by: Orin C. Davis, Ph.D.
A good half of the initial consultations I have with clients includes someone saying that the company lacks the personnel, time, and budget to engage in innovation, and they need me to figure out how to magically do more with less. In turn, I generally wave my wand in the direction of the actual problem they have, which isn’t that they lack the resources to innovate, but rather that they lack the culture to pull it off.
Here are several common reasons why:
1) The penalties for making mistakes are too high
This occurs when people are afraid of losing their jobs, promotions, bonuses, and/or salary if something goes wrong. An easy way to spot this is when any failure leads to finger-pointing and attempts to free oneself from being responsible and/or liable. The solution to this is realizing that most mistakes really aren’t the end of the world, and the time spent finding out which person to punish is usually better spent fixing the mistake. After all, mistakes are usually due to a random glitch, a misunderstanding/miscommunication (the most common culprit in my experience), or an inadvertent error. It’s usually pretty obvious which of the three it is and dwelling on why one of those three happened is usually a waste of time and energy. Otherwise, you have a bigger problem than you think!
2) No one is listening
It’s amazing how often companies have problems, and employees have the solutions. In almost every case on which I have consulted, I was clued into the best solution through conversations with front-line employees and/or middle management. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, because these are the people who are intimately familiar with the products/services of the company, and also with the people who use them. Consequently, they usually know what’s going wrong, and usually know either how to fix it, or who can provide some clues about what to do. Regrettably, they often don’t think anyone who has the power to make a change will listen, and they can usually back that up with a tale or two of someone challenging a bad idea and getting smacked down or ignored. In still other cases, you have minority employees who do not feel comfortable speaking up for any number of reasons. If you notice that the demographics of the people who have ideas and bring them up are somewhat consistent, start calling your other employees in to listen to them. They are afraid to speak up for a reason, and you would be very wise to find out what it is. Otherwise, you are wasting the very talent you are paying for! For a quick litmus test, determine the percentage of employees who suggested an idea in the last six months — if it’s less than one-third, your culture needs fixing!
3) No job control
This is another one of those “employees know best” situations, in which people should be trusted to know their own work/schedule. Most of the time, employees can (and should) self-manage and budget their time and resources better than a manager. A manager’s job is coordination, and an employee should be working with a manager to make sure that his/her contributions line up with those of the group. But, cases where a manager is telling employees what to do and when to do it may work well when the tasks are algorithmic, but it doesn’t work very well when employees actually need to think and get creative. If you are worried that giving employees more control is going to spoil things, then there is usually something wrong with the hiring process (and you are bringing in the wrong people) or the management process (this could have any number of causes).
4) Short-term thinking
For any number of reasons, many companies are far more concerned with their quarterly numbers than their long-term trajectories, and the two are often at odds. It is crucial for businesses to remember that innovation is a long-term investment that will not pay off in the near future, and that can mean writing off losses for a time. While this is disconcerting to some (especially certain shareholders and CEOs afraid of their boards), they need to remember that any company not seeking to disrupt itself is out to destroy itself.
In general, these four types of cultural malaise are among the common culprits responsible for the apparent lack of time, funds, or personnel needed for innovation. Consequently, it’s not that the firm’s strategy fails to include the resources for innovation, but rather that the culture is getting in the way. As Peter Drucker pointed out, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That said, nothing gets the corporation going like a good breakfast!
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