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Creating a Genuine Push for Innovation

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Truth or Consequences
(Photo: kxlly)

In my last post about innovation, I reviewed a number of indecorous truths about innovation, including:

Indecorous Truth #1: Many companies don't want to innovate.

Indecorous Truth #2: There is nothing wrong with a company doing what it does best, and proceeding to excel in that area.

This raises a number of questions[1] about genuine change, and how it is done.  

Here is the ABCDE of it:

At the Top

As has been noted by many FEI Conference speakers, making a company innovative must begin with the C-suite.  Innovation has to be part of the company's mission, strategy (both short-term and long-term), and culture.  It requires significant capital at the financial, intellectual, and social levels, and upper management needs to direct it toward innovating.  This also means dealing with investors and the board, and getting them aligned with the new aims and goals of the company.  Keep the goals clear, meaningful, gutsy, challenging, and actionable, and make sure that they are aligned with the mission and values of the company.[2]  This may mean taking a step back and defining the values of the company[3], and and also developing a purpose for the company that can underpin the meaning of the contributions that stakeholders make to the firm  Indeed, getting alignment means that everyone can see how (s)he exhibits the company's values, lives them on a day-to-day basis, and produces work that clearly relates to a meaningful mission of which (s)he is personally proud.

Bring it on Down

Once the executives establish the route they want to take, they need to get input from the stakeholders.  With so much emphasis on the C-suite, it is easy to forget that investment from top management is only the first step.  From there, executives need to talk with the people in the trenches to get their views of the new goals/strategies/etc.  Doing this means actively listening to feedback and encouraging constructive criticism, which can be very hard to do when it is coming from people several levels down in the company.  Yet, these are the people who are going to be executing the new ideas on a day-to-day basis, so their understanding and buy-in are critical.  Discuss concerns, implement suggestions, and recognize that this is going to take multiple iterations to do correctly (make sure to leave time for this!).

Check the Culture

Especially if the company has not been innovative thus far, it is important to make sure that the culture is adjusting to match the new organizational endeavors.  Changes like flattening the hierarchy (perhaps moving to a matrix structure as a compromise), increasing true diversity, giving employees the opportunity to redesign/reframe their jobs, and incentivizing teamwork and creativity, can facilitate the transition.  Make sure that management understands its new role, and also make sure that the lines of communication reach throughout the company (every employee should be able to get in touch with any other company employee).

Determination Overcomes Setbacks

Even if all of the changes appear to go smoothly at first, there is going to be a period of adjustment.  Employees are going to need to learn the ropes in the redesigned firm, and there is going to need to be a pervasive patience and acceptance of the mistakes and failures that are part of learning process.  Some people may not work well in the new setup, and may need to be reassigned or transferred to another company[4] -- others will simply leave.  The company also may not be successful at first, which can be really painful after being successful (or at least treading water), and may need to expend further resources towards new endeavors and changes.  In all cases, the firm must brave the rapids and stay the course, and that means being accepting and encouraging, even while being honest and [constructively] critical.

Evolve by Staying True to the Values and Mission

For each change, and each new endeavor, make sure that it is aligned with the redefined mission and values of the company.  Be honest about actions, successes, and mistakes, and be willing to alter processes that are out of alignment.  Coach employees through the updates, and make sure that they are in a sufficiently free position to go along with the changes.  In doing all of this, the organization will, slowly but surely, transform itself into a genuinely innovative company.

Orin's Asides

1) I got a lot of questions about the identity of the company that doesn't value diversity, and whether or not consultants are willing to participate in such cosmetic changes (and whether that is ethical).  Let me briefly review some aspects of consulting [1a, 1b]:  

1a) Consultants do not identify their clients without their express permission.  In fact, the only [very rare] exceptions to this rule are when the consultant is going to speak glowingly of the client regarding a matter that does not directly relate to the consulting work performed.  Doctors, therapists, consultants, coaches, and all of the others who work with clients/patients, must take great pains to protect the anonymity of those who use their services.  Yet, for instructive purposes, we will mention general cases, and we almost always muddle some information so that our clients/patients cannot be identified (which I surely did in my post).  In general, I have encountered a number of companies that claim to value diversity and do not actually appreciate it, and this is a rampant problem in the business world.

1b) In most cases, consultants need to spend some time working with a company before they realize that the desire for change isn't genuine.  I have met only a few consultants who will take on a client who wants them to rubber stamp cosmetic changes (but they and their firms get an underground reputation for it), for the simple reason that such a client is very unlikely to be a success story.  Consultants build their client bases and businesses on their ability to make and facilitate actual change, and much of the enjoyment and job engagement comes from having an impact and making something happen (and that's why most of us enter the field!).  

2) I recommend Jim Collins's discussion of BHAG's (see this video, also, and several of the others on Collins's page).

3) If this is proving a bit difficult, try reading Peak by Chip Conley.

4) Whatever you do, do not just fire these people, as that will destroy employees' trust in the company. Give a hand to those who cannot make the adjustment, and help them to find another position that is a better fit.  It maintains trust, builds loyalty, and it's socially responsible (which builds further loyalty, is great press, and tends to foster good relationships between companies).

Orin C. Davis is the first person to earn a doctorate in positive psychology. His research focuses on flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring, and it spans both the workplace and daily life. He is the principal investigator of the Quality of Life Laboratory and a freelance consultant who helps companies maximize their human capital and become better places to work.

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