After two years at a big company, I think I've come to understand the way in which people work here. I've come to know it as the 20-20-60 rule.
20% of the people in a big company are operating above their skill/will level. These are the folks who make up the Peter principle bucket— promoted beyond their abilities. They are also the folks who are living true to the famous jazz edict: always be the worst guy in the ensemble. God love them for taking that risk— and that is despite how miserable they may make the rest of us.
20% of the folks are the real A players. When you read about Microsoft stealing XYZ away from Google or Amazon, these are the folks they are talking about. They have the skills to get things done, the passion, and perhaps most importantly, the patience required to make elephants dance (big companies get stuff done). Every time I meet one of these gems, I walk away believing a little more in the human condition.
The other 60% of folks are what most people mean when they talk about the "fat" in corporate America. They generally only good at producing and consuming meetings and at looking good in front of their bosses. They don't take risks, but not because they are to limited (these are not Peter principle folks), but because they are optimizing for a different outcome: their own career advancement. Knowing that most products and services fail, these folks prefer to be "in" with some senior exec that will always take care of them. And when the shit hits the fan they've got their story down pat as to why everything that was outside of their purview was what "went wrong."
I hate these people.*
They are what makes working in a big company completely intolerable. The are what has given Powerpoint a bad name. And perhaps most importantly, they are the detritus that has to be cleaned out if we are to get our economy to a good place again.
I've just finished reading Alain De Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, a somewhat lyrical description of 10 "professions" that range from transportation logistics to electric transmission to airplane manufacture. It's a fun read because at its best, the book provides a very candid look at how the folks in these industries find meaning in their work, no matter how mundane.
My favorite bit happens to be the "biscuit manufacturing" chapter (for us Americans, crackers & cookies) where we get to meet a couple of people that are passionate about getting just the right mix of dough, packaging, and marketing around one of the most basic experiences we humans share. It is in describing this quest for the perfect biscuit that De Botton shows us why it's important to never get caught in that fat 60% belly of the workplace: because if you are there, you will never get more than a paycheck, and certainly not the meaning that most of us deserve from what will be the single biggest time investment of our lives.
* Not personally per se but certainly in the work context.