I was listening to an episode of the James Altucher show and he shared a story about the sitcom Arrested Development. It turns out that show was so successful that it won six Emmy awards and is generally considered one of the best comedy shows of all time (I missed it; I have never seen an episode but will check it out!). Yet, it was canceled after only three seasons.
As James tells it, the show’s success, and the success of most of HBO’s current shows comes from a unique approach to creating these shows: intense focus on the talent. All of the actors on Arrested Development, for example, were professional comedians and the writers wrote for the talent rather than for the executives at Fox who produced the show. Because of this choice, there was a running joke that the head writer never really moved into his office. He was certain the show would be canceled after every episode.
Finally, he was right, but the important part of the story is why Fox canceled the show. For the most part, the producers left everyone on the show to do whatever they wanted during the first season. After Arrested Development won its first Emmy, however, the executives at Fox stepped in to “fix” one of the best shows on television. You see, after all the accolades and attention, there were suddenly conversations that centered around the idea that “now that people are watching, let’s be sure we are not doing anything to mess this up, no more experimenting or taking chances; it’s too important now.”
The show quickly fell apart and only lasted another season and a half (until it was picked up by Netflix several years later for a fourth season). How do you “fix” a show that is already winning awards and gaining an audience? The people in charge thought the smartest thing to do was to take a show receiving incredible critical acclaim and strip it of everything that was making it work…
The bottom line is this: if you want to run a successful company (or team, or project, or anything), then here is how you do it:
Hire talented people and give them whatever they want.
The failure of companies, teams, and projects begins when we forget why we hire people in the first place: to make it better. When we remove trust and barricade talent in policies and traditions, we take away their ability to do the thing we tasked them to do.
How many times have you or your company failed to meet goals because you failed to allow the talent to be talented? How many ideas were rejected this year (or never brought to the table) because of fear of rejection, retaliation, or refusal to try something new? The irony, of course, is nearly every company touts the need to embrace change, revel in ambiguity, and leverage innovation to create success. Of course, reality looks about as far from the truth as the Cowardly Lion looks from Superman.
One more hat tip to James Altucher for the poignant advice: If you want to be successful, then hire talented people and let them run. Give them whatever they want. Free and trust your most talented players to be talented and see what kind of crazy, magical, and yes, even scary, things start to happen.