Motherhood, Apple Pie and Centers of Excellence

Who could argue against Motherhood and/or Apple Pie.

And, who could argue against creating a “Center of Excellence”.  After all, who wants to create a Center of Mediocrity? No one. So, a Center of Excellence it is.

But, what exactly is a Center of Excellence?

If I have experts in Seattle, San Diego, Miami and New York, is Kansas my center of excellence?

Ask someone proposing creating a Center of Excellence, and they will undoubtedly respond “it’s excellent people doing excellent things with a standard of ‘excellence’”.
Here’s the problem – no one really knows.

How do I know? Well, I truly don’t know that there isn’t someone somewhere who knows. But, here’s the thing I do know. In all of the places I do know of that are now heralded as a Centers of Excellence, no one ever set out to create Center of Excellence. What did they do?

They hired really smart people. They gave them hard problems to work on, and freedom to attack them in creative ways. And, they got really good at solving the hard problems. Oh, and did I mention that they were always trying to improve? This might be the best we can do today, but tomorrow we want to see if we can do even better.

Then, they gave them harder or bigger problems to solve. And, they got even better. And, they may have even gotten to the point where they were the best people anyone could find, and were the best at whatever they were doing.

But, they were never excellent. They were just really, really good.

Let’s look at a few examples.

There was no Center of Excellence at Los Alamos Labs when the Manhattan project was happening – just some of the best minds in physics trying to solve a really hard problem.

There was no Center of Excellence at Lockheed Skunkworks (creators of the SR-71 Blackbird and many other planes that advanced the state of the art at the time) – just a bunch of really, really smart aeronautical engineers pushing technology to its limits and beyond.

There was no Center of Excellence at Apple when they created the iPod, iPhone or iPad – just some really, really smart engineers and designers who carried passion in their work.

And, there was no Center of Excellence at Google when they created a revolutionary new approach to search, or came up with a new way to advertise online, or invented a new way to interact with email, or revolutionized maps and navigation, or created the first self-driving car, or Google Glass (the first device of its kind small enough to actually be wearable).  There were only a bunch of really, really smart engineers who had real passion for what they were doing, and did it as well as they knew how.

So, why do people want to create “Centers of Excellence”? Because they don’t really know how to create the kinds of environments that exist(ed) at Google, Apple, Lockheed or Los Alamos – which is what they ultimately want to have. But, if they use a term like “Center of Excellence”, how could anyone disagree with that, right? And, if we call it excellent, and only hire excellent people and have them do excellent things, it will be excellent, right?

And, everyone who might have to approve of an effort is much more likely to approve it if it’s got the word “excellent” in it, right?

After all, just like Motherhood and Apple Pie, who can argue with Excellence?

And, (here’s the kicker) once it’s created, we can all pat ourselves on the back for creating a “Center of Excellence”. And, we can only attract the excellent people we want if we call it excellent, right? After all, no one who thinks they are excellent wants to be part of anything less, right?

Actually, here there is agreement.

No one who would ever want to be really, really good would ever think of themselves as excellent.




Previous Articles

Three Kinds of Engineers

Only Half Full

Taking a Sit

Making Decisions with Less Data

Temporal nature of success

Being overqualified

Defining what you're building

The real problem


Origins of the name


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