Thinking and acting independently takes courage especially in the corporate world, which rewards sameness and conformity. But to inspire you beyond the conventional, safe and practical, I am giving two summer reading assignments: BusinessWeek’s June 11 article on 3M Corp. and the new book "Einstein: His Life and Universe" by Walter Isaacson. In the former, BW strongly suggests that former CEO James McNerney’s slavish devotion to the principles of Six Sigma snuffed out the company’s long tradition of innovation. That new products developed in the past five years dropped from a third to a quarter of 3M’s overall product mix would seem to confirm the story’s premise. Indeed, some of McNerney’s (he’s now doing his thing at Boeing) reforms were needed to help lift the sluggish giant in 2001, but the story - heavily based on interviews with former employees and current CEO George Buckley - concludes McNerney went too far with cost cutting and Six Sigma. Buckley is trying to restore some of freewheeling spirit at 3M that over the years has yielded hits like Post-it notes, masking tape and Thinsulate. One line in the story I love: "While process excellence (Six Sigma) demands percision, consistency, and repetition, innovation calls for variation, failure and serendipity." Many engineers have innovated or at least tried to in difficult environments so they will identify with 3M. The story, authored by Brian Hindo, is a very worthwhile read.
I’m halfway through the book on Einstein and it’s a wonderful reminder to question what everyone is telling you. Einstein did his entire life, starting in what I guess we’d consider elementary school. He ate and breathed physics, astronomy and philosophy, ascribing to the beliefs of David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Baruch Spinoza and Ernst Mach. He constantly thought about and debunked long held scientific truths. He lived the way he thought - unconventionally. His personal life was often a mess and while percieved as a gentle man, he questionned everything and was unintimated confronting intellectual authority. Out of this was born the greatest scientific genius of the 20th century if not of all time. As Isaacson says, Einstein became "the mind reader of the creator of the cosmos, the locksmith of the mysteries of the atom and the universe."
For a little inspiration, I highly recommend reading both.