Are Your Managers Stifling Innovative Ideas?
The other day, Braveheart was running on some cable channel or another, and I watched the last ten minutes or so. At the end of the movie, Mel Gibson’s character screams out the word “freedom” as he is being tortured and summarily executed.
Less dramatically — but important to your bottom line — somewhere in your company, one of your managers could be the executioner in this scenario, and freedom of thought is dying on the table while gasping for air.
Companies that want to innovate must leave room for employees to cultivate innovative thoughts and ideas. In organizations that operate with typical management structures, however, the free flow of ideas might be suppressed by insecure bosses who fear being shown up or just fail to recognize innovative ideas when presented to them.
“If executives are serious about creating an environment that ensures that good ideas get the attention they deserve, they need to commit themselves to the principle that no single person in the organization should have the authority to kill a good idea or keep a bad idea alive,” says Rod Collins, director of innovation at Optimity Advisors and author of Wiki Management: A Revolutionary New Model for a Rapidly Changing and Collaborative World. “There are several processes that support this principle. One that is used by Google is the 20 percent rule, where the leaders at Google provide the opportunity for staffers to spend 20 percent of their time on their own initiatives and ideas, including working on ideas that may have been previously turned down by their managers.”
Collins also notes that some organizations have their own form of Shark Tank-style process where small groups of employees can pitch their ideas to leadership.
“In this process, anyone is free to affiliate with anyone else into self-organized teams to develop and work on an idea, as long as they are getting their regular work done,” Collins explains. “Periodically, a session is held where these different self-organized teams are able to present their ideas directly to a decision-making group, which decides whether or not to accept the idea and provide funding for its development. This practice is powerful because it eliminates all the usual bureaucratic review steps that tend to stifle ideas by allowing these self-organized teams to take their ideas straight to the senior leaders.”
Sovereignty of the Supervisor
Distributed power structures are becoming more common as many companies now rely on team-oriented models to complete projects and meet goals. This is a positive change in Collins’s view.
“When a single person has the authority to effectively control a person’s employment at a company, I refer to that practice as the ‘sovereignty of the supervisor,’” he says.. “This kind of power is detrimental to companies because it promotes behavior that can actually harm the company. For example, if supervisors are more invested in their personal agendas than in the welfare of the company, their subordinates could become either captive or unwitting allies in internal turf wars that could harm the business.”
Consolidating power in individuals also tends to keep separate groups and departments in silos, which can be harmful for any business. Given that the actions of one team can affect the brand of the entire company, it’s important for the left hand to know what the right is doing.
“Companies can diminish or even eliminate supervisor sovereignty by incorporating into the performance evaluation process direct meaningful peer input that can’t be modified or edited by the supervisors,” Collins says. “This practice would send a clear message that it takes more than keeping your boss happy to succeed.”
Traditional work and management models operate on the assumption that workflow interruptions are bad, but that isn’t always the case. Innovation often comes in the form of ideas that might not appear at first glance to have the most positive impact on the bottom line.
“For example, when the creative engineers at Kodak invented the digital camera in the 1970s, it was clearly perceived as disruptive to the workflows and the productivity of a business whose revenues flowed from the sales of film,” Collins notes. “That’s why the innovation was shelved — and why decades later the Kodak business model would be decimated when Apple’s iPhone was first introduced. If Kodak had had more of an appetite for disruption, they would have had the opportunity to be the disruptors rather than the disrupted.”
However, Collins notes that companies cannot simply rush headlong into disruption, as that would cause undue chaos. Rather, he encourages “striking a balance between old models and new models” in order to manage disruption in a positive direction.
“Scott Anthony and his coauthors recommend an approach that they call dual transformation, which involves innovating current business models to incorporate new technologies and maintain existing revenue streams, while at the same time assigning a separate dedicated staff to creating new business models that will eventually become the revenue generators in transformed markets,” Collins says. “If Kodak had embraced dual transformation, they would have maintained their revenues from film for as long as film was viable, and perhaps they might have created the smartphone as the foundation for a new and more profitable business model.”
For multiple reasons — a changing world of work, the demands of new generations of workers, disruptive technologies, etc. — traditional work models have become less effective in recent years. To be innovative, companies must not only accept these changes, but encourage them. That’s how great ideas are born.
“If the most knowledgeable voices [in an organization] can be systematically silenced, the organization is, by design, embracing structured ignorance,” Collins says. “In order to avoid structured ignorance and sustain high performance, business leaders need to limit the authority of the bosses. If your organization has legions of supervisors — all of whom have the authority to silence their employees under the threat of termination for insubordination — then it’s probably just a matter of time before structured ignorance creates a difficult, and hopefully not fatal, business crisis.”