Many companies boast a value system that speaks to their appetite for new ideas and employee feedback. However, as we all know, culture is about behaviors and not words. Whether or not your company promotes innovation and creative thought has more to do with how your leaders conduct themselves each day than anything else. With the wrong behaviors, many organizations manage to kill innovation and new ideas long before they can even get off the ground. Here are five signs that you have a boss who may be allergic to progress:
Organizations by nature require some form of structure to function effectively. Too little structure and chaos ensues. Too much structure and innovation stalls. In reality, many companies live somewhere between these two extremes. Ultimately, it’s not the structure that destroys creative thought, it’s usually a senior leader who can’t help but focus on “how” an idea evolved as opposed to the actual value the idea might have. If you have ever brought a great idea forward and have been met with the “You didn’t follow the process” line, then you have some work to do in your culture. If you are a leader, think carefully before throwing out this line. In many languages the same words translate equally to “Your creativity smacks of insubordination. Let the grown-ups do the thinking”. Ouch.
If you have a crystal clear vision for your idea, then more power to you. However, in my experience most ideas start off somewhat vague and tend to take shape over time. Ideally, this process involves several iterations with involvement from people you trust and respect. These processes take time and are rarely perfect. A sure way to kill innovation is to refuse people time and permission to dabble in areas where they see opportunities for improvement. I’ve seen ideas with great potential die before getting off the ground simply because they were forced to be evaluated to death. It’s okay to start with a general vision, as long as it gets refined in a meaningful way over time. It’s important that leaders ensure employees understand this. In return, employees should expect some level of accountability for the time they commit to these efforts and the progress they demonstrate. It has to be a two-way street.
It would be nice if we could just plug everything into a piece of software that could then tell us whether or not to proceed with our idea. Life doesn’t work that way. This doesn’t mean everything has to be a ‘gut call’ either. Innovative leaders should simply realize that spreadsheets showing cost/benefit are an input into the process, not a tool to objectively arrive at a decision. As leaders, teach your employees how to ‘manage up’ effectively. There is an art in articulating and documenting the merits of any idea. There is also an art in gaining the support you will need to see it through. Teach employees how to do this, and ensure they know how the dreaded ‘spreadsheets’ fit into the overall process. I have seen leaders make decisions on a project solely based on what they saw in a spreadsheet. Don’t be that guy. Take the time to listen to the employee’s idea, to offer suggestions and advice, and to see (if there’s a prototype) the product/idea in action. Even if this particular idea doesn’t work out, you want them feeling energized about the next idea they may have.
We’re naturally wired to be protective of our ‘territory’. Taken to an extreme, this behavior can drown out innovation in any organization. Let’s say your operations guy has a great idea about how to improve your IT customer support. A ‘Right Workplace’ IT leader would focus on the merits of the idea, with no regard or concern for the source. An ‘innovation killing’ leader would politely (or impolitely) ask the suggesting party to pound sand and focus on their own department. The same mindset leads to spiraling discussions about who ‘owns the idea’ and where the resulting product/service should ‘sit’ in the organization when implemented. If you find discussions drifting away from the pure merits of the idea, then you may have some work to do to build your ‘Right Workplace’.
Not every idea works out. As a leader, how do you handle these situations? Are you focused on how you might look as a result? Or are you keen to learn from the experience so you can help your employee do better next time. How you handle mistakes or failures speaks powerfully to your position on innovation. If people are afraid to fail then, guess what, they won’t be too excited about trying new ideas. Twelve years ago I worked at a major IT company where a fellow developer was widely seen as one of the best on account of how few production breakdowns he had caused. A subsequent conversation with this person revealed that they simply did less work. They admitted to deliberately curbing their productivity because every production system change had risk and the downside was just too big to ignore. Conversely, I’ve worked in an environment where honest mistakes were seen as just that. As a result, employees were rightly focused on learning from mistakes and moving forward. When people know their leaders have their back, they will be far more likely to innovate over time. Don’t be the type of leader who kills innovation by focusing too much on the bumps along the way.
So, is YOUR boss allergic to progress? What are the symptoms you see in your work? What is the cure? ����T)