People, Power, and Polymaths

I've stared reading Lean Enterprise at the recommendation of a friend. These books tend to produce a bit of head-knodding and the occasional 'Amen'! I'll admit it, they are preaching to the choir on this topic. But after the introduction and first chapter I'm intrigued. The focus is how high-performing, agile/lean teams can empower innovation. 

A key premise of the book is that the flexibility of software can accelerate the innovation cycle, and that people, in the form of high-performing agile teams, are a competitive advantage. I'm glad to see the second point - People. Too often these missives focus on process over people.

Earlier this year, I had to chance to visit the folks at the Australian Medical Council (AMC)*. They are a great case for what a small group of incredibly talented and motivated people can achieve. We had toured their state-of-the-art clinical medical testing facility, reviewed their progress for sharing expertise with other global medical boards, and saw how efforts to digitize and streamline the credentialing process were improving public health protection.

I had the chance to ask Ian Frank, their CEO, what was the secret to his (relatively small) organization's big impact. I was expecting some blend of 'navigating the politics of medicine, securing funding, strategic planning... ' Instead, he said this:

"Hire a small group of absolutely wicked smart generalists - find people with broad and complimentary skills over specific expertise. Then give them all the support and responsibility to move mountains, and expect them, hold them accountable, to succeed." **

Aptitude and breadth of experience trumped specific expertise every time. People quite frankly trump process and create in the AMC an organization that punches way above its weight class. 

Can the large enterprise replicate this 'people factor'? People don't scale (and in fact - that's what process is for).  Enterprises can be good at process - scaling. But the small organization (read: startups) will always have ability to create the advantage on people. We'll see what the authors of Lean Enterprise say as I read the rest of the book. 

In the meantime, I'm continuing to lean toward Ian Frank's advice. Hire the absolute best people, favor polymaths and generalists, and value the intellectual and emotional aptitude for success. If you're interested in why you should *be* a polymath for tomorrow's economy, you'll find a recent TechCrunch article interesting.



* the AMC are a client and partner of my current employer Pearson VUE

** Not his precise quote of course, but to the best of my memory his words and spirit.