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The Four Archetypes

| On 28, Nov 2007

Cass PursellIn my last post, I referenced a recent article found on Forbes.com. The article, “Built for Innovation”, was written by Stephen Wunker and George Pohle. Wunker leads the healthcare, financial services, and telecom industry practices at Innosight, one of the organizations referenced in the article as contributors to the research referenced there, and Pohle is a senior Partner in the Business Consulting Services and the Global Leader of IBM’s Business Strategy Consulting Practice and its Institute for Business Value (IBV).

Their article is based on research on the structures of innovative companies. The authors found four distinct models, or archetypes, that represent the majority of today’s successfully innovative companies that I’ll detail below.

The “Marketplace of Ideas” archetypal organization is led by executives who are content with “leading from behind”, a notion that is referred to directly in the Tao te Ching: “When a good leader is finished, the people think they did it themselves”. That is, lead through empowerment of the people, rather than by undertaking all tasks yourself. This type of organization, modeled best by Google, recruits staff for their creativity and passion for problem solving, and uses well-stated goals and boundaries to provide staff the necessary focus while creating an environment that allows for and encourages experimentation.

The “Visionary Leader” archetypal organization is led by an executive with insight and creativity, such as Steve Jobs, who motivates employees to pursue a vision. This organization values staff who are skilled at working within a team and at executing the leader’s plans. The organization creates processes that are built around well-understood mechanisms aligning the executive’s vision to the team’s daily activities, and typically focuses its collective attention on a small subset of large initiatives.

The “Systematic Innovation” archetypal organization has strong traditional executive leadership that sets priorities, raises urgency at the appropriate time, and allocates resources effectively. Such organizations assign small groups of cross-functional employees to discrete tasks and do not penalize failure. There is typically a high tolerance for dissent and experimentation in the culture, and a number of diffuse product lines, as seen in a company such as Proctor and Gamble, that are impossible for a small set of individuals to dictate and control.

The “Collaborative Innovation” archetypal organization has leadership that is expert in developing strategic alliances and which recognizes when to outsource. Its staff is empowered to make deals with outside vendors with minimal approval polices; the organization excels at choosing the right external partner or technology that enables dynamic reconfiguration. This type of organization is above all excellent at understanding and responding to its customers’ needs (think Facebook).

The idea behind understanding the four archetypes is to place your own organization into one of these contexts, based on your organization’s distinct personality. Trying to imitate a firm that embodies an archetype that your firm does not itself embody is a mistake, and will likely lead to a failed innovation program. Know yourself and don’t try to change your natural method of innovation – as the authors point out, it’s like trying to change your genetic makeup with plastic surgery.