Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The quiet desperation of corporate innovators

Over the last year I've been conducting a one person listening tour, talking to a lot of my peers in consulting, as well as prospects, customers and friends who work in government and industry.  Of course many of these conversations revolve around innovation and new product or service development (or the lack thereof), and how people are engaged in their work and their roles.

One recurring development that has really troubled me over this period is the uniformity of feedback about innovation, about growth and about large companies' willingness to embrace the evolving future.  I've had the good fortune to talk to hundreds of people, in different industries, in different roles and across different geographies and countries.  One resounding consistent message I'm hearing is that the majority of the people I've spoken with are frustrated by the lack of innovation focus and effort within their organizations and the lack of engagement or emphasis placed on new growth and revitalization in large organizations.  While there is a lot of noise about innovation from all quarters, it appears from my discussions that there is little activity.  And this dissonance between noise and activity is beginning to impact senior people in significant ways.

In fact I'd go so far as to suggest that many people involved in innovation, new product development and who want to focus on growth in major corporations would gladly leave their current companies if they could find companies that would place more emphasis on innovation and growth.  It's strange to see so much frustration at a time when we hear that business is doing so well.

Enter the concept of Flow

Those who follow my blog know that I write fairly frequently about the concept of "flow", because it relates so perfectly with innovation.  Flow was first recognized and documented by a psychologist named Csikszentmihalyi.  He documented the idea that in some activities, people can lose themselves in their work. Time passes without notice.  People are deeply engaged and get great enjoyment from their work.  He defined flow as the confluence of the experience doing a task and the challenge of doing a task.  Too much experience with too little challenge?  Boredom.  Too much challenge with too little experience?  Fear.  The right match of challenge and experience?  The result is flow.

Note that the subtitle of the book is:  creating meaning, enhancing creativity.  These are factors that many people are searching for in their work.  People want to work with passion, on items that create or have meaning for them and others, leveraging their knowledge and creativity.  Talking to many people over the last year it's clear many of them want work that challenges them, creates meaning for them and is interesting and creative, yet they feel constrained by costs and efficient processes, trapped by cultures that are risk adverse, bound by short term thinking.  While corporations claim that people are their most important assets, few companies create structures or cultures or strategies that allow these workers to obtain the most value from their work.

Life in the silo

While many companies have shifted their work environments to more team-oriented work and more open plan offices, the majority of people still work in a very siloed model, constrained by their job title or description.  These job descriptions or titles define what the employee is supposed to do, day to day, but often don't reflect 1) what the company really needs from the employee and 2) what skills and capabilities the employee has that he or she could offer.  In other words, there are operational, psychological and structural mismatches between the actual needs of a company, the structures within which it asks people to operate, and the desires and goals of the employees. 

I'll argue that most large organizations waste 30-40% of their employees' knowledge, time and capabilities by defining roles and responsibilities too narrowly, and further distract or frustrate their employees by failing to create meaningful strategies and fully engaging their staff on a visionary goal.

Corporations are still too hierarchical, too top down, too siloed, too rigid in their definition of work and roles at a time when people are more capable, more educated and want to be more engaged than ever before.  Why are so many potential innovators in large corporations so frustrated?  Why are so many feeling unleveraged and underappreciated?  Because they are given so little leeway, so little support and the expectations and goals for their teams are so limited.

This is especially disappointing because more people have more education and more capabilities than ever before, and access to far more information about their customers, products and markets.  Many people don't need information interpreted for them in order to spot emerging opportunities - they can see the opportunities that their company is ignoring.  What's more, these same people have ideas about how to address those underserved markets, but can't get their ideas heard, supported or funded.

Good to Great

Jim Collins created at least one great idea in his book Good to Great:  the idea that we need to get the right people in the right seats on the bus.  In many cases in business we have the right people, but they are in the wrong seat or the seat doesn't define everything they can do.  Collins also suggested that some people might need to change seats or get off the bus entirely.  Increasingly however I think we might need to look at the drivers, because no matter how good the people on the bus are, if they aren't given effective direction and the freedom and challenges to live up to their skills, then the driver is at fault.

What does it say when an entire generation of people who are tasked with a very important and conceptually interesting task like innovation are frustrated and somewhat defeated by their roles and their work?  What does it say when this attitude is consistent across industries and geographies?  When people speak with passion about doing more, getting more engaged, doing more innovation but feeling constantly thwarted and frustrated by their own management?  

We are at an inflection point in business, where automation and artificial intelligence will cause some rather dramatic changes in how we organize and staff companies.  Now is the time to rethink how we engage people, and fully leverage their passion and energy.  We need to be thinking about how to get the right people in the right seats, and give them the right direction.  It's possible that with new thinking we could have a much more engaged workforce creating far more innovative products and services.  It's possible that we could actually create the conditions for "flow" in our organizations and that they would benefit from those conditions.

The alternative is underutilized people and assets, underachieving and feeling underappreciated, who float from job to job and eventually leave to go start something new where their energy and passion can be fully brought to bear.  Thoreau said many people live lives of quiet desperation.  I'm concerned that this is especially true among a very important subset of corporate employees - those who have the will and the passion for innovation.

What to do?

What can we do?  First, recognize that people ARE the most important assets, especially where growth, creativity and innovation are concerned.  These should be the places where we unleash our people and provide the time and funding necessary for them to create amazing new products and services.  Second, rethink how organizations are structured, the risk adverse cultures that have grown like kudzu, spreading slowly through the organization to stifle new growth and sustain the status quo.  Third, put the right opportunities and metrics in place and tell the innovators to "put up or shut up".  If you believe these folks can innovate, then get out of their way and reap the benefits.  If you think they can't, give them a fair opportunity and measure the outcomes.  Corporations that do this will benefit either way.

I can assure you that any company that demonstrates that it welcomes and encourages innovators will find itself overrun with high quality talent, and if it can put that talent to good use will create compelling new products and services that separate it from its competitors.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:46 AM


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