Loving the Innovation but Hating the Innovator (Our Innovation Management is Backwards)

5409707708Almost of all of us, and all of our organizations, want innovation – to introduce new and significant things into the world.  Sometimes we are seeking ground-breaking, business transforming products.  Sometimes we  just want a compelling idea or two that can take us to the next level.

But too often we want to change the world without really having to deal with the messy internal dynamics needed to foster, feed, and ultimately bring innovation to the world.

In my earlier blog post, 5 Ways You Might be Killing Innovation, I mentioned that strong cultures kill innovation, to the extent those cultures reject different, new things – things that are, well, counter-cultural.  Despite the obviousness of this, when we decide we want innovation, we do not attack the issue at its root – the way our change-averse cultures disengage innovators and, critically, the creative side of just about everyone.  This is why this topic very much belongs in a Servant Leadership blog – because to get this right, we need to serve the innovators, and the creative part of everyone in the organization.

So here is where our Innovation Management is backwards: 1)  it focuses on the end results – “We need more innovation!” –  first without looking at it from the source – the  innovators’  point of view and experiences within our culture, and 2) we are not thinking about how every person in our organization has creative potential – we are looking to the R&D/Engineering guys, or maybe the Marketing folks.

Too often, the demand to innovate comes from the very same leaders who see the counter-cultural innovators as a threat to cultural stability and consistency.   In other words, we love the innovation but Hate the Innovator!

Be brutally honest with yourself – do you see the innovators marginalized and talked about with frowns or rolling eyes?  I have seen this so many times I have lost count.

So, the  groundbreaking (even innovative!) approach to foster innovation is to

  • focus on your people – look deeply at the signals, incentives, and experiences they are having in your culture.  Encourage and incentivize crazy, creative ideas.
  • Ask them what they need, what they recommend to boost creative output.  Seek out a list of the obstacles to innovation from their point of view.
  •  Involve your most innovative people in forming the steps you are going to take as a leader.

Formulate actions that change the conditions at the root, where the innovator lives.

In short, love the innovators!


Mistakes Leaders Make: Silo Building (and 4 Ways to Tear them Down)

178796318We have all heard the advice to reach outside of our functional silo, to play for the big team, to build cross-functional relationships.

Yet we build silos as fast as we can make them, and we then wonder why people have trouble working together,  leveraging each others’ talents.

Why We Build Silos

Silos form from honest enough intentions:  folks with similar experiences, qualifications, and expertise naturally come together to share experiences, to solve problems, to learn from each other.  We want that, we encourage that.  We colocate  people with the same functional expertise.  We form Engineering Departments and Marketing Departments and Sales Teams and wrap processes around these functions to preserve lessons learned and improve performance.  These  teams develop their own culture, play a role in the hiring of new team members, develop each other.  All good stuff.

Much has been written about how people  form tribes in the workplace.  Tribes certainly form across functional groups, but this desire to associate informally helps drive the building of silos.

We think of the “silo mentality” as some kind of active attempt to form and push an isolated, distorted view.  But the reality is that this isolated mentality is the natural result of our team structure:   our formation of these functional groups comes at a cost – an insular view of things, a group think full of one point of view and devoid for the most part of the influences of the views of folks from other tribes/functional groups/silos.

Or, at least, that is the picture if we don’t bridge the silos and lower the barriers.

What We Can Do About It

So, whether you want/encourage  it or not, informal and formal silos abound.  Yet a healthy flow of views and information and relationships can occur between and among these silos – the walls can virtually fall away – when leadership takes a few simple steps:

1.  Strong cross-functional teams, co-located and led by an empowered cross-functional leader.  To bridge silos you have to well, build a bridge.  Not only organize project teams cross-functionally (as many of us do in Matrix organizations) but also co-locate teams together.  This is actually somewhat rare in my experience that the Marketing and R&D and Advanced Manufacturing and Quality people on a team sit together.  But it works really, really well.  And don’t bother to appoint a cross-functional leader, such as a Project Manager, unless that person has lots of  leeway to make decisions and  authority with the team.

2.  Time and relationships.  Members of a tribe hang out with each other.  To break down silos, folks from different silos need to spend time together, and that will require  encouragement, even some ice-breaking activities.  Team-building exercises may be a bit corny, but some pizzas as part of a regular routine can go a long way.

3.  Formal incentives.  Recognizing teams and individuals who reach across silos is critical.  You will get the things you incentivize/recognize/reward.  And folks can’t emulate behavior that don’t know anything about.

4.  Lead by Example.  If you want cross-silo relationships, you have to reach out to leaders in other functions, spend time with other teams, build cross-silo relationships yourself.  You have to be, as they say, congruent to what you are preaching – and perfectly so.

We are not going to stop building functional and expertise-based teams – but we have really work at avoiding the formation of thick, impenetrable silo walls.

Related Content:

1.  A deeper look at organizational silos:  Break out of the Silo Mentality (www.asaecenter.org)

2.  Some good stuff on the consequence of silos in the world of software development:  Breaking Down Silos, Part I (uxdesign.smashingmagazine.com)

5 Ways You Might be Killing Innovation

5451831228Innovators – truly ground-breaking, revolutionary thinkers – are not like you and I.

I know I am generalizing terribly, but bear with me.

Those who discover something truly new, invent something that is a leap beyond the state-of-the-art, defy conventional thinking – these rare and inspirational figures do not normally just confine their creativity and unconventional approach to one narrow area of their lives.

Think about a great innovator you know.  Is  this person comfortable in a conventional corporate setting, dressed in conventional business casual clothes, following company rules and norms?  Or does this person – uniquely able to move beyond the constraints that bind most of our thinking – march to their own drummer across many areas of life?

And here is my point for today – how does your organization, and your leadership, treat those who consistently buck the norms, defy the conventions?  My guess is that something like “organ rejection” occurs over time, and they leave, are forced out, or get tired of the fight and conform.  It is just very hard for a culture to accept counter-culture elements.  The danger is not only does a strong set of cultural norms alienate the most innovative people, but it likely reduces the level of creativity and innovation in everyone to some extent.  

Here are 5 things you might be doing that kill innovation throughout your organization and culture:

1.  The leader as cultural guardian:  You might feel your role is partly to establish and preserve culture, and so you police the conversations and decisions for counter-culture elements.  Your team knows that in certain situations there is a certain way of thinking that is “right,” and they better give the “right answer” or expect consequences.   This approach has advantages, and may lead to a strong team dynamic, but it is toxic to innovation over time.

2. No constraints, no specifics, just think big:   In this style of leadership, management lets the innovators do what they do best and any specific constraint is seen as  “limiting innovation.” This is similar to “The Cowboy” from Scott Anthony’s HBR blog post on Innovation Assassins.  But this is not how productive creativity really works:  creative minds are inspired by a particular difficult/interesting problem or challenge – it is the constraints that make it interesting, that make it difficult, that direct the energy of the innovators.  It is much better to set a goal, to set constraints (such as time, or cost, or function) as needed such that the innovative solution is actually useful to the business.

3.  Turkey shoots abound.  If you find that brainstorming and problem-solving meetings feel like bird-hunting, with a bunch of hunters shooting at a poor bird at the white board, you are going to force all the innovation underground.  Or maybe folks will be innovating how to avoid your meeting!  Not only should all criticism be constructive, but a more innovation-friendly approach is to encourage commentators to speak up only with critical information, and to  first say what is strong/good about an idea.  Detailed evaluation of  ideas is often handled best after multiple ideas are placed on the table and mulled-over together.

4.  Innovation is the job of R&D (Engineering).  We need innovation in almost every area of the business, from Sales to Supply Chain to Finance to Food Service.  Encouragement of unique approaches to problems, to unconventional ways of thinking about things should be a common theme with every team.  This is not so easy for some departments who traditionally have not been encouraged to innovate.  Whatever area of the business you lead, formally or from within the team, can benefit from incentives and rewards for innovative thinking, creative ideas, unconventional approaches.

5.  Innovators are appointed.  Innovation and innovators emerge from a special combination of interesting problems, challenging constraints, and conditions that feed and favor risk-taking.  Absolutely recruit great talent with a history of innovation.  But put tons of energy into creating an environment that rewards thoughtful risk-taking, avoids “turkey shoots,” and recognizing creative ideas ( and uses them in the business).  You will be excited by the innovators who emerge and the impact they have.

There are many good posts and features on building innovation.  A particularly interesting one highlight thin importance of culture is Nick Jankel-Elliot’s Top Tips for Building an Innovation Culture.

Quit Beating Around the Bush: 6 Steps to Making Difficult Conversations Successful (and Bearable!)

suncloudsHe so badly wanted the manufacturing management job, but he was just not showing the  talent to lead and care for a team.

As his manager, I  knew he dreamed of leading the group – he had been talking out it to his peers more and more.  That’s the only way I could figure it out – he would not really discuss it with me.  In fact, he had said on more than one occasion, “I wouldn’t really want to do that job.”   Confusing, eh?

It was time for that difficult conversation – the one that would let him know the company did not see him as management material, that this particular dream was not going to happen anytime soon.   But I really, really hate those conversations – the ones that close doors in someone’s career.  So I waited.  And I sort of dodged the issues in our one on one conversations.  Uggh.

One morning I snapped out of my glass-half empty, negative view of the situation.  He was good technically, a strong problem-solver, and could no doubt advance in his career by gaining mastery on the technical side, maybe coming back to leadership from that angle.  So now I had the positive, call-to-action destination for our conversation:  focus on using your technical strengths to help the organization, and you will be on a much more satisfying track to success.

Does this example sound familiar – have you ever delayed an important conversation because it would be difficult?  If so, hear are some steps that will help:

1.  Stop the negative self-talk!  Stop telling yourself, “I have to talk to Jim.”  The words “have to” are too passive, playing too much the victim.  Make a choice, step to up to assert control of the situation – tell yourself, “I choose to talk to Jim, because it’s the right thing to do.” [this concept inspired by the excellent book The Now Habit, by Neil Fiore]

2.  Identify your mission.  We must be very intentional about what we want out of a difficult conversation.  What emotional result, what follow-up actions – we want the individual to leave motivated to make a change with  enough hope and clarity to take specific actions in that direction.

3.  Do your homework.   It is likely that at team member needing course correction does not really see the key issues clearly – he/she is probably stuck in a confirmation bias where they only see the information that supports their current course.  So put together the clearest, most fact-based description of why change is needed, and why the new plan addresses the core issues.

4.  Choose your setting carefully.  If this is a meeting to motivate change but not to emphasize consequences, then choose a relaxed setting.  A meeting over coffee, for example, will make everyone less defensive.  If the time has come to paint a bleak picture, a more formal setting is in order.  You get the idea.

5.  Be prepared to listen.  What the team member has to say is critical to your understanding of the difficult issues – it may change your view of this situation.  Ask questions to search out his/her views.    Be open to new information which might help you influence things in a positive direction.

6.  Be brief, move toward action.  With all the preparation, be concise and clear.  Identify the situation, and then listen.  Move the conversation toward constructive action taking the team member’s views into account.

Not so painful, once you have a plan, right?  An effective, intentional discussion that leads to positive action.  Not a bad day’s work.

Do Managers Really Matter?

2200500024Many of us know people ( or maybe entire teams) who believe  managers don’t matter.

The kind of “manager” we are discussing here focuses on coordination, orchestration, and people-related tasks – the overhead of running a team or organization.   Things like making goals clear, providing resources, recruiting, providing performance feedback and career development, making big picture decisions about the business and the people – that kind of thing.

So you might be able to see how this kind of manager might appear sort of extra.  After all, managers aren’t actually playing the music, carrying the football, or writing the software.    I once had a reasonably savvy boss question my plan to hire a manager by asking, “so you need to bring in this other guy to tell the experts what do?”   The implication being that the right team of experts would not need much management.  Hmm.

Let’s use the technique from my last blog post to test whether there is truth in this managers-don’t-matter idea.  Let’s give it some validity, look for facts that support it…

Take the example of self-conducting orchestra.  The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra ,  founded in 1972, has been conductorless since its inception.  Leadership roles shift to different musicians depending on the demands of the piece performed.  This team of about 20 musicians performs some of the most complex classical-music to world-class standards.  But we see that there is a leadership role in a given piece assigned to a specific musician.  So this is more like a rotating-conductor model (admittedly, a conductor and manager are different, but they are similar in key ways – work with me here).  One might reasonably wonder how this scales, whether it works for a large orchestra.

Or consider WL Gore and Associates.  As described in a post on the guardian website,

” In Gore’s self-regulating system, all the normal management rules are reversed. In this back-to-front world, leaders aren’t appointed: they emerge when they accumulate enough followers to qualify as such.”

A very successful company where the leaders/managers emerge.  But they still exist.

The reality is that the need for a great coach, conductor, platoon commander, or company manager exists.  The question is how to identify and appoint these folks.  Or whether to distribute their leadership roles  among people in the team.  Evidence from the world of sports, or music, or the military would seem to show that if a leader is not identified, one will emerge – that the need for clear goals, for decisiveness, for coordination, and for handling the overhead of running a team demands that a  team leader-coach exist, and that the manager in a business serves (or should serve) this role to be, well, useful.  Such a person needs pursue excellence in management in the same way an excellent violinist continuously practices and refines her craft.

The Gallup organization has performed extensive studies of management, management skills, and taken on the task of defining “Great Managers.”  Great managers do specific things to establish an engaging work environment and to build team engagement.  And there is significant and measurable impact on profits/outcomes that occurs where engagement is higher.  Take a look at these Gallup posts here and here, which make a compelling, data-based case that…managers do matter.

What do you think?


Essential Qualities of a Leader: Passion for the Truth, and a Powerful Bias that Stands in the Way

4696352143Pursuing the truth is essential for servant leadership.

What do I mean, “truth” ?  The truth for our purposes here consists of the available facts, and the identification of the actual cause(s) of  event(s) or circumstance(s).  It is this second part – figuring out the causes, that requires leaps of reason that get us into trouble.  But more on that in a minute.

So… it’s often hard to figure out what the absolute truth of a situation is – we operate mostly with incomplete information, and causes can be obscured by confusing signals.  But a leader has to be passionate, and energetic, and persistent about seeking the truth in a situation.   Getting at the knowable facts, pursuing the best available idea of what cause and effect are, is critical to good leadership decisions and effective action.

For the skeptics in the crowd, think on this example, drawn from my recent past:

A project being developed by an otherwise capable team is late.  Really late.  Why is that, and what should be done?   Actions must  to be taken that  make things better, and the choice of what actions to take must be based on an accurate judgment about the causes of the project delay.  This seems obvious – leaders that take steps that make things worse, or create change that has no effect, are not really serving the team or themselves at all, are they?

By the way, the leaders in this situation are not necessarily those formally holding management titles.  Highly effective action can be driven from any level.

Yet there is a powerful bias that stands in our way.  The bias is that we are going to most easily see the evidence that confirms our pre-conceived ideas about why the project is late.  Based on nothing more than guesses clouded by emotion and loosely based on past experience, we will already have a theory about the cause, and we will tend to notice more the evidence that  favors the  pre-conceived notion.

So let’s say that we have had some conflict with a key person on the project team, and they have in another setting proven to be an obstacle to progress.  We may suspect (or expect!) that they are a holding the team back.  So here is where the bias kicks in,  the confirmation bias.  The questions we ask, and the information we are most sensitive to, will center on this person and his/her  impact on the project.  And we very well might find things that disturb us in those answers, that seem to confirm our opinion.  So we more intensely focus on our theory.

We often hear the term, “rush to judgment” in prominent court cases.  Confirmation bias is a powerful force in police investigations, and history is full of examples of innocent people convicted by a building confirmation bias that pulls in the police, the witnesses, and ultimately the jury.

Back to our example:  asked what might make a project late, project managers might point to common factors such as unclear requirements, changes to project scope, unexpected/unanticipated technology challenges, and a host of issues shown over time to cause most  project delays.  But the confirmation bias has already been at work, and a few specific individuals who are seen as the source of the delay are removed from the project team.

How does it work in this case?   Not very well.  The delay lengthens even more, though eventually the team delivers a high quality product.

Here are some steps that will reduce the confirmation bias and help a servant leader come closer to the truth:

1.  Put a list together of the facts.  No causes, not theories.   The verifiable facts.  Involve the team and the knowledgeable experts.  This will serve as an invaluable reference for decision-making.

2.  Develop multiple  possible causes  from these facts.  The more the better.  Involve  folks not influenced by inside knowledge of the team or the project.

3.  Consider the opposite:  if there is a developing theory, or as a cause starts to surface, specifically identify an opposing theory and invest time to see if it is true.  Example:  A new product is not selling well, and the theory is developing that it is not a compelling product.  Consider the opposite: it is compelling, but we are not succeeding at communicating its benefits/the price is too high/etc.

4.  The truth might be surprising, so communication is critical.  It is a tough role to be the bearer of a surprising truth, one that counters conventional ideas and a developing confirmation bias.  Be prepared to clearly and effectively and persistently communicate why you believe another theory (cause) is closer to the truth.

5.  Take action.  Effective action is the reason for all this trouble about figuring out causes, the truth, etc.  Serve your team by taking the steps that actually make things better.

Here is quote from the intriguing blog  You are Not So Smart  that brings this home:  “Your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information which confirmed what you believed while ignoring information which challenged your preconceived notions.”

The confirmation bias is ever-present.  So develop the habit of looking elsewhere for the truth.  You might be led back to your pre-conceived ideas.  But the journey will often take you in surprising directions.

5 Steps to Better Listening (and more Effective Leadership)

Listening matters.


In fact, listening is one of the most essential disciplines of great leaders.  Note that I used the word “disciplines”, not the word “skills”.  Listening is a discipline – it is only done through constant practice, continuous attention.  You have to choose to do it.

Last time you tried to listen, did an internal voice or rogue thought distract you?  Did you jump ahead of the person speaking and begin to think of a response?  Was your ” listening” more about debate and persuasion – and less about understanding?

I have my own examples of poor listening and the rush to debate:  A few weeks back, a team member stopped by my office to express a concern that the company was on a wrong course with a particular customer, that what we were offering them was not what they needed.  For sure, he expressed his thought in a  criticizing way.  And immediately – as soon as I saw where he was headed – I  closed off my mind to his point and began to compose a response.  Each of us left the conversation irritated and unpersuaded.  Weeks later, it became clear that he was right.  The customer told us we weren’t deliver what they needed, and they went with someone else.  Arrgh.

What does the research say?  Put simply, listening correlates to effective leadership.

Try these 5 tips to improve your listening – start today!

1.  Commit to understanding, not just hearing.  Decide that the person you are talking to has something important to say.  Remind yourself that you could be wrong, or misunderstand, or not even know anything about this issue.  Really try to understand it.  

2.  Ignore the distractions.  The phone.  The text message or email pleading for your attention.  Give the person you are talking to your attention and respect.

3.   Maintain eye contact.   Do you really believe that someone is listening if they are looking at or doing something else?  People really cannot multitask at all – so if you want to understand someone, look at them.

4.  Let them speak!  Never interrupt, or launch into debate.  If you are tempted, see #1 above.

5.  Ask questions to confirm.  Put that inner voice, the one that so often distracts you, to work formulating questions that will help confirm your understanding.  Only when the person has paused in their speaking, should you speak.  And then first confirm your understanding.

And…never, ever use a follow up question as a means of turning around or distorting what was said.  What do I mean?  A team member comes to you with a problem and you tell them, “So what you are saying is that this problem is insurmountable, that the task is too hard for you.” You might as well kick them in the face, or call them a nasty name, for all the disrespect it shows.

Makes sense, right?  Just emulate the great listeners in your life.  That’s all.  You will build credibilty, trust, and influence.  Of course it is tough.  And incredibly rewarding.

What do You think?  I’m listening…..