The corporate genius award

The MacArthur foundation just released the 2003 MacArthur fellows. Each recipient receives $500,000 ($100K per year for five years). Program Director Daniel J. Socolow in his own words:

“…the MacArthur Fellows Program has been at the core of the Foundation’s efforts to recognize and support individuals who inspire us. The new MacArthur Fellows illustrate the Foundation’s conviction that talented individuals, free to follow their insights and instincts, will make a difference in shaping the future.”

The nomination process consists of several hundred secret nominators who identify individuals “who demonstrate exceptional creativity and promise.” For some disciplines like some in the often neglected humanities, where money doesn’t come easily to folks, what a wonderful award for these innovators among us to continue to push the envelope.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how corporations reward the talented individuals within their walls. The easy way is of course by money and/or options. Same thing happens with the MacArthur award. But where the MacArthur foundation differs from corporations is with the grant’s allowance for freedom to innovate.
Anecdotally, it appears to me that for the most part, that the folks who are routinely promoted in corporate America are those that aren’t pushing the envelope and developing truly great innovations, but simply doing what they’re told. Whether it’s the right or not, profitable or not or the best customer experience doesn’t seem to be the main factor. It’s doing what they’re told is what’s rewarded. I work with (and have worked with) some pretty darn exceptional people. For the most part, I haven’t seen any of them advance to the ivory tower. Makes me wonder whether senior management at companies give a damn about free thinkers or simply need people to do what they want to get done.
Oh-oh, getting cynical. What I really wanted to note today is whether it makes sense to bring this notion of the MacArthur Foundation (often called the Genuis Award) to corporate America. The biggest new buzz term these days seems to be “innovation.” What would the award look like from a corporate perspective to foster innovation? Sure, a bump in compensation would be expected for corporate geniuses. But what money does for MacArthur geniuses (freedom to continue to create) could be done by allocating budget or human resources for corporate geniuses.
The stars that have left the companies I’ve worked in the past left not because of comp, but frustration for not being able to be creative and make a difference. Why not award the top .5% every year with a grant of resources to do with what they want in their functional area to build the best possible experience (in some area of strategic importance?).
True innovators don’t do well operating in the status quo. There may be many ways to innovate. One way might be freeing up some super creative individuals with budget to do what they think is right. Sure there are dangers for folks wasting money and time working on stuff that doesn’t matter. That’s why the grant only goes to the top .5%. But based on my experience, the risk of super smart, former “delivers” doing the wrong thing doesn’t seem like a big concern to me.

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