How to Unleash Your Human Potential

"This is the biggest thing I've learned about business," says Scott Cook. "It's changed how we innovate."

Cook, the founder of Intuit, spoke at the Economist's Ideas Economy conference yesterday. Cook, who also serves on the boards of directors at eBay and Proctor & Gamble, sat down with Fast Company to offer his personal insights on the topic of human potential.

Cook began by echoing an earlier discussion from the conference: Human potential in the U.S. has waned. According to recent surveys, about 70% of American workers are not engaged: 20% are actively disengaged, and 50% are not particularly committed. Cook has spent years narrowing down the cause of this lack of engagement, and developing a solution.

"You've seen these people—the people who say: The boss doesn't get it. The company doesn't get it," Cook explains. "They know how to fix it. They have ideas, but no one cares, and no one allows them to try what they think is right. It's crushing to the human spirit and potential."

He recommends allowing your workers to experiment, and make their goal to please the customer—not the boss.

"The way to put human potential on steroids is rapid experimentation," he says. "Got an idea? Okay, what are the hypotheses underpinning that idea, and how can we rapidly test one or more of them? It stops the boss from being the judge—it ends that thumbs-up thumbs-down Caesar approach. Let the customer be the judge."

Cook believes this attitude changes the nature of work—at least it did at Intuit. Several years ago, two of the company's youngest employees noticed their way of idea collaboration had become outmoded. "They had only been there four months, and they looked at our system and said, 'That sucks,'" Cook explains. "They said, 'We can do a lot better.' And they did."

The pair developed a product called Brainstorm, an online collaboration tool that lets Intuit's global workforce share ideas. Brainstorm has become such a success that Intuit is releasing it as a product.   

"You'll see the effect this has on people who work on their own ideas," he says. "I find people will work nights—weekends—because it's their idea. And they love it! They're happy! They deliver better results."

If this sounds at all similar to Google's company culture, which gives employees 20% of their work day to develop their own projects, that's because it is. Several years ago, Cook met a top Yahoo engineer, integral to developing the engine's indexing backbone. Cook asked him about the company's battle with Google, and the Yahoo engineer offered a surprisingly candid answer.

"He said, 'You mean, how come Google beat us so badly?'" Cook says, smiling. "He then described it: 'Google was 60% better than us in monetizing search. We knew it; the advertisers knew it. We announced a huge project called Panama, where we were going to catch up. We spent 18 months on it. And yes, it was 60% better in dollars per search than what we had before."

Here's the problem: Over that same period, Google improved 60% too—without a big initiative behind it.

How did Google do it? Simple, says Cook: rapid experimentation.

"When a new engineer arrived they would say, Welcome to Google, here's your desk. We don't have a job for you. You have a paycheck, but we actually aren't going to tell you what your role is. You're going to find it for yourself," said the Yahoo engineer, Cook relates. "The engineers become self-seeking, just by Google allowing them to run experiments. Again, you've let the customer become the judge," he says.

Still, is it always a good idea to allow so much freedom for workers to experiment with ideas? Is a  thumbs-up thumbs-down approach ever required? (Google, after all, is infamous for endless testing, sometimes to their detriment.)

"There are a small number of people who have the very rare ability to see a new vision that will click with the world, without having to try it out: Steve Jobs, Steven Spielberg, to name a few," Cook says.

"For every one of those, there are ten thousand bosses who think they are that good. And are not. The focus is not: Can you find one person who is a genius? Instead, focus on: How do you build a company of geniuses?"

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