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Transcript: Learn from companies doing weird and crazy things

Sergey Nivens/THINKSTOCK

KARL MOORE – This Is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, Talking Management for the Globe & Mail. Today I am delighted to speak to Julian Birkinshaw from the London Business School.

Julian you have a book you are working on now about Deviants, can you tell us a little bit about that?

JULIAN BIRKINSHAW – So Deviants for me are companies that are doing weird things that we look at and say, "Is this something we can learn from?" A couple of examples, there is a famous Brazilian company called Semco which is famous for, among other things, letting workers set their own salaries, choose their own terms of employment, and a very successful company but a little bit weird. Another example to date, for example, would be HCL Technologies. It is an Indian I.T. services company where they have been very, kind of, progressive in putting 360 degree feedback online for everybody to look at and that is a very, kind of, courageous practice because it obviously exposes bad managers to everyone else to see. So for me, there is a whole category of companies that people like me, people like you, write case studies around. We like to build them up as exemplars, as role models that other people can copy, but the trouble is they are often, shall we say, so weird that it is very difficult for normal companies to learn from them. So what this new project that I am working on is saying, "We would love to be able to improve the way that we work, we would love to use these examples to try to figure out and decode some of these crazy progressive new management practices, but it is actually quite difficult to do it because those companies are often coming from such a sort of different background."

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KARL MOORE – If they are that unusual and it is almost unique, what can we possibly learn from them?

JULIAN BIRKINSHAW – The beauty of these companies is their idiosyncrasy, that is to say we can hold them up to what is a bit different then what we have ever seen before. The trick is to say we can't just replicate what they are doing because they often come from such a different sort of starting point that a traditional company built on very traditional principles just can't do, but what we can do is to look at what they are doing, decode, if you like, the underlying principles and reasons they are doing the things they are doing, and we can use that.

KARL MOORE – Tell us about one of the deviants and the sort of thing that we can learn from one of them.

JULIAN BIRKINSHAW – So, let's take Google because everyone knows Google: a phenomenally successful company by all measures. When it started out, essentially, Larry Page has gone on record as saying that basically we saw ourselves as kids at grad school who didn't want to leave grad school. In grad school, basically, there are no rules, there are no structures, people just share ideas and get together they come up with crazy suggestions, they work all day and all night and out of this pops great thinking. So their model of management was highly informal and highly creative. Can we learn anything from that? Well, yes and no, because, of course, what has happened to Google over the years as it has grown up is that it has become a little bit more like a traditional company. They have had to impose some structures and some rules. They brought in a chief executive from the outside essentially to try to put people on a bit of a timeline to getting projects to market. What we can learn from Google of course is the principle that when you give people space and time to be expressive (innovation time off is one of their concepts, everyone gets 20 per cent of their time to work on their own projects) people are going to be more effective. So we can take that principle, creativity, space and time, and we can adapt that to our working environment in a much more traditional culture. We can't do exactly what Google does but we can definitely pull examples of things that they are doing and re-interpret them in ways that help us.

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