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!
All good points and ideas Alberto and Douglas. If the overall company culture is not one of adaptability, then all the work that was done in the onboarding process to foster this will likely soon fall by the wayside after months of working for the organization. I like both suggestions of mixing older and new employees in the design thinking project as well as continuous training to help hone and promote these adaptability skills. Another potential suggestion is to also to establish an "adaptability lab" where ALL employees can go (physically or virtually) to just tinker, innovate, fail, collaborate, on ways to improve/advance the organization. This will help embed a culture of adaptability and encourage experimentation. Maybe this is beyond the first steps for the hack but an idea to make sure adaptability doesn't end at onboarding.
- Log in to post comments
Dear Amanda and team,
I would like to share a couple of thoughts around this hack.
The first one is a contrasting one. In the problem statement you suggested that “Employees are most vulnerable to becoming enemies of adaptability during the onboarding process.” However, I’m on the opinion that new employees are more prone to adapt than older employees. The way I see it, new employees are in a dual state of mind. In one hand, they have an open attitude and focus a great part of their energy in fitting in the new culture they are entering. On the other hand, they are also eager to prove their value by contributing with original solutions and approaches. In this sense, and because of this duality, new hires could be the best allies when it comes to install adaptability in an organization, especially if such organization is not as flexible as we would love to.
The second one is about randomly mixing both new employees and older employees in the design thinking projects. That way HR would be sending a powerful message to both groups that things should change for good. Plus, it could also help integrate newcomers with veterans and improve their collaboration skills.
- Log in to post comments
Thanks for your thoughts! I hope my revisions reflect some of the changes you suggested.
- Log in to post comments
I think this hack and Alberto's comment both have their finger on something important - in brainstorming mode may I offer where these thoughts took me? Where they go, I'm not sure.
My main professional expertise is in senior-level recruiting. A book I particularly love for its practicality and honest is by a Harvard prof, Joseph Bower, The CEO Within - http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/5772.html he makes a good case for the best CEOs being 'inside outsiders' (or outside insiders) - people who are insiders but think like outsiders. So,a question: why do we only onboard people when they join? Why doesn't onboarding become something that anyone in an organisation does every (say) 7 years? Of course onboarding would have to be reinvented to serve that purpose, but in a way that could fit very well as:
- making permission to innovate/ fail/ ask 'stupid' questions part of the organisation's DNA
- getting newcomers and 'older timers' alongside each other in a common cause?
This might seem/be nuts. Clearly onboarding mustn't lose its connection with being new, 'seeing the organisation for the first time', and indeed this hack would join well with the idea of making 'risk appetite' central to how we appoint senior people (see hack ''Choosing leaders differently'). But maybe everybody, every 7 years, needs to 'see the organisation for the first time' (again)? The heart of Bower's point is that to get at the really good stuff, we need both the deeply-knowledgeable and the fresh ways of looking at 'what we do around here'.
- Log in to post comments
Thanks for your thoughts! I tried to take your feedback into account when revising the hack, so hopefully you'll see your thoughts reflected in my revisions.
- Log in to post comments
You need to register in order to submit a comment.