Companies are dead
Hysteria from consumers and the media surrounding Apple this week has been phenomenal. The coverage on social media and beyond as the tech giant unveiled its new iPhones and Apple Watch illustrates the continuing strength of the Apple brand. But when the dust has settled, the lack of any real innovation in the new products highlights a key challenge facing businesses today.
Companies as we know them are dying. The traditional concept of “an organisation” is increasingly incompatible with the fast-moving markets of a hyperconnected 21st-century society. And that’s making it hard to innovate.
Larger businesses are really feeling the effects. They find it harder to disrupt the industries in which they operate, as the demands of cash-hungry shareholders force them to play it safe and focus only on delivering consistent financial results. The core ideas and principles that these companies lived by when they entered the market as dynamic, fearless startups have been supplemented by pragmatism and the need for a healthy balance sheet.
There’s no doubt that these businesses have talented people on their books – but they no longer have the flexibility to offer the opportunities that would best utilise the skills of a workforce hungry for the next creative challenge. It stunts innovation inside and outside the company; the next Steve Jobs may already have been lost within a large corporation. (Get out now Steve!)
But things are starting to change. I think we’re moving towards a more fluid “project-based” future – where “employees” aren’t tied to a particular organisation, transitioning instead from project to project. I suppose it’s freelancing, but on a massive scale.
Companies have always been a way of “disguising” people. Thirty years ago, when you got a job your employer became part of your identity. And while I’m sure that’s still the case at some organisations, the idea of “a job for life” is long gone – and remaining at the same company for more than a few years can be viewed as a negative. People’s mindsets have shifted. Instead of telling people “I worked at Apple”, they’re saying “I worked on the iPhone 6” or “I helped launch the Apple Watch”.
More businesses need to start thinking in terms of projects and hiring the right talent for the specific task in hand. They need to recruit for today, not tomorrow. It’s a much more fluid way of working. And if the right opportunities aren’t available for a particular employee, there’s no shame in letting them seek other – more relevant – work outside your organisation. The old notion of a group of people moulding themselves to a business for long periods of time might be over.
There also needs to be a pivot in the way companies are structured. Some businesses are already beginning to experiment, forming small, agile groups of talented individuals who are tasked with creating innovative and disruptive products and services. These teams, sometimes known as “labs”, don’t conform as staunchly to traditional hierarchical structures and instead focus more on collaboration. Of course, these groups have a form of hierarchy in place – strong leadership is vital for harnessing ideas and actually bringing them to life and to market – but team members tend to operate as true equals. Those in “senior” positions are involved throughout the collaborative process, contributing suggestions (not orders) while guiding projects through to completion. A good team evolves around leaders like this.
This is a world away from conventional business structures, where senior figures are disconnected from their teams on the ground. It’s this sense of detachment in large companies that contributes to the death of innovation – where those in charge are only concerned with the numbers, and unlocking the true potential and far-reaching value of the company’s work effectively comes second to cold, hard cash. It’s too difficult for truly creative ideas to break through in these situations; the inflexibility and red tape and pointless bureaucracy squashes innovation in its tracks.
The future for brands
So how will this new project-based approach to work influence the way we interact with and “buy” brands? With people hopping from company to company and project to project, will this continuous movement dilute brand identities as we know them? Without a crystal ball, it’s difficult to say.
One thing is certain: this way of working should encourage brands to innovate more aggressively, such is the competition for the pool of readily available talent. But with a far wider spread of brands creating exciting, cutting-edge solutions, larger players could struggle to maintain long-term impact as consumers gravitate towards the latest products (from whichever project teams happen to release them). The concept of life-long brand loyalty could be called into question.
Or it could go the other way. Instead of consuming a multitude of brands across our daily lives, we might interact deeply with just a handful that offer holistic services.
For example, imagine subscribing to Virgin and using the brand for all your travel needs, from a simple car journey to a round-the-world trip. Or embarking on a relationship with IKEA, with the brand providing every product and service you need for your home, in addition to furniture, including utilities like gas and electricity and even your mortgage. In this potential future, brand loyalty is more important than ever.
Either way, brands that embrace more agile, collaborative, fluid ways of working are far more likely to succeed.
And, of course, the real winner in all of this is the consumer. Faster advances in technology and more innovation – in every sense – mean we’ll benefit from better products and services and evermore seamless, personalised experiences. So we shouldn’t mourn the way companies were, but celebrate what they will (most likely) become.