Encouraging Innovative Behaviour in Large Organizations

Recently, I asked for input on blog topics and received this request: Interested in your thoughts on how to encourage employees to be innovative/entrepreneurial in large organizations, when the organization’s structure & measures encourage different behaviours. Also, interested in your thoughts on Gary Hamel’s hypothesis that management (i.e. the structures & principles invented by Taylor, Smith, Ford et al) needs to be re-invented.

This request came at an interesting time for me as I was re-reading Hamel’s book titled The Future of Management. So, here are my thoughts, for whatever they are worth…

First, let’s tackle the question about how to encourage innovative/entrepreneurial behaviour in large organizations when the organization’s structure and measures encourage different (typically, the opposite) behaviour. Until recently, my typical response to this question would go along the lines of creating a separate team culture inside the organization, a la Skunkworks, and protecting the team from the damaging effects of its established (sometimes for a good reason) execution-focused culture. However, a speech by a friend, Edwin Jansen (@EdwinJnsn, www.mouvment.com) made me give it a deeper thought. My realization was that, in fact, there need not be two cultures and an execution-focused culture is not necessarily the obstacle.

Inspired by Simon Sinek and Dan Pink, Edwin summarized three most important attributes for leading innovation:

  • Meaningful work
  • Passion and dedication
  • Willingness to fail (and, learn from it)

Let me pause here and blend in the second part of the question: do I agree with Hamel that management needs to be re-defined? Short answer: YES!!!! Did I say that loudly enough? And, this is where Edwin’s three attributes come into picture. Management principles and techniques developed by Ford, Taylor et al were relevant when industrial revolution happened. It somewhat worked as we transitioned from a labor-based workforce to an information-based work force. The “somewhat” part became the focus of many patchwork adjustments to those management principles that “stood the test of time.” In my opinion, they are antiquated and they have gone way past their useful lives. The fact that we still see innovation and effectiveness as a dichotomy in business supports this hypothesis. Innovation and effectiveness are not two separate, conflicting concepts. Businesses that cannot combine these two concepts in one way or another are destined to disappear from the map, sooner or later.

This blog posting is running the risk of being too long already. So, I will summarize my theory: Management practices have to change to support and encourage the three attributes mentioned above for successful innovation. This means management exposing itself, taking more risk and learning to fail themselves. The desire to introduce tighter controls on the workforce only backfires. For example, how many of those companies initially blocked Facebook still continue to block them? If you company is one of them, keep dreaming that your employees are more efficient because of the block. On the other hand, how many companies that trusted their employees to do the right thing came up with ground-breaking innovation. A bunch come to my mind, what about you?

As a parting teaser, I will also throw in this: Similar to the management principles and techniques, our education system needs a fundamental overhaul to deal with the challenges of future. The teacher (who, supposedly knows it all) and student (who, supposedly knows nothing) model is no longer valid. Nobody needs a repository of knowledge to pull from any more. Knowledge and information are readily available when one needs it. The skills that need development through our education systems are:

  • Ability to simplify complex matters
  • Ability to make meaningful connections
  • Ability to create social and material outputs

Let’s stop here and leave the topic of education to a later posting.

I welcome your comments on my blog. Please feel free to contact me at ferhan [at] ferhanbulca.com with relevant comments, ideas and thoughts.

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