If you're like me, the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, officially known as the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, captured your heart and imagination. We witnessed innovation and engagement that took our breath away—both in the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as in the Olympic athletes who were totally engaged in achieving their life-time goals. What can we learn from these record-breaking human achievements that can guide us to creating a more innovative and engaging culture?
A Difficult Road
For years, experts have been searching for a blueprint to build a strong culture of innovation and engagement in the workplace. Two years ago, TowersPerrin conducted a definitive study of 86,000 employees working for larg- and medium-sized companies in 16 countries to measure the extent that employees were engaged in their work. The survey confirmed prior studies that only 14 percent of workers were highly engaged. The rest, a whopping 86 percent worldwide, show up for work, but are sleepwalking on the job. The results reflect a growing organizational concern about how to manage employees to meet their potential.
Professor Gary Hamel, a leading management expert, believes employees are born with gifts of initiative, creativity, and passion, but elect to use or squander their talents moment-by-moment and day-by-day. In a typical pyramid organization, he writes, "Hierarchies are very good at aggregating effort, at coordinating the activities of many people with widely varying roles. But they're not very good at mobilizing effort, at inspiring people to go above and beyond. When it comes to mobilizing human capability, communities outperform bureaucracies." Hamel believes that flatter, thinner management structures produce dedication and commitment in companies where employees share a common vision and goal. He writes that the "more meddlesome the managerial oversight, the more constricting the shackles of policy and process [and] the less passionate people are going to be about their work. You can’t expect automatons to be zealots."
As we reflect on the Olympics and other equally successful organizations, four practices permeate their cultures: 1) Coaching; 2) Autonomy and trust; 3) Time for incubation and innovation, and 4) Clear strategies, goals, and metrics.
Most of the Olympians had coaches. These coaches knew the sport and knew the athlete. They worked with their athletes to develop the training schedules, practices, nutritional requirements, workout schedules, competitions and game plans for making it to the Olympics and competing successfully. In the case of Michael Phelps (now the most decorated Olympian in history), Bob Bowman spotted him at age eleven, saw his potential, talked to his mother, and has been working with him rigorously ever since. He saw his talents, discipline, and competitive spirit, as well as the body type conducive to expert swimming. Watching them together, and listening to their interviews, you can see the bond of friendship, trust, and respect that exists between them. This has been forged over many years. They have experienced the kind of coach/protege relationship we desperately need in large organizations.
Many workers today have no coaches, mentors, or managers that really know them, trust them, challenge them, and respect them. Engagement fails when individuals are treated like commodities. Old-fashioned pep talks and rah-rah exhortations may work occasionally at halftime in a basketball game when strong coaching relationships and respect exists, but will not sustain a passion for work on a continuous day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month basis. Referring to first and second tier workers as "Associates" and "Team Members," and giving speeches about "Involvement," "Empowerment," and "Self-Direction" only work when built on strong coaching relationships between managers and their teams.
Close coaching relationships with the hallmarks of trust, appreciation, and respect allow proteges to learn quickly, experiment, get to know themselves and what makes them unique, and gives them a safe haven for learning and feedback. Trusting employees to do the right thing in their own way may be risky, but it produces commitment. Safe, policy-driven, and superficial approaches are doomed to failure. Real engagement requires trust and having coaches around you who appreciate your unique talents and help you achieve your own goals.
Autonomy and Trust
We witnessed autonomy and trust in the team sports, where athletes adjusted strategies, played to the strengths of their teammates and the weaknesses of their competitors. The top rated U.S. women's beach volleyball team of Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor won the gold medal. If you caught their matches, you watched two people who trusted every move of the other and turned that into a first-time victory of back-to-back gold medals in the history of beach volleyball at the Olympics.
Nastia Lukin and Shawn Johnson, two members of the U.S. Olympic Gymnastic Team, adapted their individual floor and balance beam routines to assure top scores and medals in the Olympics. Their knowledge of their body and the new Olympic scoring system produced a self-confidence that spurred their team to great accomplishments. Effective coaches stand back and trust the skill and know-how of their proteges. Ultimately, every athlete stands alone and makes the second-by-second judgment calls that produce the highest athletic achievements. They are trusted to do so.
Time for Incubation and Innovation
The Olympics serve as a natural incubator for innovation. They occur on a regular basis, with differing events every four years. TV producers, photographers, athletic goods manufacturers, architects, and transportation experts have a minimum of four years to bring the next innovations to the Games and the public.
Those of us who viewed the Olympics were aware of a number of innovations that came from the designers of the Opening Ceremony, Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou and Chinese choreographer Zhang Jigagn in their use of digital technology, real time photography, and coordination of 15,000 performers. It appeared that every recent breakthrough in technology, fireworks, costuming, high wire stunts, and music were beautifully wrapped into that ceremony. Seven years went into the planning and coordination of the Bejing Olympics. Teams worked together to assure China came onto the world stage in a memorable way. What does this tell us? The number of engaged workers will skyrocket when everyone is given a voice and the tools of creativity are widely distributed. In such organizations where competency and ability are more important than positions and titles, power comes from below. Authority is dependent on skill and judgment. These companies create an evolving advantage over time and will stay ahead of the curve.
Clear Goals and Metrics
Olympians have clear goals. They know the records they want to beat. They know exactly (within hundredths of a second) how fast they have to move or how high they have to jump. They know how they’re measured in diving and gymnastics. They know each element they have to perform and the subtleties included. They get immediate feedback. Deming said years ago, "You get what you measure."
Myriads of manufacturers also know these metrics and continually refine their products (swimsuits, running shoes, workout clothes, cameras, measuring devices, nutritional products, etc.) to help assure higher jumps, faster speeds, safer equipment, more adequate measuring devices, technology to enhance judges maintaining the criteria, etc. There is a clear and continual connection between these organizations and the athletes and nations they serve—through design, development, usage, and redesign.
With athletes, the strategy is to win, break records, and enhance the sport using all the aids possible. The manufacturers, employees, athlete, and coaches have a similar perspective on winning. And having clear goals and strategies, and ways to measure success, are intrinsically motivating. The more tightly aligned innovation strategy is with business strategy, the greater the level performance, income growth and shareholder returns, while the lower the level of alignment, the smaller the return. Companies are the most innovative:
• When they are committed to understanding their customers' needs.
• When they are first to bring a novel product or service to the market.
• When they follow their competitors' moves.
• When they focus on breakthrough technologies and swing for the fence more than taking on a piecemeal approach to innovation.
Some organizations are plagued with an archaic management model invented more than a hundred years ago that produces disengaged employees, hamstrung innovation, and inflexible organizations. Engagement will flourish when coaching relationships honor talent, trust employees, and support autonomy of individuals and teams. Innovation is successful when aligned to a business strategy with clear goals and metrics for success. Companies that support customer insight in designing innovation efforts have a higher level of success. Trust your workers by granting them the independence and time to innovate.
Caela Farren, Ph.D., is president of MasteryWorks, Inc., in Falls Church, VA. For more information, visit www.masteryworks.com.