The Greatest Obstacle to Innovation Training
You’re leading great training and motivation, but are your managers and culture killing any chance for performance and innovation?
Consider the following—it happens all the time:
You do everything to set the stage for your people to step out, think outside the box, empower others, and look for ways to increase the performance of your employees and your company.
You hire smart people.
You set up motivating training programs at all levels. You invest thousands of dollars to send them to conferences and idea sessions. You set up measurements on empowerment, performance, and growth. You’ve created a desire, passion, and the skills to get the most out of key employees—if not all of them.
Your employees come out excited and motivated to create new ideas and make changes. Personally, you are excited about ways to enhance your company. You have thoughts to increase engagement, create new programs, or change the way your most valued members are rewarded and energized. After all, this is why you were hired.
But then reality sets in.
Many of these employees DO present new ideas. They DO challenge the status quo, and they DO passionately rock the boat. But cultures, power structures, and resistance to change all get in the way. Ideas stall. And sometimes, more often than it should happen, employees are labeled as “the wrong fit” or “insensitive loose cannons” and even are fired while the managers who protect the status quo are rewarded.
But things are running smoothly. And that’s the problem.
So here is the self-assessment, the hard question to ask: Is your company stifling new ideas and innovation or even firing your most innovative employees (AND HAS IT HAPPENED TO YOU?)
Resistance from the Organization
Organizations say they want change. They hold their Training departments responsible for new levels of empowerment, productivity, and engagement. They bring in great training people to raise passion, engagement, management, and innovation. They invest in motivating ideas.
Then, they let restricting cultures, change-resistant managers, adherence to the status quo, or lack of vision stifle these employees. Very often, these passionate employees—the people the organization needs the most—are fired, labeled as loose cannons, irritants, or wrong fits. And very often, their dismissals are due to the fact that they let their passion get the best of them. In our new book, “The Disposable Visionary: A Survival Guide for Change Agents,” my co-author, Curt Powell, and I label these passionate and potential innovators as the title states, “Disposable Visionaries.” They see “what could be.” They push for change. They challenge the status quo in everything.
But they also tend to bring something that can irritate managers and co-workers. They have little appreciation for politics. They are so passionate about ideas and change that they may disregard protocol or don’t care about rubbing people the wrong way. They feel others should simply look at potential outcomes and worry less about political channels or tradition. They believe in results over politics
Does this really happen all the time? Well, recent research documented how companies rated employees based on their ability to learn and apply new ideas vs. their political skills and savvy. At the very bottom: those with high learning and new idea skills, but low political tolerance. And they were rated below low learners with high political skills and even low learners with LOW political skills. Anyone who stayed under the radar and played it safe was rated higher than those who pushed passionately for change.
Take a Look Inside Your Organization
Here are some telltale signs you have a culture that stifles ideas and may be hindering or even forcing out your most valuable employees:
- A lack of radical ideas: Little is being offered to change the way your company deals with your biggest challenges.
- A lack of creative conflict: There are no animated challenges to traditional approaches or in ongoing meetings.
- There are continuous HR issues on “fit” or “tension”: You see constant turnover of important positions.
- There may be “power positions”: Where certain individuals do not like being challenged or confronted with change.
- A lack of focus, open desire, or mandate for new ideas: A void where top management has implemented a clear focus and aggressive vision for change and innovation throughout the company, ranging in how meetings are run, employees are rated, or managers assessed.
- There is a recognition and promotion of employees who simply “keep things running smoothly.”
- There is a graveyard of employees who were deemed too pushy—especially those who personally confronted others.
Stifling Cultures Even Happen in Companies Who Pride Themselves on Innovation
Interestingly, while organizations can have a “won’t happen here” belief, it is just as prevalent in some of the companies that are labeled as champions of openness and innovation. Two examples scream that it can happen anywhere.
The Walt Disney Company fired a young employee named John Lassiter when he proposed that computer animation could be used for more than just background. He challenged a corporate tradition and they quickly fired him for his heresy. He then went on to become Chief Creative Officer at Pixar (which Disney later bought for $7.4 billion).
At Southwest Airlines, also renowned for an open culture, David Neeleman was fired when he pushed for customer improvements and cost saving programs such as easier seat assignments and offsite reservation processes. He then went on to create JetBlue and Azul Brazilian Airline, considered two of the most successful airlines in profit, operations, and customer service.
Despite a corporate philosophy for ongoing change and new ideas, Both Disney and Southwest had managers, power structures, and cultures that did not want to be challenged. As often happens, after they were fired, these passionate visionaries took their ideas and used them to outperform the companies that fired them. And such a list goes on and on.
So it can happen under our noses and we don’t even know it.
But It Doesn’t Have to Happen
Politics does not have to supersede performance. Innovation can be stimulated. Passionate “boat rockers” can be leveraged.
There are management opportunities. If your company seeks more passion and a culture that stimulates instead of stifles ideas, consider these key steps:
- Create a clear vision and measurements for ideas and challenging initiatives. Establish goals for new ideas. Identify where you want improvements so your employees know where to put their energy. Every month, ask, “How are we creating a sense of true indispensability? How are we addressing our largest competitive challenge or exploiting our greatest opportunity?” Ensure your managers know they will be rewarded for employees who come up with key concepts that rock the status quo. Likewise, let managers know that there is no reward for simply maintaining a “same as usual” approach.
- Integrate those employees who are the change agents, who have constantly rocked the boat and pushed others. Rather than avoiding their irritation, make sure they are members of key brainstorming and skunk work programs. Let others know you put performance and change over politics and stagnation.
- Watch for issues. Take the time to talk to those who push and maybe need more counseling. Don’t squelch their passion, but make sure they understand the importance of alliances, pre-meetings, and data-based approaches. Give them ways to fit in, while using their natural gifts. At the same time, be on the lookout for political obstacles—managers who are not on board for change, areas where comfort is rewarded, employee evaluations that reward attitudes and actions that impact growth and progress. Remember, the role of good management is progress. In managing people, that means “comforting the disturbed while disturbing the comfortable.”
Counsel for Overly Aggressive Change Agents
If you are one of those who put ideas of progress ahead of politics, realize that your company will always be driven by people and some level of politics will always exist. In promoting ideas, consider a few key concepts that will help you and your ideas succeed:
- Know the points of pain of the organization or department and the key priorities of leadership. Strive to make an impact where it matters most.
- Leverage those already entrenched. Find key mentors and build alliances. Let others who have the ear of management and the board present ideas for you. Get the input and counsel of others who will help modify and enhance innovation so it has a greater chance of success.
- Avoid the “loose cannon” title by aligning with company goals and using data to verify your focus and the basis for your assumptions. Always tie innovation to reality.
Make Changes to Achieve Dramatic Change
Effective training often requires a new approach that shakes up the status quo. Sure, visionary and passionate employees can rock the boat. They can make their managers uncomfortable. They will cause conflict. And, usually, they have little tolerance for politics, and people may not see the potential they see. They have a lot to learn. Politics of some sort will always exist. But the right vision, measurements, appreciation for talent, and the minimalization of politics all can contribute to creating an environment that rewards innovation and stimulates ideas and passion. Remove the obstacles, stimulate new ideas, and watch your training flourish.
For details on the studies behind this article or for more information on enhancing the impact of visionary training and innovation, check out the full book, “The Disposable Visionary: A Survival Guide for Change Agents (ABC-CLIO Praeger) and the Website, DisposableVisionary.com.
Bill Jerome is co-author of “The Disposable Visionary: A survival guide for change agents.” With co-author Curt Powell, Jerome has worked with more than 150 organizations in nonprofit, financial services, association, education, incentive, and consumer goods industries. A classics major at Princeton University, he received a Master’s from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, where he co-founded the Special K Revue. A frequent conference speaker on empowerment-based cultures, Jerome has written articles and parables on vision leadership for a variety of American and European business publications, in addition to
The Disposable Visionary. He welcomes contact and any discussions through DisposableVisionary.com.