Many of my clients are in high-tech and work in engineering, development, and product-creation areas. They are often challenged by their managers to innovate and to develop new products or services that will give their company an edge in the market. This “innovation challenge” is not just limited to my clients only in these functional areas or even just in high-tech companies; it spans across all functional areas, industries, and sectors (NGOs, Governments, and non-profits).
So, what is the real problem for people, especially those on the front lines, to devote their time to innovate and to help their company become more competitive in the marketplace?
I think that there are three factors that stifle innovation in any organization:
1. Lack of time: Too many employees are spending too much time reacting to everyday fires and have no time to step back and find “quiet” time that allows them the creative space to think through and to come up with new ideas. Connecting the dots—this is the basis of innovation—takes a hassle-free environment in which to reflect, think, and to create. It does not give them the time and the space to indulge in “Tomorrow’s Dreams.”
2. Deficient infrastructure: The organizational and workflow infrastructure does not free up their time to allow them the “luxury” to germinate new ideas and to translate them into harnessed innovation.
3. Leadership deficit: Those who are in a position to innovate best—front liners—do not get the leadership support from their higher-ups to devote their focus on ideas that lead to innovation. In many cases mediocre leadership does not provide the inspiration to those in front lines need to explore possibilities. Also, when they do come up with new ideas their ideas get hijacked by their power structure (see # 2 above).
Let us take each of the three factors in more detail and discuss how they can influence innovation throughout an organization.
1. Lack of time: This is the norm for almost everyone in a typical organization. “If only I had a few more hours each day or week I could do wonders” is the refrain you hear throughout any organization. But, when you look at how they are spending their time on a regular basis, Fig.-1 can help you see it more clearly.
The triangle on the left shows how a typical employee spends time doing their everyday assignments. Much of their time is spent on dealing with issues that arise from poor decisions made in the past (“Yesterday’s Sins”) that have now come to roost and must be addressed because the products that were developed with either by taking a myopic view of customer needs or with forcing down decisions expedient to suit their personal agendas, both of which are now becoming a problem for customers using those products. In some companies the best and creative talent is now preempted to address these issues. Because fixing the past sins can make or break a product (even the company) already in customers’ hands to address the burning issues stemming from these Past Sins. Although some innovations can result from these exigent forays and end runs to save a product already in the market, their long-term impact on future products to provide differentiated customer value is questionable.
2. Deficient infrastructure: This factor encompasses both; the infrastructure that exists for creative people to work in and how the organization is structurally designed to manage the free flow of new ideas. The former refers to the environment in which creative people—engineers, developers, copywriters, designers, and artists—work and produce what they are good at. If the environment in which they work is not designed for exploiting their best talent then the time they spend in dealing with the hassles that stem from a poorly designed environment can eat up creative time of people because they are now fighting the very environment that is supposed to give them the resources to nurture creativity for their best work. Their “background” now becomes their “foreground,” and they spend their valuable time to make the available environment work for them, wasting time and talent in the process.
The organization structure—especially in a metrixed design—can create inherent conflicts of priorities and how two or more workgroups “collaborate” to best service the company’s—and customers’—needs. Often, in metrixed organizations political factors play a major role in how resources get assigned and how assigned resources play out their parts on a given project.
3. Leadership deficit: This factor refers to how the upper management prioritizes work and how that translates into what teams do under their supervision. A good leader must provide both management support and the necessary leadership spark to inspire their team members to do the work that only they can do. Getting each team member to do the right work and giving them the work that only they can do is one of the most daunting challenges a manager faces. Most managers deal with it by merely parceling out the work for which the managers are responsible so that it gets done, without analyzing how best it can be done with the resources under them. This is where managers can do a much better job of ensuring that the right talent is engaged in the right work in creating the most value in how a job is delivered.
With this background let us now look at the two sides of Figure-1 graphic and see how we can free up more time for innovation and creative work.
To increase the area for work that covers “Tomorrow’s Dreams,” both the areas below this top line must be reduced. This can be done by an aggressive assault on stamping out “Yesterday’s Sins” and proper management of “Today’s Fires.”
“Yesterday’s Sins” start becoming a normal operating regime when those in the chain of command do not fully understand what management work entails. There are four functions of management: Leading, Planning, Organizing, and Setting up Controls. Each of these functions has, in turn, its own Activities. For example the Leading function includes Motivating, Communicating, Decision Making, Selecting, and Developing people. A manager must carefully plan their Activities under each function, and, not only do the work defined by these functions, but also do the work that only they can do, delegating everything else downwards. Most managers do not know this or do not know how to do it, and they spend too much time doing technical work that others can do, leaving little time to do the real management work that that only they can do and that they must do.
The problem is that undone management work never screams out for attention, but undone technical work does. This is why “Yesterday’s Sins” and “Today’s Fires” take so much time up and down in an organization. Both of these priorities stem from technical fires that explode because of poor decisions made in the past, not spending enough time doing management work by the higher-ups. Undone management work thus comes to bite you back later and this cycle continues unabated. Undone management work rears its ugly head only later as technical work (firefighting), that is why it is so tempting to ignore it in preference to doing technical work. Besides, most managers are promoted for doing great technical work, so they take great comfort in responding to it.
So, to deal with the time spent on “Yesterday’s Sins” and “Today’s Fires” senior leadership in a company must evaluate how they carry out their management duties and that everyone is clearly aware of what is technical work and what is management work. For example, in the “ Yesterday’s Sins” category could be a bad hire that slipped through the screening process. Here, the right people to vet the candidate were too busy fighting fires and could not interview the candidate. When this happens the right people—the hiring manager—must take immediate action to terminate the bad hire, rather than hoping that they will come around after the “break-in period.” In most cases the reason right people were not available to screen this candidate was because they were too busy dealing with “Yesterday’s Sins” or with “Today’s Fires.” Both of these priorities stem from technical work that resulted from bad management decisions of the past. If “Hiring” and “Developing” people are seen as a management Activities, interviewing the candidate should get the appropriate priority to prevent “Yesterday’s Sin” tomorrow!
The same pattern repeats in dealing with “Today’s Fires.” When an irate and important customer calls the CEO about a product problem, everyone, including the CEO jumps on the problem and the team or the person that can effectively address the problem get overwhelmed by the management attention up and down the chain, wasting valuable organizational resources. The right approach is to delegate the problem to the right team or person and let them solve it with the priority you assign to them, without everyone looking at its status, including the CEO every hour. Once again, doing this the right way, even for “a breaking out fire” requires the right management discipline and priority to attend to it.
The graphic in Fig-1 illustrates how it is possible to progressively shrink the times occupied by “Yesterday’s Sins” and “Today’s Fires.” To make this work for you systematically takes a plan, leadership, commitment, and discipline. Once this regime works and starts freeing time from the bottom two areas of how work is carried out, more time become available to do creative work at a pace that leads to innovation. This is graphically shown in the green triangle on the right side of Figure-1.
As an organization gets on a path to recover some of its time and redeploys it to innovation as shown here, the next step is to carefully look at how each professional spends their time on the tasks that they do and to evaluate if their time can be redistributed from merely doing the core work that they do to doing more and more value-added work that creates greater impact on the business. Using these two strategies in tandem can make a major difference to how an organization realizes its innovation agenda to become a competitive juggernaut.