Nurturing a Vibrant Culture to Drive Innovation
published: June 29, 2011, recorded: December 2008, views: 5005
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W.L. Gore’s products alone, such as the eponymous GORE-TEX® water- and windproof fabrics, and a multitude of unique medical, electronic and industrial materials, might seem to assure the company’s success. But Terri Kelly attributes the 50-year-old company’s achievements not just to engineering prowess, but to its singular culture.
This privately held company, with $2.5 billion in revenue and 8500 staff worldwide, began as an electronics company in Bill and Vieve Gore’s basement. In 1969, their son, Bob, discovered a polymer that was strong, chemically inert, biocompatible and water repellant, with nearly infinite applications. But as Kelly recounts, the Gore family determined not just to develop technology but to grow their company around a set of fundamental beliefs. This philosophy underlies Gore’s flow of innovations and sterling business results, says Kelly.
Gore encourages belief in the individual, organization around small teams, recognition that people are in the same boat, and that all must “take the long view.” Bill Gore “hated policy manuals and bureaucratic ways of telling the organization what to do,” says Kelly. In practice, this means, among other things, that employees are equals (associates), who decide what projects to work on based on “their passion,” says Kelly. The company discourages plants with more than 250 associates, to promote intimate communication and team work, and though others “look at this as an unbelievable expense, we see this as a catalyst of growth,” says Kelly.
At Gore, new hiring can last for months, because teams conduct interviews; and “everyone has dabble time.” Rather than encourage chaos, these methods lead to discipline, insists Kelly, leveraging the strengths of Gore’s core technology. The discretion to explore “is earned over time,” and associates commit to the success of a product. They are empowered to experiment, and not punished for failing. Compensation is determined by peer review, and is based on contribution to projects.
Kelly is one of the few individuals at Gore with an actual title; leaders emerge by expressing a vision in clear enough terms to inspire others to follow. Leaders must also do a lot of explaining about decisions and actions. All this talk might seem an encumbrance, but upfront work makes complex projects run much more smoothly, assures Kelly. She says the key question is, “Do people like to be part of something greater than their individual contribution? If they get that part right, all other pieces fall into place, which helps us create an innovation cycle at Gore.”
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