The Popup Generation
Why failure is the new success for ‘millennials’.
Today’s ambitious ‘millennial’ workers play by different rules in which the network, not the company, is everything. Neil Gibb explains why organisations need to rethink their strategies to find new ways of using their young employees’ talents, because tomorrow they’ll make up half of the workforce.
London design company Berg has shut up shop. If you don’t know Berg this might not seem like a big deal: design companies come and go and Berg was a small outfit based in the rabbit warren of digital enterprises that make up the area known as Silicon Roundabout, just north of the City of London. But Berg was not any old design company. For the last two years, Fast Company voted it one of the top 50 most creative companies on the planet, sandwiching it between the likes of Apple and Dropbox.
Berg was an extraordinary enterprise, developing concepts and products that pushed the boundaries of the digital frontier. So my initial feeling was one of sorrow: Berg’s abrupt end suggested some kind of failure. But then I caught myself. Berg, I realised, was run by people who played by a different set of rules. I had seen this behaviour before. Like its work, the sudden closure of Berg is actually an example of innovation, of a radical shift in our society as a younger generation emerges with a very different relationship to work and to companies, and a very different view of what constitutes success. Let me explain why.
Why build to last?
In his seminal 1994 book Built to Last, Jim Collins laid out a framework for building high-performing companies. It’s a book that’s still used by many corporations today in conjunction with its three sequels. The thinking behind Built to Last – and behind the boards and shareholders of many large businesses – is based on the Victorian idea that a key measure of business success is corporate longevity. People may come and go, but the company must live on. By that measure, Berg is clearly a failure.
But we are no longer in Victorian times, and the old model of ‘factory and hierarchy’ has long been broken. We now live in a networked age – an age where the network, and networks, are more important than single entities. What Berg represents is a flipping of the old model, a crucial shift for a generation of young workers who have no interest in Victorian ideas. This is because the prime focus of an enterprise like Berg was not to build a company that lasted forever, it was to bring together a group of talented people at a particular time to do great work.
Berg was useful while it was the most efficient way of doing that. When things changed then the group reconfigured and the wrapper that was ‘Berg’ fell away. In the same way that tech companies now talk in terms of ‘ecosystems’ rather than separate products, what we see in the complex interconnected world of modern startups is an ecosystem in which the relationships between individuals and their affiliations to vocational tribes and special interest groups are far more cohesive than their affiliation to any one company.
Keeping up with the Joneses
The career of one of Berg’s principals, Matt Jones, offers a case study in what could be called quantum career development. Matt and I first met at Sapient in a corporate apartment in Jersey City that looked across the Hudson to the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. It was a thrilling time and the view matched. I was used to working with clever people and I was used to being a clever person. But after a few minutes in Matt’s company I felt like a successful kid from the sticks who’d arrived in the big city to find that I knew nothing. Matt was a brilliant creative leader and a natural collaborator in teams in ways that I’d never seen before.
And then – all of a sudden – he left. One minute he was hard at work, and the next he’d handed in his notice. Looking back now I can see that his timing was perfect; the dotcom party was in its final throes. Matt moved onto Nokia. This was the Nokia of the early 21st Century, when it was still the hothouse of mobile innovation. And then – bang – he was gone from Nokia too, joining a bunch of friends in a startup called Dolpr. Again his timing was perfect: it wasn’t long after that Nokia began to fade, battered by the insurgence of first Blackberry, then Apple’s iPhone, and then Android.
I see Matt’s behaviour echoed in the sudden closure of Berg, as well as in the attitudes of an increasing number of the millennial generation. They don’t plod from job to job like previous generations, or wait for things to go wrong; they work hard upstream and then leap forward, in the same way that a surfer catches waves. And this is why we need to look at this type of behaviour and at the closure of Berg through a wider lens.
Matt wasn’t alone. His friends, co-conspirators and collaborators all had a similar ‘digital gypsy’ mentality – attitudes that are commonplace among a new generation of workers. Groups formed and morphed. Ideas were swapped and shared. The edges of companies blurred as people cohabited in office spaces and hung out – behaviours that are amplified today by mobility, social platforms and more flexible work cultures.
(The name ‘Silicon Roundabout’ was coined by one of Doplr’s co-founders, a throwaway line that brought focus to the extraordinary renaissance of London’s near East. This was creativity at its most vibrant – playful, serious, volatile, and highly effective in equal measure.)
Today, Matt is Interaction Design Director at Google’s Creative Lab in New York. No doubt the other Berg principals will pop up somewhere interesting too – after all, they live popup lives, have popup careers, and create popup companies; neurons that blink on and off in the interconnected and constantly reconfiguring world in which all of us now work. Digital natives – people who have grown up with the internet – are everywhere.
Over the first decade and a half of the 21st Century, this type of dynamic and constantly reconfiguring talent pool has come to define how a great many of the millennial generation want to live and work. Their primary interest isn’t in developing a career and working for a company, it’s in developing social networks and working on interesting ideas. What is often diagnosed by their parents’ generation as fecklessness, impatience and an inability to stick at things is actually a desire to ensure that they use their lives, their energies, and their talents on things that are meaningful to them.
They don’t want to be remembered for who they worked for, they want to be remembered for what they contributed and made.
Why everything is changing
The reason that so many established businesses are being upended by disruptive ideas and startups is because they have failed to create the kind of dynamic and fluid environments in which that kind of talent thrives today. Indeed, many have actually gone the other way by tying themselves up in increasingly complex management structures, processes and systems that stifle creativity and genuine innovation. That’s not leadership.
This will only become a bigger strategic challenge in the years ahead: in October 2014, the American Bureau of Labor Statistics pointed out that by 2020, ‘millennials’ will comprise nearly half of the US workforce. So if corporations want to thrive in this era of disruption they are going to have to tear out control structures and loosen the hard lines that they have traditionally drawn around themselves. They need to rethink what they do, and how they operate, in order to attract ‘millennial talent’ – and hold onto it for as long as they can.
Both Google and Apple are showing that this is possible – Matt is just one of many talented people to join Google, and Apple’s recent hiring of designer Mark Newson and Angela Ahrendts, former CEO of Burberry, shows that large companies can still attract big hitters and ambitious, restless talent. But Google and Apple are not ‘ordinary’ corporations: both were born of the buccaneering spirit of the startup generation, from which one might conclude that the kinds of cultures they’ve created can’t be replicated in older, more traditional companies.
But they can and are, as is being demonstrated in a most unlikely place.
Haier is an industrial conglomerate based on China’s industrial east coast. It employs over 70,000 people. In Europe and America it is mainly known as a maker of unremarkable fridges and white goods, if it is known at all. Two years ago, Zhang Ruimin, Haier’s infamously punchy leader, decided to shake things up. The company’s growth had stalled in the US and Zhang knew he needed to do something radical if Haier was to be anything other than a ‘me too’ maker of electrical appliances. He needed to create a culture that could innovate in a way that allowed the company to go head to head with the market leaders from the west.
He didn’t so much restructure the company as carry out a controlled demolition, stripping out the company’s middle management and top-down hierarchy, replacing it with a culture that generates independent innovation teams from the bottom up.
Unencumbered by traditional command and control structures, teams at Haier can now operate with the same popup mentality as a company such as Berg. They exist for as long as they need to, some for the briefest of moments when an idea flickers but doesn’t take hold, others growing into thriving mini-enterprises as an innovation catches the market. This is popup innovation on an industrial scale.
It’s been clear for some years that China is fast moving from being a maker of cheap goods to an innovator in its own right. What Haier demonstrates is that China is also an innovator in management thinking. The results have been spectacular: a company that previously made low-cost copies of what others did, is now generating a series of innovative new lines.
The competitive advantage that is unleashed by such radical empowerment is something that traditional companies and corporations need to confront. Moving the deck chairs in endless reshuffles, restructurings and productivity initiatives is not going to save the day.
If you genuinely want to create high-performing, innovative cultures in these increasingly disruptive times you will need to challenge and question some of the most fundamental notions of what you thought was critical to your organisation’s success – and confront that they might now be what threatens your survival.
Berg is dead. Long live Berg. TS
The Strategist says