo to use Gore-Tex fabrics in clothing that people can wear to the office or out to a party. Davidson's was surprised that there are no bosses and no clear-cut roles. "I came from a very traditional male-dominated business -- the men's shoe business," she recalls. "When I arrived at Gore, I didn't know who did what. I wondered how anything got done here. It was driving me crazy." Like all new hires, Davidson was given a "starting sponsor" at Gore -- a mentor, not a boss. As an experienced executive, Davidson assumed that Gore's talk was typical corporate euphemism rather than real practice. She eventually figured out that "your team is your boss, because you don't want to let them down. Everyone's your boss, and no one's your boss." Davidson saw that people didn't fit into standard job descriptions. They had all made different sets of "commitments" to their team, often combining roles that remained segregated in different fiefdoms at conventional companies, such as sales, marketing, and product design. It took a long time to get to know people and what they did -- and for them to get to know her and trust her with responsibilities. Eventually, Davidson went on to oversee the sales force and product development for Citywear. She describes herself as a "category champion." She's involved in marketing, sales, and sponsorship -- a good example of how Gore's associates create roles that aren't easily defined by traditional corporate departments. Her experience is commonplace. "You join a team and you're an idiot," says John Mongan, who has switched into new teams five times over a 20-year tenure. "It takes 18 months to build credibility. Early on, it's really frustrating. In hindsight, it makes sense. As a sponsor, I tell new hires, 'Your job for the first six months is to get to know the team.”
(Part II Shall follow)
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