Innovation Lessons from Garage Majal


Here’s an interesting article about Ron Dennis, the leader of McLaren.  That’s him on the right in the photo above, accompanied by the author of the article, semiotician Stephen Bayley.  It’s a fascinating walk through the McLaren Technology Centre, which is where wickedly beautiful and effective machines like McLaren F1 racers and the Mercedes SLR are wrought.

One can’t read about Ron Dennis without thinking about Steve Jobs.  Both have created high-performance organizations which are able to innovate on a routine basis.  Both run organizations which are hierarchical and honest about it.  As Dennis remarks to Bayley, "Dust can be eliminated," and I think that’s as much an organizational metaphor as a statement about the level of hygiene found at McLaren.

How does one organize for innovation?  I’m beginning to think there’s a bimodal answer at work:  either build an organization around an exceptionally "right" individual like Jobs or Dennis, and have every aspect of it amplify their personal decision making abilities, or build a powerful network of individuals, a la Mozilla, which determines what is "right" based on the power of thousands of individuals — some talented, some not so — making deep bugs shallow.  In other words, brilliant dictator, or brilliant network.  Between those reigns the mediocrity of committees and task forces and focus groups.

What do you think?

6 thoughts on “Innovation Lessons from Garage Majal

  1. “Between those reigns the mediocrity of committees and task forces and focus groups.”
    Where would you then position Toyota? Have you read The Toyota Way?

  2. I think that, more than brilliacy, this is about confidence and daring. A company based upon innovation is constantly on the verge of huge success or failure (remember last years Mc’larens, abbandoning 1 of 2 races), or at least, there’s this “fear of the unknow” who, at least for me, makes things harder (although the prizes are higher!).
    I think that any company, office, small office or personal entrepeneurship who aims at innovation should focus on providing a huge network and felling of confidence. That’s the soil were innovation grows.
    In that context, i agree that a charismatic leadership is pretty useful (like Jobs one)

  3. Oh, come on now…. Apple is not completely Steve Jobs and you should know that, right? Seriously, Apple is an amazing amalgam of talent from the most stunningly diverse backgrounds likely in the industry. True, they are held together by Jobsian magic, but while Jobs is someone I admire, he can’t run the whole damn company. There was also some pretty significant talent that came along with the Next crew as well who pretty much integrated Apple into their core.

  4. These are all great, provocative comments. Thanks for that.
    Toyota: I’d say they’re a brilliant network. The Toyota Production System ensures that pieces of evidence or “hard facts” flow freely between all types of workers. Decisions are made by people most in the know, as opposed to people most in charge. That’s a network at work. That sensibility bleeds in to the way products are developed there, though I don’t know enough to talk about Toyota’s product development process. If you know more about it, I’d love to hear more.
    Apple: yes, Apple is not completely Steve Jobs, but as I stated above, it is an organization built in the image of Steve Jobs. He’s surrounded himself with very good people who all share a common worldview, and they enforce that rigorously within the organizaton.
    This brings me to Christensen’s organizational model of Resources, Processes, and Values. I prefer to talk about People, Resources, Processes, and Values, but the point is that the capabilities of any organization can described by those three or four factors.
    To clarify what I said above, in an Apple or McLaren model, the people element really matters. In some ways, those organizations make little or no attempt to differentiate between key people, such as Ron Dennis or Steve Jobs, and the larger culture of the organization, as expressed by their values – how do they make decisions? To BWJones’s point above, certainly Apple and McLaren have instituted sophisticated processes — witness the stunning go-to-market implementation of the iPhone, or the incredible logistics exercise behind running a McLaren F1 car — but they’re not prisoners to a diffused decision-making bureaucracy.
    In a networked model like Mozilla, people matter, but not as individuals so much as roles. I’d argue that you could take “key” individuals out of any brilliant network and the network would very quickly recover, if there was anything to recover from at all. If you took Jobs or Dennis out of their organizations, things wouldn’t be the same. I think the stock market would agree with that last statement.

  5. BW, it is pretty obvious that Apple, nor any other company, is a “one man band”, but i truly agree with Diego that building a company “around” an exceptional individual surely is a way, since it creates a sort of mystique and provides the confidence i previously posted of.
    However, in this line of argument, the “leader” almost anointed by gods is a true danger, since when he dissapears everything seems to vanish. The network kind of organization (ie. Mozilla) maybe be harder to fulfill, but surely it will last more.

  6. If you want to see an example of innovation look at Buell Motorcycles. They have a leader with vision and creativity who has recruited a team of people who are equally intelligent and creative as he is. The company is certainly the result of one mane, Erik Buell, having vision and drive but also would not exist if he had not been able to recruit people who bought into the vision and were willing to work their butts off to make it happen.
    The company works because they have a network of exceptional people BUT they also have a network of folks who would not be seen as exceptional; the folks on the assembly line and in the fabrication department who look like regular workin’ stiffs, but because they are part of this exceptional network they behave in exceptional ways.
    It all come back to the leader, Erik Buell has vision but much more importantly he infuses those around him with this vision and then he works harder than anyone I have ever met to make that vision succeed.

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