Driving innovative change in an organization is not seen as easy by most of us. As discussed in my article We Love Change – We Just Hate How You Try to Change Us, we suggest that top down autocratic approaches often leave the organization flat. You can’t cram change down people’s throats – no matter how good the idea is.
So the implication is that change initiatives need to engage employees at all levels. That seems right, people will more likely support changes they had a hand in influencing. But that does not mean you can always just relegate the project to the organization below you.
Not everyone has vision – so you need to ensure that the project team has someone on it with the ability to lift their heads up out of the bunker to look more broadly at the world around you.
Lower level teams are influenced by your culture – When we develop new solutions, we are heavily influenced by our work environment. If your team members feel they are in silos, and that current structures, policies, and leadership biases are standing in the way, they will not likely promote solutions they feel will “never be accepted by other departments or executives. Great innovation happens when we are able to suspend all our biases about what is – in order to think freely about the possibilities. Lower level teams have a hard time doing this in a vacuum.
The solution lies in what I call a “two-front” campaign. For change to occur, first,
senior executive leadership has to WANT it and make sure the organization knows it. The role of such an executive is to imbue the project team with a sense of empowerment, AND to work hard to help break down barriers that might be holding the team back. In my company, I made sure I always let my middle managers and executives know that I was strongly in favor of an idea. They generally knew that when I was deeply motivated around an idea that getting in the way of it would usually lead to a confrontation. So, by communicating my support in advance, I created an environment that gave the project team a “wide berth” and reduced the likelihood that other departments would throw up roadblocks. Sure, the less heavy-handed your intervention the better, but you, as a senior executive need to be prepared to step in as much as needed to insure success.
When the project team sees that you are engaged around the idea — it energizes them. They start to believe that implementation is really possible, that their work is being noticed by the boss, and that they are being appreciated. I would often meet with project teams along the way – both formally (and informally – casually chatting about an idea in the hallway or in the break room). When I saw that they were perhaps “afraid” to get themselves far enough “out of the box” – offering a few words of encouragement or challenging them to stretch a little farther can really help.
Look to unlikely places for your project teams. A mistake many of us (myself included) make is that we think about selecting project teams from the parts of the organization that already have a vested interest in the current systems. This is a natural human condition. When I or my department created a product; or the payroll, incentive compensation, or ERP system (for example) we likely worked hard on the initial effort and are probably not the most OBJECTIVE people to consider throwing them out and starting over. If your goal is DISRUPTIVE or GAME CHANGING Innovation, the current bureaucracy is probably the last place to turn. Again it has nothing to do with competence, IQ, or dedication to the company – it is just human nature that we always think our baby is the cutest one. So my suggestion is to hand-pick mainly a diverse team of people who have no stake in the current system. Such team members are probably your younger ones, with less seniority, not bound by how we have done things in the past, and don’t know enough to think that an idea “could never work”. I like to rely on enthusiastic, even naïve candidates with a lot to prove, who are ambitious and likely to pour their heart and soul into the work. (Yes, you need to have some people on the team with sufficient technical knowledge of the system or process in question, — but make sure these are outnumbered by the newbies.)
I remember hiring a high school intern one year, a young man who was trying to decide if he wanted to go to college and pursue an engineering degree. We assigned him to study a process that punched holes in sheet metal in our stamping department using a CNC rotary index press machine. It had a large turret with positions in it for several dies of various shapes and sizes. These punched holes in steel and aluminum for lights and buttons etc in our electronic control cabinets. The process problem was that the turret held only 24 dies, and when you needed to do a changeover – it took 2.5-3 hours to do so. That was a lot of downtime. As we were trying to reduce in-process inventory – the need for changeovers was increasing – we were hitting a kind of a technical wall.
The high school kid ran around at first trying to persuade our sales and engineering departments that we needed to standardize and reduce the number of hole styles in our various products. (if we could get it down to only 24 items, — then we would have enough stations in the turret and would never have to change over.) Of course, our engineers and sales people had lots of reasons why this was not possible – not supported with evidence or data mind you – but lots of reasons none the less.
The solution he came up with was astonishingly simple. It turns out that by using the press to strike multiple times with one die, you could make many different shapes. (A 5cm square die could make not only a 5cm square hole, but if you struck it 4 times in adjacent locations, you could make a 10 x 10cm larger square, or by striking the die 5 times in a row, you could make a 5 x 25cm rectangle.) I still wonder why not one of our experienced engineers could never see such a simple solution. It took a young, completely inexperienced guy with a desire to succeed and a little encouragement.