Fast Company

Lord of the Fruit Flies

Author Charles Fine on the traits of fruit fly careers.

Charles Fine, a professor at The MIT Sloan School of Management, thinks he may have discovered the corporate equivalent of fruit flies: rapidly evolving companies that compete in fast-paced industries such as telecommunications, technology, entertainment, and advertising. In his new book, "Clock Speed," Fine lays out the lessons that he's gleaned from studying these fruit-fly companies. In an interview, we asked Fine to describe how individuals might apply those lessons to their careers.

How can people tell whether their company is the organizational equivalent of a fruit fly?

Look at your company as a whole, and watch the lifespan of these three things -- Product: How long does the demand last before your company's product is yesterday's news? Process: Is the technology that was used 10 years ago still in use, or must the company wipe its factory-slate clean every two years? Organization: Does the company restructure itself regularly to remain competitive, or do internal structures survive for years?

Viacom Inc. qualifies as a fruit fly, because a newly released video often has just a few days either to establish itself as a hit or to be declared a flop. At the other extreme is Boeing. A full 30 years after the launch of its venerable 747 jumbo jet, mega-profits still flow from the plane's sales. While it sounds great to have a product that survives decades, it can be hard to prepare for the next industry trend, because the industry itself develops so slowly. And if Boeing misses that important new trend, the company may suffer competitively for years. You can't stage a fast comeback in a slow industry.

Who are the fruit flies of the workplace?

The business equivalent of a fruit fly is someone who learns quickly and who consistently turns new knowledge and insights into value for the company. For some people, being a fruit fly might mean cycling through jobs faster than their peers do. But you can be a fruit fly and stay with the same company for years -- as long as you're continually gaining new skills. You don't necessarily leave faster. You learn faster.

How should people respond to the accelerating pace of work?

An individual needs to think ahead, just like a company. Organizations must worry about being successful not only today but also in the future. So it is with people: It's not enough to excel at your job today; you must also seize opportunities that will make you a better job candidate tomorrow. A fruit fly always asks, What can I do in my current job that will make me more marketable down the road?

Coordinates: $25. "Clock Speed: Winning Industry Control in the Age of Temporary Advantage," Perseus Books. Charles Fine, charley@mit.edu

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