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The Game that Destroys Innovation -- Part I: We Do Not Talk About The Game

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It's called The Game.  There
are no formal rules, what rules there are may contradict the "official" rules, and no one will openly admit to the rules or tell you what they are.
Management rarely admits to the existence of the Game, and HR tends to
deny it, as well.  As an employee, you must play the Game with minimal errors or
face severe repercussions up to, and including, termination. 
The vast majority of organizations that I have
encountered, from schools, to businesses, to consulting firms, to governments,
has some version of the Game, and the only difference between these places is
how viciously people play it.  In some places, the Game is just minor office
politics, while in other places it is so ubiquitous that it coats nearly every
false smile and overeager handshake one encounters.
Here's an example:
Over the course of my many years as a freelance data
analyst, I have gotten multiple requests in which I am supposed to analyze the
data objectively so that I can arrive at the client's prearranged conclusion. 
Yes, you read that correctly.  As an outside consultant, I am expected to be
honest and objective and to report whatever is in the numbers.  Yet, the client
expects me to massage the numbers, obscure certain limitations, and twist the report
so that their unsubstantiated conclusion can appear to be "evidence-based." 
My wallet hates me for turning those jobs down, especially since some of them
paid decently, and that is the cost of refusing to play the Game.  I know that
at least one of those firms got someone else to crunch the numbers, and the
biased conclusions did indeed get published.  Some argued with me that since
there's always someone willing to take the money and do the job, why shouldn't
I?  Can't I just play the Game?
Let me ask you this: If you were using the
products/services of the companies who asked me to run data, would you want me
to play the Game?  It's a funny paradox, because some of the very people who
chided me for not playing the Game admitted, when pressed, that it wouldn't be
right for me to do so.  Yet, so many companies expect their data analysts,
scientists, and others to be dishonest so that the company can look good, and
then wonder why these very same people are not also innovating.  It's pretty
hard to innovate when playing the Game forces people to choose between their integrity and their job, and those "little white lies" add up.  Employees end up immersed in fear, and unwilling to venture
an unwanted opinion, lest they violate some rule of the Game and lose their job. 
But, it is precisely that dissension that is so badly needed in order to
identify problems, solve them, and make things work.

Of course, any kind of dissension, even when appropriate, can be risky. 
Consider the Game of [in]subordination:

Courtesy of the Peter
, too many managers end up in a position of power when they are not
trained to handle it (this holds double when the person has to manage experts
how to do it
]).  In such situations, a highly-competent subordinate
eventually comes across a situation where doing what (s)he's told will ruin a
project and/or cause a deadline to be missed.  The common "solution" is to do
what the manager said, and then to add on enough bonus features to fix it, but
there may not be enough time to do both, and a missed deadline can mean
consequences for the employee.  Another "solution" is to give the manager the
result (s)he requested, and then suggest a fix when the manager sees the
problem, but some managers will see the initial screwed-up result, and then tell
the employee that (s)he is incompetent (for following the manager's
orders!).  This can also result in a missed deadline.  Yet a third "solution" is
to ignore the manager's orders and just get the project done properly, but that
falls quickly if the manager doesn't like the process and calls the employee
"insubordinate."  And, of course, telling the manager what's wrong with his/her
orders can be construed as a form of backtalk that will lead to problems, even
if the manager supposedly welcomes disagreement.

Some will say that it's all in
how the orders are questioned, but there are plenty of managers who
want to give their orders and get a "yes, boss" -- any other response is a
problem.  I once heard someone counter even that with, "just ask questions
instead of making statements."  That can work, but only if the boss understands the reasons for the questions and has the time to answer them.  Otherwise, the boss perceives the
employee as stupid, incompetent, and/or wasting the manager's time.  The Game is
to figure out which "solution" actually works, and praying to whatever one holds
sacred that they guess correctly and don't end up with a manager where none of
those "solutions" work.  When employees cannot speak up, and can even be fired
for doing their job, there is no innovation.

And then there's the workload Game:
During one consultation, a potential client asked me how
to develop an innovative culture in one of her company's departments.  She felt
that the people in that department were not doing enough to innovate, and not
putting in any effort over and above their basic job descriptions.  I asked
about what they were expected to do, and, after highlighting the time-consuming
nature of the group's many tasks, I reviewed several initial options.  The first
was to make a few strategic hires, the second was to create some incentive for
her staff to put in more hours to do the innovation, and the third was to do a
full review of the job tasks in the department to restructure the staff's
responsibilities to make more room for innovation.  The senior manager stated
flatly that there is no money for any of those suggestions, and all of the tasks
assigned were essential and could not be removed.  But, if I wanted her as a
client, I was going to have to come up with a cost-free suggestion for how to
get the staff to innovate.  At this point, most objective people have come to
the obvious conclusion that this manager wants something for nothing, but it
took me the better part of 20 minutes to explain that.  I did not ask, but I can
only surmise at the amount of pressure her staff faces on a daily basis dealing
with a manager who expects them to go beyond an overly-full job description. 
Even at Google, the famous 20% time has
become part of the workload Game
.  If employees are not explicitly given
time to innovate, and are not directly rewarded intrinsically or extrinsically
for doing so, there will be minimal innovation.

Ultimately, an innovating company has two choices: kill off the
Game, or go down in flame.

(Stay tuned for Part II: Killing Off the Game, and Part III: A Better Game: Calm Voice)

Orin C. Davis is a positive psychology researcher and organizational consultant who focuses on enabling people to do and be their best.  His consulting work focuses on maximizing human capital and making workplaces great places to work, and his research focuses on self-actualization, flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring. Dr. Davis is the principal investigator of the Quality of Life Laboratory and the Chief Science Officer of Self Spark. (@DrOrinDavis)

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