Introduction. Maximizing Innovation Potential by Leveraging Employee Engagement.
This week’s second post is focused on a research note published by Gartner from 2011 offering recommendations to maximize the level of innovation and new idea adoption within organizations. Mary Mesaglio’s article “If You Want to Innovate More, Start With Management Innovation” will be covered in detail here and we’ll summarize some great points from that discussion, which are still highly relevant today.
This article is difficult to summarize in small bits because so many parts are useful and well-written. It’s concise and straightforward, and Ms. Mesaglio’s content covers step-by-step recommendations for tangibly encouraging innovation among the workforce. Two notable highlights for me were a) middle management can often be a detriment to innovation, and b) the best ideas often come from outside management or the executive team. We’ll look at those and some other key points below. These ideas are linked – decision-making, employee input, communication, & strategic planning – because none happen in isolation of the others.
This article’s primary idea can be summarized by a quote regarding communication:
“…[a] bidirectional, open approach between employees and management …[is] critical to successful innovation because it relies on the quality contributions of willing, engaged employees.” (Masaglio, 2011).
Areas and Ways Enterprises can Encourage Innovation.
Centralization and the hierarchal nature of many traditional organizations discourages innovation. If structure and hierarchy work for the enterprise – great – but many businesses need to innovate and a traditional structure of tiered management can often be an impediment to the efficient, effective flow of ideas. There are two primary drivers for this, as Ms. Masaglio highlights: the longer an idea must travel (in terms of time and in the number of people between decision-makers), the less likely it is to have immediate, profound effects:
”[If] ideas need to travel long distances before they can be approved and/or executed on… this is a problem, because ideas are bad travelers. By the time an idea has traveled from the desk of the person who had it to the desk of someone with the authority to pursue it, the idea will likely have died along the way or morphed so much that it is no longer valuable. Ideas … have a specific, short-lived energy that weakens as the distance between the creator and the decider increases.”
2) Incorporating Employee Input.
Ms. Masaglio notes that the innovative process normally consists of a series of steps – (a) set the scope, (b) gather ideas, (c) evaluate and select ideas, (d) test/prototype them, (e) implement them, and (f) promote them. Our article states that while many organizations elicit employee input during the beginning – while gathering ideas – they often do not include ‘the crowd’ in the subsequent phases of the decision. Design thinking changes this, by testing ideas iteratively with the customer or audience, but not all firms have adopted this philosophy. Below, a quote highlights that most organizations are probably failing to maximize the potential of their workforce’s innovative ideas:
”There is little evidence to support the notion that a person’s authority in the decision chain is directly correlated to his or her ability to evaluate the worth of an idea. Some recent experiments with crowdsourcing reveal the opposite — that crowds are better than individuals at recognizing an idea’s value, and that managers are often no better than frontline employees at this task.”
“…middle management blocked the flow of ideas. This occurs for three main reasons…[the] triad of operational focus, risk aversion, and reward misalignment reinforces middle management’s interest in maintaining the status quo.”
The ways leadership communicates is important. Our author notes that leadership often believes that if they are clear, precise, and complete in their communication, this will create positive results. In many functional areas, it does – especially in more traditional, hierarchal organizations, where risk aversion is high and the culture wants clarity and specificity. However, innovation is a different activity. It requires leadership to communicate in ways which truly motivate and enable employee to ideate to their potential. Our author does a great job of highlighting these key considerations:
”…communication is often misunderstood by innovation leaders. Many believe that, if you explain things enough, then people will be on board. Arming people with information on the why, what and how of innovation may still result in resistance on a scale that could undermine the innovation effort. In general, in innovation, a communication rule of thumb is for managers to listen more and talk less, and to avoid using a broadcast-style unidirectional approach. What is most important to this audience? How will innovation and their participation in it improve their work and their lives?”
Other recommendations for maximizing communication potential to enable innovation:
– Be creative. Ms Mesaglio recommends getting away from using rote communication like speeches or lectures and moving to methods which are fun and interactive, like “…cartoons, stories, images and plays.” I’ve seen examples of leading innovators using methods such as holiday plays and bringing employees in to sing and dance (volunteers, of course) to build teams and connections amongst leadership and other employees – all great ideas.
– Communication is a central job activity for innovation managers. “Communication in innovation is… not a side activity but rather a central part of the job.” I would caution that meetings are not what our author intends as effective communication. While meetings have their place in the communications process, some organizations over-use meetings by thinking that more communication is better. Also, many meetings become procedural than content-focused. Communication can follow a more innovative approach, like the fun, interactive examples above, and I recommend avoiding recurring meetings unless they have tangible outputs – such as decision boards. This avoids the monotony associated with recurring calendar events that may not be truly needed within the timeframe.
– Create a sense of urgency. Our author notes that “most successful innovation efforts rely on real or artificially created urgency to work. For example, a five-day-long campaign to submit and vote on new ideas around a specific challenge is generally more effective than an open-ended approach such as a suggestion box on the intranet.” By creating time-bound conditions for innovation, we create the required urgency that is that inherent part of human nature which drives creativity. Some – not all – employees work better under time constraints and this pressure.
– Connect on more than just a logical level. I left his point for communication last because it is perhaps the most important. How do we achieve truly motivational messages which elicit the best from our team? Creativity and “innovation messages (and indeed all management communication) should be honest and candid … [and should] relate to employees on an emotional, rather than just a logical, level.” Humans are ultimately emotional creatures and putting cold, emotion-less messages into the workplace doesn’t drive creativity. Rather, appealing to bringing a piece of humanity (patience, care for employees, freedom of expression) does.
4) Strategic Planning.
Flexibility in planning and operations can be a boon to innovation, because ideas can be cut short if timelines or production goals are too rigid. When managing engineering design projects, most often the team doesn’t know how long it will take to innovate a new design. Masterpieces of creativity aren’t created on pre-determined timelines:
“Traditional strategic planning… exclusive to senior management…[is] type of strategic planning is fairly rigid and can inhibit innovation, because the appearance of new ideas does not conform to an externally laid-out planning time frame. New ideas are likely to crop up throughout the year, not just during annual planning cycles.”
“An important management change to encourage innovation is to create more flexible, responsive plans that can adapt throughout the planning cycle.”
Mesaglio, M. (2011, September 13). If You Want to Innovate More, Start With Management Innovation. Gartner.