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Yankee Democracy at Work… The “Ingenuity” Lies Within the Ranks

This week, we'll take a not-so-happy look at the state of affairs in many organizations: underlying blocks to innovation.  Gotta look at what’s broke to be able to fix it!  Next week, I promise the happier view, looking at solutions and inspiring best practices being used by innovative companies. 

Ducks in a row According to Bloomberg Businessweek’s “Most Innovative Companies” article, “Most businesses operate in ways that are antithetical to innovation.  They want stability, predictability, avoidance of risk…”  But “innovation is more about managing risk” than avoiding it…” [i]  The functions of quality control and Six Sigma are about “control.”  “The cultures of most organizations are set up to resist fluctuation and purge deviants,”[ii] known to others as “the innovator’s DNA.”

“But innovation is all about novelty and the unexpected…. innovators upset the apple cart, and move the cheese!” [iv] “In almost every company there are the ‘rebel’ thinkers, people who are always looking for ways to improve things, solve problems, individuals that look to the future, not the present or the past.” [v]  Research varies, but reports that 50-90% [vi] of all new product innovations “fail” at even the most successful companies. 

Given this predominant modus operandi, most organizations have a lot of work to do so that employees will feel safe enough to openly share their ideas and take risks.  A great amount of trust must exist in an environment in order for innovation to take place.  Very hierarchical “Win-lose organizations usually are not trusting environments…” [vii] In short, a sense of trust, safety, and partnership are key to innovation which is “a collaborative endeavor… There is little innovation without collaboration, and there is no collaboration without trust.” [viii]

Parallel Organizations: “Skunk Works”:

Some believe that it may be more efficient for large organizations to start satellite entrepreneurial organizations to germinate and develop the innovative ideas, rather than undertaking the significant task of changing the ways and culture of the primary organization.  These sub-organizations are often called “skunk works” or “skunkworks”: “groups within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy,” tasked with working on various projects. (Wikipedia)  The term "Skunk Works" is a registered trademark of Lockheed Martin, which by some accounts, was responsible for the creation of both the practice and term around 1943. 

This model will be explored in an upcoming post, as well.  However, I will say that I am highly skeptical about the wisdom of viewing this approach as the panacea.  It may be best for some rapid solutions or time-to-market “hits.”  However, it does not solve two significant and interrelated problems.  By simply handing over creative thinking and innovation to the parallel, more agile “David” structure versus forcing the larger "Goliath" organization to reshape its management practices leaves the same problem in place: the creative ideas and full range of talents of all of its employees continue to be blocked and wasted.  “Skunk work” organizations can only do so much.  What if the creative genius of everyone within the entire primary organization was cultivated and set to work – what would be possible then? 

As the 2010 Boston Consulting Group report recently summarized in this blog pointed out (and other studies concur) – U.S. businesses do not have time to leave the creative thinking to the few.  All hands are needed on deck.  For the first time since Bloomberg Businessweek began ranking the Most Innovative Companies in 2005, the majority of corporations in the Top 25 are outside the U.S. as new global leaders emerge from Asia.

From My Soapbox… 

I believe the primary shifts that need to occur boil down to this:  “In many organizations, the Exclusive Gate real thinking is seen as the purview of a privileged few.”[ix]  There’s the rub!  From my professional experience, from what I learned in my organizational development master's program, and based on the research I have conducted thus far, innovation and management bottle-necking cannot co-exist.  That’s what many of the IBM CEO study innovation leaders were telling their colleagues.  “Flatten thy organizations!”  Lose, or certainly lessen the hierarchy. 

 “People are dying to bring their passionate, authentic selves to their jobs.  In most cases, their jobs often won’t let them.  These people often represent the undervalued intellectual capital in a company.  Choke personal creativity, and you choke that organization’s chance to flourish.” [x]

Mannequin headsAs the saying goes, “A good mind is a terrible thing to waste.”  Sadly, most organizations, from corporations to small nonprofits to governmental agencies, are wastelands of brilliant, potentially profitable or otherwise beneficial ideas that were smothered by others before they were allowed to see the light of day.

And on a More Cheerful Note

In the next post, I’ll share specific practices being utilized by some to create a “thinking organization that encourages discovery and celebrates new ideas and the people who generate them.”  And then how they gather, vet, and prototype those ideas.  I hope you'll send in suggestions for some of the best practices you've encountered, as well!  Butterfly freedom image

 

 


[iv] Langdon Morris, “Creating the Innovative Culture: Geniuses, Champions, & Leaders,” InnovationLabs. (2007).

 

 

 

 

 

 

[vi] “50 Ways to Foster a Culture of Innovation,” Idea Champions puts it at 50-70% and Wikipedia offers the 50-90% figure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[vii] Langdon Morris, “Creating the Innovative Culture: Geniuses, Champions, & Leaders,” InnovationLabs. (2007).

 

 

 

 

 

 

[viii] Langdon Morris, “Creating the Innovative Culture: Geniuses, Champions, & Leaders,” InnovationLabs. (2007).

 

 

 

 

 

 

[ix] “Fostering an Innovative Company Culture,” EOS Strategies White Paper (2010) attributed to Daniel D. Elash, Ph.D., “Thought Partnerships Build A Company's Thinking Skills.”  (2003). 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[x] “Fostering an Innovative Company Culture,” EOS Strategies White Paper. (2010).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jennifer Blaine et al

Join us for the first part of our podcast interview with the very talented actress and playwright, Jennifer Blaine, and one of her many alter-egos, the delightful Dr. Amir, as the three of us discuss ways to tap into one's creative imagination.  

A resident of Philadelphia, Jennifer has opened for George Carlin and performed with Chris Rock and Joe Piscopo.  According to The Philadelphia Daily News, "Not even 'Sybil' can compete with Blaine's cast of characters.  Her comic genius [compares to that of] Lily Tomlin and Tracey Ullman."

Some of the tools recommended by Jennifer and Dr. Amir:

Jennifer Blaine headshot

  1. Repeat "hmmmm," as in "I wonder…" as a means of helping the synapses between the "right" and "left" hemispheres of the brain to connect.
  2. Consciously breath deeply and steadily, as with meditation, and contemplate or take in the thought: "What is it that I want to create or express?"  Then, without pressure, wait silently and patiently for the answers to emerge.
  3. See yourself as a creative being.  If we only tell ourselves and others that we are not very creative, that only serves to shut the doors to what might otherwise emerge. 
  4. Look for and appreciate creativity and beauty around you and within.  What we focus on becomes more apparent and abundant.
  5. Especially when you are feeling stuck, move your arms, legs, and neck around in a playful,
    loose way with "Creative Joint Play," either with or without music.  This exercise moves energy around your body while helping your mind to loosen up, allowing ideas to emerge. 

Jennifer Blaine & Dr. Amir – Part I
 

 

Stay tuned for the conclusion of this interview in the next blog post!
Cheers!

 

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