The Next Member of Your Team: A Biologist or a Physicist?


World Markets Tumble on China Fears.

BT Sport wins Ashes TV rights.

CBI predicts steady growth next year.

The usual range of business headlines on the BBC – and then, buried away at the bottom – is a series of video clips called ‘CEO Secrets.’ The first one I clicked on was James Dyson. His advice is simple:

Employ good engineers and scientists. Trust them and back them.

Well, yes. That’s all very well for James Dyson. He’s a scientist himself. He understands manufacturing, makes clever hoovers and fans that cost three hundred quid instead of £19.99. He needs engineers and scientists.

We’re web designers, we’re a boutique hotel, we’re a professional practice. What do we need with a scientist? Besides, they wear baggy jumpers with coffee stains on them, don’t they? We’re cool, we’re sleek, we’re minimalist…

Trust me: I’ll explain.

There have been three themes that have run through this blog since it started in the early summer of 2010. They’ve never varied, and they’re even more relevant today than they ever were.

Firstly, it’s all about balance. Your work is there to serve your life, not the other way round. However important your business, it’ll never be as important as the people you love.

Secondly, the African proverb. ‘If you want go fast go alone; if you want to go far go together.’ Everything I do through TAB and everything I write on the blog is aimed simply at that – helping you go as far as you want on your business journey.

And thirdly, change. Business was changing rapidly back in 2010: today the pace of change is simply dizzying. Instagram was launched four months after I started the blog. By April 2012 it was worth a billion dollars and as of December last year it had 300m users.

…Which brings us neatly back to scientists.

Because not only is business changing, the way we all need to think about business is changing.

‘If you always do what you’ve always done then you’ll always get what you’ve always got’ has held true for generations. But now ‘if you always do what you’ve always done’ you’ll very shortly be filed alongside the makers of gaslights.

Traditionally, we’ve seen business as a machine. Put the right number of prospects, calls, closing appointments in at the top and the result you want will drop out at the bottom. But as Tim Brown, Chief Executive of Design Agency IDEO, said in a BBC interview seeing business as a machine isn’t going to work in the future:

The way we think about business and society will be much more based on biological metaphors, on the way ecosystems work, because they’re much more complex and much more adaptive.

That’s why IDEO – along with a lot of other businesses – is increasingly hiring scientists for non-scientific roles. They think differently, and they bring different thought processes to the business. George Barrett of Cardinal Health echoed this:

You sometimes have to give voice to that heretic who drives everybody crazy but at least is stirring up enough new thought.

With the world changing so rapidly there’s a real danger that if you’re nose-to-the-grindstone, doing-what-you’ve-always-done, you’ll look up one day and find the world has changed around you – and that your business model is no longer valid.

With more and more businesses being based on knowledge and adapting that knowledge, the traditional advice to hire people smarter than you is more relevant that ever – but now it needs supplementing. You also need to hire people who think differently to you: who come from a different background and have a different way of looking at the world. You need to hire the heretics who’ll make sure you don’t miss new opportunities by simply doing what you’ve always done.

We’ve always known that the entrepreneur needs to work on his business as well as in his business. Today you need to your whole team to be working on your business – and thinking differently is a big step in the right direction.

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One comment

  1. simonjhudson · September 1, 2015

    Since I frequently and vocally proclaim my physicist credentials, I couldn’t not comment on this one.
    Of course I agree, and the slightly different way that I think about things has been an important factor in both my career and development (including driving people crazy at times).
    However it isn’t just the scientists you need. If that I’ve suggested James Dyson properly need some linguists or even art based experts in his organisation. The important thing is to have a spread of thinking styles which will let you tackle problems in innovative ways. Furthermore it’s critical that the members of the leadership team people in leadership positions within your organisation include those with some of these different ways of thinking otherwise it’s not that the people with the left-field ideas won’t be understood and without understanding support is unlikely.

    Back in the old days, when life was simpler (maybe 5 years ago!) It may have been possible to pursue a centrally managed approach to business. On the other hand we seen how that worked out for the former Soviets… Whatever the business structure, rapid evolution, designed in adaptability and the ability for parts of the organisation to react autonomously are almost certainly the key to future success. On the other hand, as they say, nature/biology is red in tooth and claw; it’s uncompromisingly brutal and not all evolutionary experiments survive… But a varied intellectual gene pool will certainly be where I will be placing my bets.

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