That IS Your Day Job!

I happen to be working with a wonderful group of executives from a company who are deeply interested in fostering innovation within their company. So we have been jointly exploring the topics of what innovation is, how it works, how to launch an innovation initiative, how organizational culture can accelerate (or retard) it and how to sustain it.

We used many of the techniques that I have written about recently—the Marshmallow Challenge, Kill the Company, Kill a Stupid Rule, and Future Visioning—to stimulate thinking and to let them experience the power that some of these methods really have.

When we do the “kill the stupid rule” and “kill the company” exercises, we invite the participants to rank all the ideas on a grid according to how impactful they are to the organization and how easy they would be to actually implement.

Generally, when people do this, they are surprised at how many ideas they come up with that fit into the “High Impact”/“Easy to Do” quadrant. So as you can imagine, this then generates great discussion about – “so what’s stopping us from doing them?”

Here’s where the discussion can turn a little animated  and people can become frustrated as  they start to make a list of all the impediments they perceive they need to overcome.

The list from this week’s group looked like this:

1) We are not permitted to fail. (People are typically punished who do fail, so folks quickly become reluctant to try.)

2) We have historical mistrust.  (There is a lot of history—stormy union-management relations, prior shuffling in the executive suite, lots of changes in direction, coupled with loads of chaos and uncertainty.)

3) We have fear. (There are recurring rounds of cost cutting, which has everyone feeling a little uneasy and insecure about their jobs.)

4) We are drowning from the “never ending faucet.” (This metaphor—which I love—refers to the constant flow of new work that comes into their departments and requires attention. It seems almost insurmountable in the face of diminished resources, and causes stress because they still have to get it all done with less, and they are being constantly assessed based on various metrics.)

5) There is too much emphasis on the metrics.  (There was a lot of emotion connected to this one. Everyone knows that metrics are necessary, because they define the agenda. But a focus on metrics increases the amount of pressure that is placed on individuals, which is absolutely driving behaviors. For example, if the pressure is too little, managers fear under performance, but if it is too much, it creates a short-term mentality that causes people to operate from a place of fear.)

6) We have a sense of hopelessness.  (They feel like they have been to “the movie” before and already “know” how it’s going to end. They have learned from experience that their management won’t stick with it, won’t listen to their ideas or provide them with the resources they need to implement change. So they conclude it is futile to try – and the effort it would take only takes time away from their daily work (see item 4 above) and digs them into a deeper hole).

From what I see, people in most organizations we see, may use different words, but the themes seem to be recurring.

The Dilemma

It seems quite a dilemma. Out of the list above, I see item 4 (the never-ending faucet) as the main issue. We are always being asked to do more with less. Stop whining about it though, because THAT IS HOW IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE! That’s the whole point behind why you need innovation and change . . . to continually find ways of improving how you work, what you deliver, and how you service customers . . .while adding more value, with less waste.

Whatever is coming out of the metaphorical faucet every day, driving innovation and change, killing stupid rules, making your employees work lives better and reacting to emerging external threats IS YOUR DAY JOB! Your failure to embrace this fundamental idea only risks more problems down the road, some of which can be severe . . . even fatal.

But how do you do it? There are only so many hours in a day.

From where I sit, this is not mainly a problem with your employees, but one of your leadership. Leading strategically means you have to set priorities and make deliberate choices about what’s most important now. There’s no getting around it. You need to operate more like a field hospital that gets good at triage, than a team that never learns what matters most. Here are some points to keep in mind:

Be willing to let some fires smolder. In my experience it is impossible to turn off the faucet. So the only way to attack systemic problems is to let the backlog pile up. You may even need to let some fires smolder unattended for a time. But so long as the smoke doesn’t reach the smoke alarm, let them burn for a while. Just make sure that what you work on instead matters and ultimately will make the situation better. You may feel you need to make massive process improvements first (consider Lean or Six Sigma initiatives) to free up enough time to be able to divert resources.

Find a better balance between short and long-term. Your employees mainly live in the short-term. They have to because that faucet is always pouring down on their heads. Developing creative solutions to problems to solutions requires the ability to stand back, to think, to test and to research. There are no shortcuts I can think of. The only way you will get your people to focus on root causes, rather than Band-Aid solutions is if you encourage – even demand it. This may mean you have to take some heat from above to allow your people the time to do the work well.

Stand up to your boss. You need to manage your boss. Often bosses are busy with many other issues. Consider it your responsibility to educate them, condition their expectations, and enlist their support. Invite your boss to some of your team meetings, or present a convincing argument. Be willing to push back if you are convinced that a problem needs attention and the future benefits outweigh the cost to implementation. When your people see you advocating on THEIR behalf, it will do wonders to their morale and trust. If you want them to trust you, you must be trustworthy. No one likes to work for a wimp.

Focus your efforts. I see many organizations organize task forces that meet once a week for forever in an attempt to address systemic problems. This never worked well for me. (If in doubt, the next time you start a home improvement project, try limiting your work to one hour increments with at least a day in between. See how inefficient that really is.) For me, what always worked best was to lock people in a room, and tell them we aren’t going to leave until we figure this out. Keep their head in the problem for a concentrated amount of time drive toward success. You’d be amazed what a team can do in even one or two full days, when properly focused.

One of the surest ways I know to fail is to try a do everything and please everyone, all the time. You can’t. When you don’t learn to make choices, your team becomes overwhelmed, demoralized and their productivity and quality will surely start to suffer . . . making things even worse. It is a vicious cycle you can’t allow you people to enter. So stand up, and have the courage to choose.

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