Monday, July 23, 2012

Why your team won't innovate

I read a post today from Paul Pluschkell at Spigit which read:  The bonus of empowering people to make real change is that you end up with a bias towards action.  This statement has the benefit of being true, but peeling back a deeper insight.  Too many businesses talk about empowering employees, but the fail to understand how to empower them.  Further, they fail to understand what the real outcomes will be if they empower them.  That's a shame, because one of the clear benefits of "empowering" your team is the potential for more innovation.

Empowered people are proactive, they take action to solve problems or address challenges that are evident before them.  They don't wait to be told what to do, and they are actively engaged in what they do - they are excited about their work.  Empowered, engaged people are a powerful force to reckon with, and also a force that needs careful use and guidance.  Empowered, engaged people can "run off the rails" if there isn't a clear set of objectives or guidelines in place that help them use that passion and energy effectively.

And here's where empowerment breaks down.  Too many executives want interesting change, want the growth potential that's possible from engaged employees, but would have to define a clear course and strategy that will allow their teams to harness their energy.  And this is where empowerment fails.  It's hard work to create a strategy and communicate it effectively.  Further, the more definitive the strategy, the more change it implies to an existing organization, and the longer it will take to achieve.  Finally, the more definitive the strategy, the more an executive risks if the strategy or goals aren't met.  There's safety in numbers and the bell curve demonstrates that reversion to the mean in any industry is where we'll find most competitors.

This is to say that innovation is a complex, integrated system of beliefs and actions.  I can empower people, but if they aren't engaged or don't have clear direction and goals, they will simply end up frustrated or working diligently on very incremental issues.  I can engage people, but if they aren't empowered to create, or if they don't have clear goals they will engage in meaningless tasks.  If I create clear goals but don't align the culture and the teams, or neglect their energy and passion, once again I've built half a bridge.

Few organizations seem to grasp just how pervasive innovation must be, and how interconnected to a range of strategic and cultural issues.  These words - empowerment, engagement, strategic - are all important and regularly used by executives to describe their work and the impact they are having on an organization.  But they aren't discrete activities - they are mutually reinforcing, and innovation thrives in organizations where all are thoughtfully applied and consistently reinforced.  Yes, this means that innovation must spring from strategic objectives and executive management.  That does not mean that the ideas come from those locations, but the corporate objectives, frameworks and cultural accelerators do. 

The common refrain is:  our people aren't innovative.  That's rubbish.  People are inherently, naturally innovative.  It's your culture and your lack of engagement, empowerment and inability to define a clear strategy that becomes a barrier to innovation.  Even the most creative, innovative people in the world would struggle to innovate with no clear challenge to solve, no passion for the problem and a lack of empowerment.  People talk about Jobs, or Edison, or other innovators.  Do you think they suffered from a lack of vision?  Do you think they were engaged in their work?  Do you think they were empowered, either by themselves or others?  If you constantly hold up Jobs, Edison or others as innovators, why not replicate their success by realizing how much of it was based on empowerment, engagement and clear strategic vision.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:51 AM


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