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The Non-Innovator’s Dilemma

Bad news, Twitter: Marissa Mayer just underscored the continuing relevance of actual personal contact. But will the great ideas that result from more face time be implemented successfully by a workforce that feels gypped?
The Non-Innovator's Dilemma
photo by Nic McPhee

About the Author

Scott Leibs
Executive Editor The Build Network
Return to "The Yahoo Debate"

Armchair-CEO’ing hasn’t been this much fun in a long time. Reading endless takes on the Yahoo kerfuffle instantly brought to mind two very astute takes on the realities of corporate life.

First, as we wrote about in our Fall 2012 catalog, there was the infamous Atlantic article by Anne-Marie Slaughter headlined “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” A high-profile member of the Obama administration, Slaughter had the temerity to suggest that a very demanding job combined with a an actual life combined with the planetary reality of there only being 24 hours in a day may mean that something has to give (more likely for women than for men).

That inspired a commentary by Anand Giridharadas in the New York Times, in which he wondered aloud whether a so-called “beta career” wasn’t a good option for a major slice of the working population, not just working mothers. “Is the only reason not to work past midnight that you have children?” he asked.

“Yes, that your company is in the crapper,” might be a reasonable response. No doubt Mayer needs to make some bold moves, both actual and symbolic. And, as my colleague Ilan Mochari notes, the “infield chatter” that results from people working in the same physical space produces many new ideas that, to date at least, virtual teams struggle to match, even if each person’s individual productivity is exemplary.

But how many good ideas does Yahoo really need? The other insightful take on corporate life that I mention above came from Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker back in 2002. Writing about Enron (you know, “the smartest guys in the room”) Gladwell wondered whether smart people are overrated, and, anyway, how many great ideas can a company actually act on?

That’s a problem Mayer would love to have, of course. As for those employees who must now show up at the office, let’s hope their commutes give them time to brainstorm on things other than job-searching.

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Gladwell came at business innovation from another direction as well, one that Mayer can cite as the blowback rages. In 2008 he discussed former Microsoft exec Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures, a brainstorming club that proved amazingly fruitful in terms of producing great ideas. They met in person.

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