There’s a school of thought that, when it comes to innovation, the best approach is to hold regular brainstorming sessions. While it’s undoubtedly true that such sessions can be useful, they are no substitution for the creation of an organizational culture within which innovation is nurtured at all levels. Provided they are run with great care, the very best brainstorming sessions are those where employees, at varying levels throughout the organization, participate and are encouraged to contribute. Unfortunately, all too often, such sessions are seen as a quick fix to significant endemic problems that inhibit bottom-up innovation.
It turns out that the very problems that inhibit bottom-up innovation are the very same problems that can reduce the effectiveness of multi-level brainstorming sessions. The two main causes of this are blame cultures and authoritarian management styles, both of which act to suppress the otherwise powerful contribution that can be made by employees who work lower down in the organizational structure.
This having been said, there will always be times where senior management needs to go into an enclave and resolve issues in private. Typically this will be the case where a significant strategic move is under consideration. In all other situations, the quality of solutions can be radically improved by bringing to bear intellectual resources throughout the organization.
I coined the term “workface” many years ago to describe the place where physical and mental effort meet to drive productivity. It is here, where employees have to face and overcome the challenges arising out of strategic objectives established at the top, that serendipity thrives and gives rise to ideas that have the potential to transform the organization.
The “Learning” Organization
Much has been spoken over the last few years regarding the concept of the “Learning” organization. The concept promotes the idea that all organizations need to be able to learn both from their mistakes and from what is going on in the outside world.
Information Feedback from the Lower Levels
In upcoming blog posts, I’m going to be talking more about feedback control, a technique originated by engineers to control the behavior of complex systems operating in dynamic environments. In particular, I’m going to be describing how this technique can strengthen the command and control structure of any organization. At this juncture however, I want to describe how a stream of information feedback, driven from the bottom-up of an organization, can help turn it into a learning organization which nurtures innovation at all levels.
In a learning organization, there is recognition at the top that great ideas often come to employees when they are faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges. It’s a fact that while innovation thrives in working environments that are less structured, employees’ motivation to innovate is best stimulated by impediments between them and their objectives. What this tells us is that innovation is much more likely to occur at the workface. This reveals that, when we outsource, we risk relinquishing access to innovation-motivating situations. It also reveals that to become a learning organization, processes have to be put in place that will not only cater for the communication of ideas from the lower levels but which will also positively encourage and reward such activity.
Strong Middle Managers
This brings up an important point. Many organizations put much greater effort into the recruitment of very senior executives than they do when they’re recruiting at the middle-management level. Through the deployment of Talent Chaser’s evidence-based recruitment methodology however, we have learnt that having a strong middle-management team is vital to the creation of a learning organization. The reason for this is that weak middle managers will either suppress ideas coming up from the lower levels or will take the credit for such ideas. Either way, this type of behavior acts to suppress the flow of ideas up through the organization.
Regular Performance Appraisal and Task Action Planning
It turns out that regular performance appraisal can, if handled properly, become a major source of great ideas. When performance appraisal is combined with task action planning, designed to help employees meet targets and be successful, it engenders a working environment in which relationships between supervisors and their direct reports are strengthened. Additionally, by holding poor performers accountable while, at the same time rewarding innovators, a culture can be developed in which ideas are valued. Under such circumstances, there is no need to make time for innovation; ideas flow naturally out of the workface at every level of the organization and wind their way upwards to the levels necessary for their assessment and implementation.
One further point, through the deployment of Talent Chaser’s evidence-based business management technology, we have discovered that there is a direct link between the establishment of a learning organization and the elimination of staff retention issues.
In a recent global employee retention survey that we undertook in conjunction with Benchmark Portal, one of the world’s leading benchmarking consultancies, we established that, in the absence of feedback from the lower levels, many senior executives remained oblivious to pockets of high employee turnover that were having significant adverse impacts on both employee morale and productivity.
Nurturing innovation through the establishment of a learning organization not only helps organizations keep abreast of their competition but also to recruit, reward, and retain the talent needed to achieve this.