Ricardo Semler at MIT 2005
About the Lecture
If successful business depends on innovation, wonders Ricardo Semler, why are automobiles made essentially the same way today as they were in Ford's first assembly line 100 years ago? Parallel parking is one of " the stupidest things we do," says Semler, "If we had a day, could we not by tomorrow afternoon figure out a way to make a car" that handles better in this common situation -- or, on a grander scale, escape from the "silly concept" of oil dependent transportation altogether? The problem, Semler figures, is that there's "something fundamental about organizations and ... leadership that makes it almost impossible for people inside a business to change their own industry."
Industries are based on "formats that are basically legacies of military hierarchies," says Semler, which neglect or deny the power of human intuition and democratic participation. In Semler's own firm, there are no five-year business plans (which he views as wishful thinking), but rather "a rolling rationale about numbers." A project takes off only if a critical mass of employees decides to get involved. Staff determine when they need a leader, and then choose their own bosses in a process akin to courtship, says Semler, resulting in a corporate turnover rate of 2% over 25 years. "We'll send our sons anywhere in the world to die for democracy," says Semler, but don't seem to apply the concept to the workplace. This is a tragic error, because "people on their own developing their own solutions will develop something different.