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Alicia Blain

Entries tagged with “Creativity”.


Quote:  “You can’t lead without imagination”  ~  Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us

Imagination is seriously lacking in today’s corporate environment.  We are knee deep in a status quo that no longer serves us and that in many ways, makes us mediocre.  To change that, we need to spark imagination in all our employees.  But first, we must spark it in ourselves as team leaders. To create the spark you need to embrace experimentation.  I’m not talking about creating a department or a committee to look into experimentation.  I mean changing the way you lead your team so that experimentation is always encouraged and rewarded.  When an idea doesn’t work out, it isn’t perceived as failure but as a learning experience that enriches the team and the lesson learned can be utilized to fuel the next experiment.

Experimentation is the final but core concept in the C.A.R.E. System.  It is what ties it all together. In these posts, I have showcased Starbucks and its CIO to illustrate the key principles behind the C.A.R.E. System.  At the very core of Gillett’s success was his innate acceptance or need to experiment. None of the examples would have been possible if Gillett had not embraced experimentation. Let’s recap all the ways he experimented:

  • When he took on more responsibility in the face of daunting IT problems that needed resolution
  • When he went to work at a Starbucks retail store, not knowing what he’d find or how he would do,
  • When he showed the Executive team a live simulation highlighting the shortcomings of their existing POS system
  • When he proposed the new business unit called Digital Ventures,
  • When he chose an entrepreneur to run the new business unit,
  • When he made IT and Marketing equally responsible for the new business unit
  • When he asked employees for their ideas on making IT better,
  • When he let employees select their IT devices,
  • When he applied his knowledge of networks to help spark solutions in Starbuck’s retail business.

All of these examples illustrate that Gillett was open to experimentation. He may not have been comfortable with all of it but he chose not to play it safe.  At some level, he understood that taking risks was critical to Starbuck’s survival and he, as well as his CEO, faced the challenge and came out ahead.  I’m sure that there were ideas that didn’t work out.  In fact, the article highlights one. Apparently, Gillett is a big gamer or lover of video games. Actually,  he’s a guild master in the online video game called World of Warcraft.  That’s a pretty big deal in the gaming community. Instead of playing down that passion, he  set up a meeting between the executive teams of Starbucks and Blizzard, the owners of World of Warcraft so they could look into the possibility of doing business together.  After all, both companies had a huge fan base and Starbucks needed to find ways to engage customers online the way that Blizzard did. 

At the end, the experiment did not end up in a partnership.  But all was not lost.  The experiment sparked new ideas among the Starbucks executives that led to new offerings for their customers.  Embracing a spirit of experimentation almost always sparks the imagination and that leads to more possibilities for innovation.

For companies to be relevant in the future they must make experimentation a core objective for all departments.  It needs to be nurtured, rewarded and imbedded into the corporate culture.  More importantly, it is a pivotal component if we are to transform the way we lead.  Millennials will make up 50% of the global workforce in less than 5 years.  As leaders preparing to pass the baton to the next generation leaders, I believe it is our obligation to embrace change and find new ways to lead.

So you may be wondering what happened to Ben and his direct reports? As I dissected the Starbucks case study, Ben was able to see real world examples of C.A.R.E. in action.  It sparked their curiosity and an eagerness to try new approaches in their organization as Gillett tried to do in his.  Ben, as CIO, made a very important decision that day.  He chose not to play it safe.  He realized the future required new ways of seeing things and new ways of leading.  The Millennials were their new audience not just as employees but as customers. He realized that if transformation was going to happen, it needed to include the Millennials in the workplace.  And he was ready.

I’ll end this series by quoting Seth Godin one last time.  In Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us, Seth writes:

“The safer you play your plans for the future, the riskier it actually is.”

My questions to you are:  How safe are you playing your role as leader? What one thing can you do today to get you slightly uncomfortable? What one thing can you do to get to know a Millennial in your workplace? 

Like me, you’ll find that staying in your comfort zone as a leader is actually riskier than embracing a little discomfort to prepare for the future. Once you step out of your comfort zone and see all the possibilities that it offers, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner…

Quote“ If you’re not  uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader”  ~ Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us

Being uncomfortable is how transformation begins.  When I first started hiring Millennials, I didn’t want to change.  The more they perplexed me, the more I dug my heels in my comfort zone.  It wasn’t until I decided to understand why they perplexed me that the transformation in my leadership style took place and led to the creation of the C.A.R.E. System for Next Generation Leadership. That led to first seeing the potential Millennials brought to the workplace then tapping it then capitalizing on it.

The first step in doing that is to CONNECT.   Many of us who cut our management teeth in the 20th Century approach leadership like this:  I, leader, have a certain leadership style that you, employee, will need to get comfortable with.  It is not my responsibility to figure you out or adapt my style to meet your needs.  You need to conform to my style and work effectively under that style. 

Really?  Do we really want to lead that way?  Does it work for us?  If we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that working for a boss that took the time to know us and spend quality time with us are the ones we liked working for and worked the hardest for.  Now more than ever, making a special connection with each of our employees is not only critical but expected.  The more removed we are from our staff, the less effective they will be and that will reflect back to us.  We also minimize our message and our vision.  We need that direct connection to our teams to spread our message and communicate our goals.

So how can you begin to CONNECT?   Let’s look at the Starbucks case study for real world examples. Here’s the link to the Information Week article. 

As the new CIO for Starbucks, one of the first things Stephen Gillett did was connect with the people in the trenches and with Starbuck’s customers.  How did he do that? He shadowed them by actually working in one of the retail stores. This is one of the key components in the C.A.R.E. System.   As a leader you need to spend time with your target audience whether it’s your employees or your customers.  It’s important for 3 reasons:

  1.  You see firsthand how employees work.  You can observe their thinking process as they complete their tasks.  How is that thought process unique and can you leverage it in other areas or functions in your team?  You also see how they do their tasks.  Are there shortcuts that they are taking and are unaware of that help speed up the work? Can those shortcuts be applied in other areas of your operation? Or perhaps they are missing important steps that require more training?  Is there duplication of work that you were not aware of?  No report or spreadsheet analysis will give you that kind of intelligence.
  2. You see if the process works or doesn’t.  In the case of Gillett, as he worked at a Starbucks store, he quickly realized that the point-of –sale (POS) system was broken.  Even though the Starbucks brass knew the limitations of the system they were more focused on growth strategies and opening stores.  They didn’t realize that the limitations of the POS were contributing to problems in opening new stores.
  3. You are able to make better and more intelligent decisions when prioritizing projects based on your firsthand experiences in the trenches.

If shadowing is effective downstream – working directly with your employees and/or customers, it is equally effective upstream – with your executive team.  After spending time shadowing downstream at a Starbucks store, Gillett decided to bring the same experience upstream, to the executive team. He created a Tech Derby which is really a live simulation of a problem showing the pain points and a proposed solution to the problem. The simulation acted as a shadowing opportunity. Through a large-screen display, the executive team, including the CEO, Howard Schultz, shadowed a barista painfully placing an order in the outdated POS system.  They got to see not just hear about how much time was wasted as the baristas had to translate orders so the POS system could capture them. Then, through a mock up of the proposed replacement system, the executive team was able to shadow the new process to see how much faster and more effective it was. 

According to the article, “When they showed both to Schultz, ‘he just turned around and said, When? And whatever you’re going to tell me, it has to be faster’”.  That’s how effective shadowing is and how powerful the concept of Connecting is to introduce change.

Imagine how connecting with your Millennials or others in your team can give you a bird’s eye view to what’s going on in the trenches.  Imagine how many things you’ll be able to discover, uncover and identify that can be game changers to your team and ultimately your organization.  The days when leaders could run teams by just interacting with their direct reports without a strong connection to their team members are disappearing quickly.  The opportunity for innovation and real transformation lie with the ideas and creativity of those closest to the problems your team faces every day.  You need to connect with them to tap and harness that creativity and find innovative solutions.

What examples do you have that illustrate how you CONNECT with your employees?

I know some people may be saying, “Duh. It’s the same thing.  A team is made up of a group of individuals”.  Yes, but do we manage the group or the individuals that make up the group?

I know it’s a subtle point but a leader’s perspective on that point has a palpable impact on whether they can attract and retain their most talented employees in today’s workplace.

The leadership models of the past and the ones most of us have cut our teeth on focused on the one size fits all theory.  That is, each of us has a leadership style that we are either comfortable with or have learned along the way and we apply that style to running our “teams”.   We don’t deviate much away from that style.  Actually, the more consistently we apply it the better since it shows we are treating everyone the same.  But does it actually show that?

I used to think it did.  After all, I was trained and compensated on how consistent my style was.  Everyone in my team knew exactly how I ran things and the subtle message was that they had to conform to that style if they wanted to succeed in my team.  I felt that my consistent, one size fits all style helped me weed out the non-performers, those people that were not , A-players, or at least they weren’t in my mind.

It wasn’t until I started hiring Gen Yers in my team and created a lab to figure them out that I questioned that approach.  I realized that I was leading the masses, the amorphous “TEAM” and not the individuals that made up my team.  By being consistent in my leadership style I was telling the masses how to conform. That gave me the advantage of running a very efficient and productive team. What I didn’t realize is that its side effect was creating sameness instead of variety. Now years ago, a lot could be said for efficiency and productivity and sameness. But as the pace of change increased and continues to do so at breakneck speeds, sameness is a creativity and innovation killer. 

What I discovered as I tried to make sense of Gen Yers  (certainly NOT the same as me)  was that if I wanted my team to be innovative going forward,  my leadership style had to take a more unconventional approach.  Instead of having my “team” conform to my leadership style, I had to understand and capitalize on the richness of skills, attributes and experiences that each person in my team brought with them.  Instead of leading the masses with a one size fits all style, I learned to understand, appreciate and leverage the unique, distinctive and one of a kind qualities each individual brought to my team.  That was a “massive” shift for me and a total game changer.

The days of one size fits all leadership are quickly coming to an end and are on life support.  Don’t try to hold on to it.  Let it go.  It’s a recipe for being left behind.  Embrace the unfamiliar so you can understand and capitalize on the unique talents each of your employees brings to the workplace.

In a recent blog, Seth Godin wrote a blog titled “Please consider Weird”.  In it he says that “The defining idea of the twentieth century, more than any other, was mass”.  He continues to say that the concept of mass is dead and that although that gets us uncomfortable it also provides us with a great opportunity.

The same applies to leadership. Although leadership of the masses (aka TEAM) is  our comfort zone,  we need to get uncomfortable to pave another way to harness the variety, creativity and innovation that each of our employees bring to the workplace. 

In a recent blog, Seth Godin wrote a blog titled “Please consider Weird”.  In it he says that “The defining idea of the twentieth century, more than any other, was mass”.  He continues to say that the concept of mass is dead and that although that gets us uncomfortable it also provides us with a great opportunity.

The same applies to leadership. Although leadership of the masses (aka TEAM) is  our comfort zone,  we need to get uncomfortable to create an opportunity to harness the variety, creativity and innovation that each of our employees bring to the workplace.

Last week, my friend, Gina Carroll, who also happens to be an awesome editor, reminded me that I had never posted the last blog in this series.  My bad.   So here goes.

The last of the disturbing trends that I see that can keep mediocrity alive & well in Corporate America is the resistance to tap into AND harness the talent that Millennials bring to the workplace.  Millennials have been in the workplace for 10 years now and still corporate leaders are having difficulty managing them.  As I work with corporate clients, I see their continued insistence to hold on to entrenched systems that worked in the past.  Having been in their shoes, I totally understand why they want to do that.  They have worked long and hard to get processes and systems in place. There’s a lot invested in corporate SOP (Standard Operating Procedures).  The thought of having to give up the tried and true for the trial and error isn’t something many leaders are enthusiastic about doing.

The problem is that continuing to hold on to the tried and true is a prescription for being left behind.  The Millennials are the messengers of the future. By pulling them into our 20th Century leadership comfort zones all but guarantees that we will miss the boat.  Instead, we should be letting them push us into the 21st Century.  But yet leaders are hesitant to do it.  This creates a Triple Jeopardy situation in the workplace.

1.      Exodus of talent. Talented Gen Yers leave the organization.  Tired and fed up with being hand tied and unable to make a difference, the very best and brightest just opt to leave.  Where is your future leadership pipeline coming from?

2.      Cost. The organization has just wasted time, money & effort on hiring those Gen Yers that subsequently leave.  In addition, the employees that remain have to pick up the slack until another replacement is found.  This further upsets an already overworked group of people.

3.      Rinse & Repeat.  The process of hiring the replacement starts the cycle all over again.  Without a solid plan in place to engage and leverage the talents Millennials bring, there is a high likelihood that the cycle of turnover will repeat itself again.   The organization is perpetuating the problem and falling further behind the innovation curve.

But it doesn’t have to be that way if leaders would be willing to shift their thinking a bit to see 20-somethings as allies instead of aliens.  By being unwilling to let go of the status quo, companies are snubbing their nose at 3 ways Millennials can bring profits, growth and vibrancy to the organization.  Here’s how they do that.

1. By being Solutionists.  20-somethings are wired to get things done. Whether it was the many demands placed on their time as young children, or the video games they play or the need to make sense of a chaotic world, Millennials are focused on solutions and being resourceful in getting to those solutions.

2.  Embracing Real-Time Reality vs. Delayed Action.  You will rarely see a Gen Yer opt to put something on a list so they can get to it later. They tackle the problem on the spot.  They look it up and get it done.  For Boomer leaders, this is uncomfortable and unsettling to see.  We prefer delayed action – let’s put it on our “To-Do” list,  let’s research it some more, let’s meet a few more times to explore the problem, etc., etc.  Millennials are in-tune with the fact that in today’s world, you won’t get to it later.  They never knew a time when there was time to spare.   Summers off to play? Only one after school activity? No volunteering on the weekends? This is all shocking to them because from an early age, their lives were full of activities that required you to be present and engaged and responding to things in real-time.  There is no missed window of opportunity.

3.    Plugging into the Collective.  You can’t beat a 20-something in their ability to tap the collective.   They realize that 2 heads are better than one and 10 are better than 2. They instinctively know to reach out to others in getting things done because the result will be a better product or solution.  Instead of the individual being front & center, it’s the group that works the magic.  The collective is at the root of the solution and the ability to tackle problems real time instead of putting it on the list.

Millennials have the 21st Century mindset imbedded in how they think, act and work. By understanding and leveraging that mindset, leaders can infuse fresh, new ways of doing things going forward.  Millennials are the messengers of the future and it’s vital that organizations retain the best of them.  We will retain them by letting them re-train our automatic defaults.  Those tried and true instinctive reactions we have worked so hard to master will get in the way of our ability to: make decisions in real-time, to test our best practices for future viability, to infuse innovation into our SOP.

If Corporate America is going to be a meaningful player in the future, it has to look inward and let go of a lot of the trash it has built up over the years.  Like Jennifer Hudson says in the Weight Watcher’s commercial ” It’s  a new dawn,  it’s a new day, it’s a new life”  for us as corporate leaders… and yes, embracing it all will also make us  ”feel good”  IF we give ourselves permission to be bold, experiment & try new things.  The Millennials are ready to work with us to forge a new way.  Are we?

In today’s USA Today, an article titled:  College offers scholarship for Twitter ‘essay’   written by Luke Kerr-Dineen and Natalie DiBlasio caught my attention.  The University of Iowa held a contest worth $37,000 – the price of a full scholarship to their business school – for prospective students to submit a Twitter entry in place of a second essay.  That means that students would have to get pretty creative with 140 words in order to win the contest.

I thought that was a great example of the type of experimentation that is needed today in both universities and corporations.  As usual, the article highlighted the voice of some detractors that were not in agreement with the experiment.  I find that to be the typical reaction that plagues the leadership in many organizations today.  It’s the need to hold on to the “tried and true” instead of the “trial and error”.

Is it just me or does anyone else question  the intensive focus that is placed on the essay part of the college/MBA applicaiton process by most parents today.  Every one of my Boomer friends who has had a child apply for college has been intimately involved in the application process. Some of them more so than their children. Some have hired professional writers and editors to “review” (read redo) the essays their children prepare.  Most have spent countless hours perfecting the essays.  As Jodi Schafer, the University of Iowa’s director of MBA admission says, this intense focus on the essays has made them “unoriginal and often highly edited”.  I couldn’t agree more.

Doing something creative like the University of Iowa’s MBA program  is doing has 2 advantages:

  1. It gets people comfortable with trial and error.  The University of Iowa had no idea whether this experiment would work or not but you can be assured that going through it will give them a ton of ideas and ways to perfect it the next time or do something different.  They didn’t let the risk of failure stop them.  More universities and companies need to adopt that way of thinking if innovation is going to thrive in the future.
  2. It utilizes 21st Century tools.  Instead of relying on contest tools that were used in the past, the University decided to use the twentysomethings tool of choice to challenge them. After all, these are the tools this generation is comfortable with and will undoubtedly keep using as they get older.  As organizations bring in twentysomethings and begin to tackle the challenge of grooming them to be 21st Century leaders, they will need to get creative in how to employ these tools.  Shutting them down and prohibiting their use may not be the optimum reaction to effectively embracing innovation in the form of new tools.

It’s refreshing to read about how some universities are finding creative ways to deal with the challenge of adapting to the 21st Century.   The article highlighted other creative ways organizations are using social media in contests to help students find funding alternatives for college. It’s a win-win for both the students and the organizations that choose the scary path of experimentation.

What about you?  What new ideas are you trying in the workplace today?  Are you holding on to the tried and true or venturing into the trial and error?  Take a page from the University of Iowa: don’t just think outside the box.  Throw it out and see what new idea takes its place.

Yeah, sounds great BUT we’re not R&D…  I don’t have the luxury of experimenting to see whether or not an idea will fly”  That was the response a corporate colleague of mine gave when I approached him about collaborating on an idea.   It also highlights the last Yeah But of the series – Not my Yob, man.

When it comes down to it, most corporate leaders today are so swamped with their day to day responsibilities that it leaves them little time to do, much less think about, activities that don’t contribute to those specific responsibilities.  They practically freak out when someone approaches them about working on something new.  The response is to always try to get out of it or put the least amount of effort into it.  Their job is to carry out the specific deliverables they committed to delivering this year during the goals setting process.  That’s it & as far as they’re concerned, that’s plenty.

The problem with that type of thinking is that it immediately rules out innovation & experimentation.  New ideas don’t conveniently pop up when you have time on your hands. In fact, I’ve found that they usually manifest themselves when it’s most chaotic, when you are knee deep in a problem & trying to find a solution or a workaround.  Those hectic situations get people focused on thinking creatively for an answer.  The problem is that in the heat of the problem, a lot of the very creative ideas get thrown out because there is no time to put them into action. Instead of holding on to the idea for further investigation, most teams just forget about them. The spark of an idea is allowed to fizzle into obscurity.

Years ago I conducted an experiment as I began to grapple with all 5 Yeah-Buts keeping me from pursuing innovation in my team.  As my team & I were in the throes of solving an issue or finding an answer to a problem, I began to pay attention & look for instances where someone said “I wish we could do xxx” or “Too bad we don’t have time for xxx” or “Does anybody know how to xxx”.  Those phrases carried the spark of a possible great idea.

As I heard these phrases, I began to write them down. Pretty soon I had accumulated a nice list.  Any one of the ideas on the list could potentially lead us to a new product, a new service, a more efficient way of doing things.  The only thing is that we needed to fuel the spark.  That’s what ultimately led to the creation of the Idea Incubator.  With the help of my team, we purposely & purposefully looked at ways we could carve out time to fuel the spark of those ideas.

At first, we could only find small amounts of time & were very selective about the idea (s) we pursued.  What we discovered is that we all really enjoyed that small sliver of time away from the day to day grind to focus on what was possible. That laser focus on the idea gave us incredible momentum & results. Amazingly, one of the results was to really examine our daily activities & where we spent our time.  We all found time wasters in our daily activities. 

But here was the best part.  We quickly acted on eliminating the time wasters.  Why now & not before? Because everyone got a lot of satisfaction from experimenting with the new ideas & helping them take shape.  Everyone was engaged in the process & learning a lot from it.  The goal quickly became to find a way to make the Idea Incubator a part of our daily schedule.  With time, we accomplished that goal & it was a game changer for the team. 

Not all of the ideas we pursued led somewhere but all of them made us learn, challenged our comfort zones & contributed to finding solutions for other ideas.  More importantly, everyone - from Gen Yers to Boomers – was engaged & motivated to come to work.  What I realized as I battled the 5 Yeah-Buts is that I, as the leader of my team, had to find a way to integrate innovation into the daily fabric of the team or else it would never get done.  The reality was that it wasn’t another team’s responsibility to experiment with new ideas.  It was my responsibility as well.

I can’t argue with the fact that completing our day to day activities takes priority if we are to accomplish our annual goals & priorities. But we sacrifice our future if we only focus on the tasks at hand.  Building a framework that allows experimentation  to stand beside the day to day is the key to staying competitive in the future.  Ensuring the company stays innovative & pioneers new ideas is every leaders responsibility & should never be assigned to one department or one function. Our jobs as leaders are to ensure our companies stay competitive,  relevant & financially viable not just today but into the future.

So what about you?  What are you doing today to fight the 5 Yeah-Buts to innovation?  What framework are you building in your team that allows experimentation to thrive alongside the day to day? Remember, it starts with a baby step & it’s up to us to take the first one…

“I’ll have to run that by my senior management”. 

When you hear that, you’ve just heard Yea-But #4:  To seek management approval before the pursuit of an idea.

Really? Seriously?  I can’t tell how many times I’ve heard leaders say that when someone in their team or from the outside pitches an idea he or she thinks is worth pursuing.  Now I can understand if the person is a new or first level manager but these are VPs in charge of multi-million dollar budgets with a team of people reporting to them?  They’ve got to check in with their boss?

When I hear that response I always think to myself  “Why does your boss need you when you have to check in with him for every little thing”.  But usually something else is going on.  The person, let’s just call him or her the VP,  getting pitched the idea is not comfortable with the idea.  Instead of digging deeper & trying to better understand the idea & the intended results, the person just finds it easier to blow off the idea by saying it has to get vetted by the boss. 

The VP is hoping the person pitching the idea will just back off & forget the whole thing so he doesn’t have to even talk to his boss about it.  Most the time he gets his wish.  Everyone knows that getting another management layer involved in a decision will complicate & slow down the process.

That is what the VP is counting on.  He doesn’t care that he looks like an ineffective leader by relinquishing his authority to the higher ups.  He doesn’t care that he may be squashing a great idea from taking root & blossoming to a great product or service for the company.   The nurturing & growth of ideas puts more work on a VPs plate.  It also puts him at risk of failure.  What if the idea is a dud?  What if a lot of time is invested & it goes no where?  What’s going to happen to his bonus & raise then? 

Although admittedly the pursuit of ideas is a toss up in terms of success, it rarely happens in vain.  All is not wasted & in fact usually, a lot is gained.  The team gets to try out different techniques & theories, they learn from what goes right & even more by what goes wrong.  They are engaged in the idea & seeing where it goes.  Engaged employees mean happy employees that are learning & contributing to the company. Experimenting with new ideas raises the bar in their performance because they see what’s truly possible when they try something new, something that pushes them out of their comfort zone.

But none of that can happen if the VP doesn’t choose to get uncomfortable first.  If he cops out & uses the “gotta run it the boss” card, all is lost.  Another idea is not allowed to take root.  How many times does this happen in our existing corporate environment on a daily, weekly, yearly basis?  A lot!  But we don’t even realize it. Yeah-But  #1 – being too busy  is so engrained in the way we work that it’s hard for anything to penetrate it.  Often we push back on new ideas without even thinking about what we’re doing or the consequences.

That resistance keeps innovation from sprouting & weaving its way into the very fabric of the organization.  The day to day grind, the push to meet deliverables & focus on reactive activities never lets innovation shine through.  On the rare occasion that it does, it’s not allowed to flourish by any means.

How many times have you relinquished your authority to your boss to avoid the pursuit of any idea presented by people in or outside of your team?  How many times have you delved deeper to an idea being pitched to you to see if it had any legs?  How many times do you take the easy way out so you don’t have to get uncomfortable?

We are all guilty of passing the buck to our boss to get out of doing something on some occasion.  The problem occurs when we make it a habit & refuse to take ownership & live up to the position & authority we have been given.

 ”Ideas cost money & I don’t have extra money lying around in the budget”

Jim got that response from his boss when he pitched an idea to automate an internal process that was time intensive & manual.  It highlights Yeah-But #2 – no budget for innovation.  Jim was one of my Gen Y interviewees sharing the good, bad & the ugly of  his corporate experience.

“I didn’t even get a chance to give details about my idea.  I was shut down before I even started”  Jim explained. “I didn’t even know if my idea would cost money or not but the answer was loud & clear. Ideas cost money.  But what if they saved money, too?”

Jim continued “At lunch, I told my friend, Neil, in finance, about my idea to see how much he thought it would cost. Neil liked the idea & could see how the solution could be used across the company.  He texted his friend in IT to ask him to meet us & brainstorm possible solutions.  John from IT, revealed that his team had worked on something similiar that could probably be tweaked to solve this issue in my team. We decided to work together & see if we could come up something using the tools the company already had in place.”

Excited about the possibility of pursuing an idea that could save his team a lot of time & money, Jim discovered that his idea it would not cost the company additional funds except for the time Jim, John &  Neil invested in it.   At the end of 2 months, they had automated & tested the new solution & Jim was ready to present the solution to his boss.

“My boss was blown away by the demo I gave him”. Jim explained.  “Even still he asked me 4 times if I was 100% sure this was not going to cost him money to implement.  I assured him the only thing it had cost us was our time & effort. He was skeptical right through the end.  He stopped being skeptical when he saw how much more efficient the team was with the new solution. He stopped when other teams saw the improvement and wanted to piggyback off the solution.  He stopped when the CEO praised him for the solution he almost shut down.

“I guess I was wrong about ideas costing money” Jim’s boss confessed. “They can  make money, too, if you give them a chance to sprout”.

Can you see yourself in Jim’s boss?  How many times have you not pursued an idea because of possible budget concerns? Did you try looking at creative solutions with what was already available in-house?

Sometimes we make things more complicated that they need to be.  The next time you find yourself shutting down an employee with a good idea because of cost implications, try this:

  • Listen to the idea & see if it has bottom line potential.  If it does, it is worth pursuing
  • Encourage the employee to come up with creative solutions if you have no budget to spare for seed money
  • Find ways to partner with other teams that the solution could benefit.  The effort & cost can be distributed among various departments instead of bearing the brunt of the cost yourself.

Don’t be shortsighted like Jim’s boss about trying out new ideas.  Innovation often just requires a creative way of seeing & using the tools, information, people & resources that you have at your disposal. All you need to do is give it a chance to sprout.

“I don’t have time to dilly dally & play around.  My deliverables don’t leave time for anything else”. 

With that comment, Jack, our VP in Finance,  voiced the first Yeah-But to corporate innovation – lack of time.   Ann, the VP of Customer Service, chimed in, ” I agree with Jack.  If you’re not crazy busy, you’re not working on the company’s top priorities”.

“Wanna put your money where your mouth is?”  I asked  “Neither one of you are spending 100% of your time on top priority activities.  In fact, I bet  you are actually wasting a lot of time on non-essential stuff.

“I’ll take the bet. What’s the wager?”.  Ann, you in”?  I knew Jack would take the bait.

“What are we wagering? ” she said as they both looked at me.

“Ok, for the next month, you & Jack have to track all work activities in your day. Down to the minutes & hours spent on even the most trivial stuff. You need to be completely honest & methodical in capturing all the details. Deal”?

“Yeah, But (there it is again!) what’s the wager?  Jack asked.

“At the end of the month, if you don’t find at least 20% of your time is wasted on non-essential stuff, I will put you at the top of the list for the new IBM laptops we’re rolling out .

If, on the other hand, you find that 20% of your time is being wasted then you assign someone from your teams to work on an idea we’re testing out in my team”  Do we have a deal”?

Jack & Ann practically said “I’m in” at the same time.  

“Great. Let’s touch base after 2 weeks to check our progress”?  I asked.

“Good idea.  I can’t wait to be the first show off my new laptop “.  Jack was smiling.

The day before our lunch, Jack & Ann walk into my office.  “Jack says, ” Carla will work on your project”.  Then Ann says ” Bill will represent my team.  Just let me know how long you need him”.

The shock registerd on my face.

“You won”, said Jack.  “I never thought we’d lose but what I discovered almost makes losing worth it”. 

“Me,too” added Ann. “I kept a detailed log of everything I did & last Friday I reviewed it. What struck me were the useless meetings I was attending. Either the meetings had no bearing on my deliverables or, they were better suited for my direct reports.  This week I decided to be selective in the meetings I attended.  I freed more than 20% of my time.

“For me, the time wasters were the interruptions in my day”.  Jack was sharing his discovery. ”People stop by and chat.  Five minutes here, ten minutes there, it adds up.  Early this week, I moved to a conference room where people couldn’t easily find me. I was more focused & productive. Between the meetings & the interruptions, I wasted way more than 20% of my time on stupid stuff”.

Ann’s next comment was the best.  “I realized that there is time to try new things. You just have to want to do it & you find the time.”

Can you relate to Jack & Ann’s discovery?  Are you really so busy you can’t try new things or do you just think you are?  How open are you to test yourself? 

Try a quick experiment.  For the next 2 weeks:

  • Keep a log of all activities during your working day.
  • Be honest & make sure you capture ALL activities.
  • At the end of the first week, review your entries & evaluate your findings. 

If you find you are not as productive as you thought,  you have 2 choices. You can re-direct the  time to your priority projects or use the time to try a new idea or new way of doing things in your team.  Remember what Ann said: There is time for innovation.  You have to want to do it & you’ll find the time.

Here’s a great quote to help keep this innovation Yeah-But at bay: 

The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.” – Michael Altshuler    Source: www.TimeMan.com

I always like to read about unique perspectives that people can apply to leadership in the 21st Century.  I was reading the February 4th edition of strategy+business & came across this article titled “Reaffirming Corporate Commitment“  which is a research study conducted by Hal Ersner-Hershfield (Northwestern University), Adam D. Galinsky (Northwestern University), Laura J. Kray (University of California at Berkeley), and Brayden G. King (Northwestern University). In the strategy+business excerpt of the research study, it talks about the effectiveness of conducting “what-if” scenarios of a company’s early days to boost employee morale.  They used FedEx as an example to illustrate what they meant. 

They showed how in the 1970′s, Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx , literally gambled on the future of his company. Not  having enough money to pay for airline fuel, Smith flew to Vegas for a weekend, went to a blackjack table & gambled the company’s last $5,000. He was able to turn the $5,000 into $24,000 & was able to keep the company afloat.  In their research the authors correlate that gamble & conviction by the founder to keep the company afloat to the fact that  FedEx consistently ranks on Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list.

The authors call this counterfactual thinking which looks at what might have been if past events had turned out differently for a company .  Being the movie buff that I am, I couldn’t help but correlate the concept of counterfactual thinking with that of  the great classic Frank Capra movie “It’s a Wonderful Life“.  Remember the story: Jimmy Stewart was bitter & frustrated with his existing life & all the  sacrifices & challenges that life had thrust upon him. In a moment of desperation, he angrily wishes he had not been born.  The rest of the movie shows Jimmy witnessing the dire consequences of that wish &  how so many people had benefited from his being in the world .  In the end, Jimmy is ecstatic to be alive & comes to appreciate his life, warts & all. 

A powerful, uplifting story & one that makes us as viewers appreciate what we have & how we’ve touched people.  To me, counterfactual thinking can be the corporate version of  “It’s a Wonderful Life” .   What would have happened if Fred Smith had not gone to Vegas to save the company? FedEx would probably have folded & would not be on the 100 Top Best Companies to Work  list today.  That’s a powerful message to share with employees.  Do you think after listening to that near miss, the employees would appreciate working for FedEx even if it had a wart here & there?  You bet.  Just like Jimmy Stewart did.  Counterfactual thinking challenges employees to think about what would happen if their company had not been founded or had folded early on.  Very much like the reaction “It’s a Wonderful Life” gets from viewers everytime they see the movie, employees get a boost of appreciation for the company & their commitment & morale increase. 

It makes perfect sense but how many times do companies share their version of the “It’s a Wonderful Life” story with employees?  How many times is counterfactual thinking utilized by companies to increase employee morale?  According to the authors when this unique perspective is applied,  the palpable postive effect on employees is still evident two weeks later. The authors suggest that in today’s uncertain economic times, organizations can use the past to foster employee commitment to the current & future state of the company.

This made me wonder how many companies today were effective in keeping their corporate history alive?  How many of them do so consistently and as part of their corporate communication strategy? How well versed is the leadership in knowing the company’s past? Can you, as a leader,  provide your team with stories of critical turning points in your organization that changed its direction for the better?  What about a visionary leader who showed tremendous conviction despite incredible odds & saved the company from ruin & extinction?

Everyone is touched by stories & what better way to touch employees than by sharing the rich corporate history that most organizations have locked up in their extensive archives.  Get out those dusty archives & communicate key events in your organizations history that made a difference & contributed to its staying power. The authors of this research say it best when they say that “ By having employees focus on how things might have turned out differently and where they would be without their company, firm leaders can help foster a more positive view of the workplace and higher morale”.  

Employees today are desperate to hear good news & feel positive about their companies.  Maybe experimenting with a counterintuitive strategy or message can do the trick.  It certainly couldn’t hurt…