New employees and their organizations both want new hires to embrace the organization's culture, so why not utilize that drive? It presents an excellent opportunity to inject a sense of experimentation into organizational culture via the onboarding process.
In order to become adaptable, an organization must accomplish three things: (1) adopt the ethos that drives adaptability and innovation, (2) foster that ethos within current employees, and (3), bring new employees into the fold in a way that supports this organizational transition, rather than hinders it.
Whether an organization has already adopted the principles of adaptability or not, failing to onboard new employees in a way that supports that ethos will put an organization's culture of adaptability at risk. As such, we propose an onboarding process that integrates a hands-on portiong (a hackathon, if you will) that leads employees to find new ways to think about failure. This addition to the onboarding process serves to reinforce that the organization holds experimentation dear and does not fear failure.
Employees are most vulnerable to becoming enemies of adaptability during the onboarding process, a time when they are blank slates seeking to understand both an organization's informal culture and formal expectations. Yet organizations often fail to address adaptability during onboarding, leading to incorrect conclusions and a missed opportunity. When an organization fails to address adaptability during onboarding, new employees may come to understand (whether accurate or not) that both informal cuture and formal expectations revolve around fear of failure.
Such a conclusion can be reached at the orgnizational level and drawn during onboarding, through a new employee's perceptions of organizational culture. One of their first experiences with the larger organization, a failure to explicitly express embrace of experimentation and tolerance for failure, can easily be interpreted by new employees as disinterest in innovation and fear of failure. With their drive to try to understand and fit into organizational culture, not saying anything about adaptability or experimentation during the onboarding process still says something to new employees, and they will be particularly sensitive to the message.
Such a conclusion at the individual level could be reached during onboarding or even in early work interactions. In these instances, formal interactions with an agent of the organization (such as a manager or onboarding trainer) may convey expectations of an employee that seem to support or even encourage caution, rigidity, and fear of failure.
In order to address these challenges, an organization must find a way to communicate that it encourages experimentation and discourages fear of failure. We propose that the best way to communicate both of these messages is through the addition of a hands-on segment into an organization's more traditional onboarding process.
This addition to the onboarding process is made of two key components:
- An introduction to the design thinking method, perhaps through Stanford University's d.school, and a generic design problem to work through. This would serve a dual purpose: (1) it sends a message to new employees that the organization embraces creativity and innovative thinking, and (2) it also allows teams time develop a workflow with each other before the key message is delivered.
- After the initial design thinking exercise, teams would proceed to address a project that had been live in the organization in the recent past, but was never successfully resolved (so, a failure). This serves the purpose of sending a clear signal to new employees that the organization is committed to being open and honest about failure as a learning experience.
For this portion of the training at least, employees would be grouped into small, cross-functional teams composed of both new and longer term employees. As others rightly mentioned in their feedback, while onboarding adaptability is important, it will be useless if longer term employees don't embrace adaptability as well. As such, we recommend that every few years (5 years or so, perhaps?) employees will serve a rotation in the onboarding workshop. While there, they will be assigned to work with the new employees on a failed project for which they were not assigned to the original team. This should serve the purpose of helping new employees realize, and older employees remember, how important experimentation is to the organization.
We think this will maximize the benefits all employees receive from this portion of onboarding, as you'll see below.
Each section of the hands-on training has it's own implications for the practical impact of the hack, so that is how it's broken down here. First, the impact of the design thinking project is discussed, then the impact of working on the failed project, and then the benefits that could be attributed to this intervention as a whole.
Design thinking project:
- Shifts new employees' way of thinking about and approaching/tackling problems.
- Incorporates team building into the onboarding process.
- Sets a different tone from the start of the employment relationship, as asking new employees for their creative ideas regarding a failed project sends a message to new employees that the organization wants to hear their voice and see their input.
- Sends a message that the organization is frank about what hasn't worked, and wants to use those experiences as both a chance to learn and an opportunity to use what was learned to innovate further.
- May lead to further experimentation with old projects and give new employees a chance to be part of those teams and part of those solutions.
- Has the potential to solve current organizational problems.
- Embeds an innovative and experimental culture from the beginning of the employee-organization relationship.
- Continues that focus on experimenation for the length of an employee's time at the organization.
- The combination of asking employees to voice their ideas (which indicates organizational interest in the employee) and work as a team (which encourages interacting with peers) will build commitment, engagement, and purpose during onboarding.
- Provides new employees with an opportunity to network with older employees and form connections with future coworkers.
- Finally, allows an both new and old employees an opportunity to integrate who they are with the work they will be doing, or already do. This training should not force employees to adopt a perspective forced on them by the organization. Rather, it should invite them to use who they are and what they're good at to provide innovative and unique perspectives throughout these design challenges.
When considering this solution, several challenges come to mind:
Challenge 1: New employees may be too dispersed to come together in person for such an event. Solution: If necessary, all components of this addition to the onboarding process could be taken into a virtual environment.
Challenge 2: Employees who worked on the original failed project may be resistant to debate or react defensively. Solution: Employees with longer tenure in the organization (so, not new) would need to be carefully introduced to the adoption of this system.
Challenge 3: Having a meaningful set of failed projects ready to be tackled. Solution: Assuming no solution was reached, multiple onboarding classes could tackle a problem before it's retired. To some degree, the problems could be recycled.
Challenge 4: Maintaining the sense of experimentation and innovation once onboarding is over. Solution: Consistency, consistency, consistency. Organizations considering adopting this technique must realize that their message of innovation and experimentation will only last so long as the culture supports it. If onboarding is the only time and place in the organization where those values are emphasized, then the training will not be effective for long. This is what incorporating older employees into the onboarding workshop is meant to prevent.
In order to test this process before proceeding with a large-scale implementation, organizations could test this addition to onboarding within a segment of the company (a Division, for instance) before proceeding to widespread implementation. This experiment could be up and running fairly quickly and at a relatively low cost. After running the experiment, particpants would need to answer questions about their perceptions of the degree to which the organization values experimentation, the degree to which they feel the organization is adaptable, etc. Employees in (an)other division(s) could also fill out the survey, to give a point of comparison.
In order to test this concept, organizations would need to:
- have employees start flagging failures or even long-standing problems in order to begin building problem sets.
- incorporate employees in the development process for this onboarding program. This will help to get their buy-in and also prepare them for the idea (and hopefully make them excited) that they will be participating in the workshops too.
- implement a train the trainer program, to ensure that those leading the onboarding process truly embody the innovative and experimental nature the organization is trying to communicate and to ensure that they will be able to guide new employee teams in that direction.
- integrate the new system into whatever onboarding process already exists (which should be relatively inexpensive, as it should integrate fairly seamlessly with most onboarding processes).
- communicate the results and outcomes of these new hire innovation attempts to some audience in the larger organization. Both to reinforce the employee's perception of the organization valuing innovation and new ideas and to communicate to employees that their ideas will be taken seriously.
Thanks to everyone on my hacking team for their contributions! The version we have published here was certainly a collaborative effort. Also, thanks to Claire, Chris, and Bruce of the MIX team who promptly and helpfully addressed some technology issues for me!
Finally, thanks to those who took the time to provide their feedback. I tried to take your thoughts into consideration when revising this hack!