Blueberry pancakes and battleships
The typical industrial-era organization is like a battleship. Hundreds or thousands of people onboard, and most of them are essential--but most of them aren't actually directly responsible for the work that we hired the battleship to do. Without the fuel people, the navigation team, the folks in the med corps and on and on, it doesn't work.
The battleship can go far, with impact, and change the course of history. While it has exactly one captain, it's the synchronized work of more than a million people (when you think about all the machinists and support folks back home) and it works. It does what we ask it to do.
One more thing about the people on the battleship: just about everyone has a punchlist, an itemized inventory of what they need to get done. And many of them are rewarded for doing that set of tasks more efficiently, more elegantly and with better quality than expected. Great people means the system works even better, but it's designed to survive with people who are merely good at what they do.
The typical professional services company, on the other hand, is a lot like a blueberry pancake. While there's an essential support team, the firm is all about blueberries working in parallel. Each blueberry can work independently, and sometimes they even work on projects that might have conflicting outcomes or views of the world. I don't care how many people report to you. I care about how connected and how brave you are.
As the firm gets bigger, it doesn't get thicker. You don't make a better pancake by making a thicker one. You make a better pancake by hiring ever better blueberries.
And, as you've guessed, most of the blueberries don't know exactly what they'll be doing in six weeks, and most don't work from a manual about the industry's best practices on how to do what they do. It's hard to measure blueberries, but a talented and motivated one can also change the world.
Apple is now a battleship. Most of the tens of thousands of people who work there have a line job, selling, building, fixing or interacting. Only a few are dreaming up something that you can't even imagine.
Your favorite record label, though, ought to be a blueberry pancake. Each musical group is mostly alone, figuring out something that just might work. The goal isn't to lock and repeat and scale. It's to go wide and stay interesting. Great record labels have both better blueberries and the support staff to launch them into the world.
I remember the day we transformed Yoyodyne from a pancake to a battleship. We hired 17 salespeople in 24 hours (increasing the size of the company by 25%) and for the first time, I didn't know every employee well. People had their orders, and we were ready to scale.
If you want to make your battleship work better, be really clear about defining the mission, the tactics, the chain of command and most of all, precisely what you measure from each person on the team.
Your pancake, on the other hand, gives up swing weight and firepower and instead gets flexibility and the possiblity of non-fatal failure (and game-changing magic).
Both work. The problem kicks in when a successful pancake thinks its future is in the battleship business. Or when battleships are asked to dance.