Despite increasing disruption and crumbling paradigms, many organizations remain trapped in out-dated management practices left-over from the industrial revolution.
Despite increasing disruption and crumbling paradigms, many organizations remain trapped in out-dated management practices left-over from the industrial revolution. While most recognize the need to evolve their businesses to meet new challenges and the ever-increasing pace of change, few have unlocked the secret to breaking free of the entrenched thinking that keeps them from thriving in the digital age.
We propose a 5-point solution to thriving in a digital world
- Encourage connections by breaking down organizational silos
- Open up opportunities to contribute
- Foster creativity and risk-taking
- Loosen up control by providing permission to choose
- Give misfits, deviants and rabble-rousers a voice to challenge the status quo
1. Encourage connections by breaking down organizational silos.
If the industrial revolution was about ever-efficient labor, the digital revolution is about exploiting ever-expanding knowledge networks. To tap into the knowledge in your organization, create a safe-haven culture that makes it acceptable for people to connect with others outside of their particular sphere or silo and stop isolating individuals and ideas. Create channels for their ideas to flow up and over the momentum-killing chain of command. Build systems or cultivate generalists who have the skills to help people find and approach others who are identified as "specialists.” Make it possible for individuals to advertise their own tacit knowledge (both their professional and personal passions and experiences). Check your bias.—Do you truly have seats at the table for all your employees? If not, set a place.
Make internal network connections visible. This allows associates to build trust and social capital so everyone in the organization will have a very clear understanding of positional versus real power. Armed with this data, court the influencers, working directly with those who hold "real" power (the respected, knowledgeable, "go-to" people) to influence positional power (titled). This enables the bottom to change the top and break down barriers that halt real progress in the organization.
- In your next meeting, assume everyone in the room is smart enough to be there (don’t have them there if they are not). Encourage (*force*) everyone to contribute solutions outside their defined level, role or business unit silo. Leaving the comfort zone or listening to new perspectives often sparks creativity and innovation.
- Host lunch and learns. Invite other business units, divisions or other parts of the organization to share what they are working on professionally as well as their personal passions.
- Use social media as a channel for direct, liberating, transparent, person-to-person communication, connecting people to people, knowledge and ideas—wherever they live in the organization.
- Networks have power. Use it. Deploy tools that make network connections visible and valuable. Leverage weak ties in the network to spread innovation; use strong ties to make it stick.
2. Open up opportunities to contribute. Stimulate minds by unleashing and harnessing ideas and talents wherever they reside. Recognize that the focus on core activities rather than outcomes may be at the heart of the organization that doesn't let ideation happen. Strive to mitigate fear at the executive level around new ideas and who gets to participate. Allow time and space for those with a talent or passion to contribute (regardless of their formal title, level or ‘day job’) without fear of being penalized for dabbling outside their area. It takes courage for leaders - particularly those in very senior positions - to admit that they don't have all the answers. When they do, it frees them up to look for novel solutions.
- Set up for success with quick, early wins. Start with an ideation effort tightly focused on a narrow, vexing problem that needs to be solved. This sounds backwards, but the sharp focus has proven to engage and excite potential innovators and it also sets some guardrails for exploring interesting options to solve the problem.
- Don’t just put the results of your ideation efforts on a shelf; intend to deploy them.
- Build on success, celebrate failure and widen opportunities for anyone who wants to contribute to do so.
3. Foster creativity and risk-taking. Individuals are actually pretty good at taking risks. Most organizations are terrible at it. Recognize organizational bias against risk-taking and deviation of any kind and cultivate an appetite for improvisation and experimentation. Empower individuals to take strategic risks, support each other and if someone falls, create an environment where others will help him back up--it is safe "in here"--safe even to fail. With that said, insist on quality. Insist on value. Insist that it works. And when it’s done, tell them you knew all along they could do it.
Design for the “slack time” needed to explore new directions. Then metabolize inevitable failures so you can learn from them. Establish the right tone by publicly celebrating successes...and successful failures.
Teams can be at their most innovative and creative when faced with what seems like an impossible task, especially when it’s their job to make it possible. Improvisation can help these teams do the impossible even under shifting conditions. For example, Improv theatre has a very intentional structure based on knowledge of character, story; in essence, who you are, what you are doing and where you are doing it (kind of like a strategy or plan). These actors learn and follow the structure together in practice (they also have a tough boss continuously pushing them farther) and when it is showtime, the performers are allowed to be in charge of "making it happen". That freedom versus rigid structure produces the (creative) tension required to make a great show, a great product, a great company.
- Challenge someone to take a complaint and turn it into a solution. "What would you do differently? How would you solve the problem?"
- Protect the time the individual spends on it and when necessary, hold their feet to the fire to make it great.
- Take interest and encourage someone to pursue an idea. Ask for a structure that will help see the vision through to completion (a.k.a. a plan).
- Make time but take a space. Allow employees to get out of the office, take someone else’s professional space and sit in it and watch. Sit in a courtroom for an hour, go to the DMV (on purpose), sit next to an outdoor hot dog stand--anywhere, just not in the office. Find people using your products and see how they are really used, or look for things that look almost identical to your problem and see how someone else solved it "out of context".
- Apply improv techniques to your next intractable problem.
4. Loosen up control by providing permission to choose. Responsible adults, who can select a mortgage or buy a new car in their off-hours, must obtain permission once at the office to procure a new desk chair or simply schedule a holiday. Arguably, there are valid reasons for such controls, but opportunity costs are overlooked when organizations continue to define rules based on the status quo. Learn to say, “what if” before jumping to “no.”
Capture hearts by broadening areas of responsibility and expanding the scope of decision-making, give individuals more choice over where they work, when they work, how they work, with whom they work, and what they work on. In a few truly pioneering organizations, individuals even get to choose their workmates and their leaders.
Leaders can no longer rely on command and control as the main tool in their leadership toolbox. They are increasingly competing with a new kind of leader, one that emerges from networks of equals. While these voices may or may not hold official titles, they can amplify or diminish the influence of management. Their credibility in the network is key to an engaged, motivated workforce (and superior performance) or they can poison the well.
Use their influence to your advantage. Seek to shift more control in their direction. Look for decisions you can delegate to the wisdom of the crowd. Provide for strategic opportunities that empower more employees to have increased choice in where, how and when they work.
- On your next project, ask for volunteers rather than simply assigning parts. Be sure to cast a wide net—inspiration and passion may come from the unexpected.
- Consider a work at home policy if one is not already in place. Social contract with associates and measure their productivity in output and outcomes, not hours.
- Model behavior from the top, develop the ability to actively listen. Learn to tap into your influencers. Say, “what if” more.
5. Give misfits, deviants and rabble-rousers a voice to challenge the status quo. "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man." George Bernard Shaw (1856 - 1950)
The new digital paradigm requires shifting from minimizing deviations to unleashing potential. However, large organizations tend to make life uncomfortable for misfits and rabble-rousers. Dissent is hardly encouraged and usually squashed outright. Yet, it’s the people who ignore the rules, flout convention, and question constantly who invent the future. Social media is a haven for heretics of all calibers. Organizations must become more hospitable to dissent and deviance in order to stay tuned in and adapt to all the changes in the environment.
Managers must publicly applaud and recognize ‘deviant’ employees who do the right thing, not the wrong thing right. Of course, not all people have a “deviant” streak and certainly not all deviant behavior should be rewarded. It requires recognizing and encouraging the right deviation, then giving the rabble-rouser the space and encouragement to take the initiative to create the right results--even if that means going against the establishment or breaking unspoken rules or behavioral norms.
It is imperative to recognize our own propensity to view “strange” behavior suspiciously and use the other part of our brain to ask questions, try to understand different viewpoints and, hopefully, become more receptive to something different--progress depends on it.
- Despite sounding oxymoronic, define a framework that promotes deviance, innovation, and creativity as a way to positively channel disagreement, alternate ideas, etc. Provide misfits the time and space to work on the “right” things in a safe environment.
- Place your innovation center outside management control to unleash the messy creativity required for testing new ideas. Identify and encourage misfits, deviants and rabble-rousers to apply. Publicly applaud fast failures as much as successes and encourage others to build on the products and by-products of their work.
- Starting a new organization? Consider creating a culture based on deviation where outlier behavior is the norm. For example, WL Gore is able to operate without the need to separate deviation since they, themselves, are deviants. Gore challenges the very ideas of management with their non-hierarchical, non-titled, open leadership model.
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