Sunday, August 31, 2008

Managers Need to Become Innovation Coaches

I read an interesting post by Mitch Ditkoff, the author of Awake at the Wheel: Getting Your Great Ideas Rolling (in an Uphill World).

It's all about creating a culture of innovation, and I could not agree more with what Mitch writes. Below is a slightly shortened version of his original blog post.

"Intellectual capital" is the name of the game these days -- and it is the enlightened manager's duty to learn how to play.

Only those companies will succeed whose people are empowered to think for themselves and respond creatively to the myriad of changes going on all around them.

Managers must learn how to coach their people into increasingly higher states of creative thinking and creative doing. They must realize that the root of their organization's problem is not the economy, not cycle time, not strategy or outsourcing, but their own inability to tap into the power of their workforce's innate creativity.

Everything you see around you began as an idea. The computer. The stapler. The paperclip, the microchip and the chocolate chip. All of these began as an idea within someone's fevered imagination. The originators of these ideas were on fire. Did they have to be "managed?" No way. In fact, if they had a manager, he or she would have done well to get out of the way.

If you want to empower people, honor their ideas. Give them room to challenge the status quo. Give them room to move -- and, by extension, move mountains.

The arrival of a new idea is typically accompanied by a wonderful feeling of upliftment and excitement -- even intoxication. It's inspiring to have a new idea, to intuit a new way of getting the job done. Not only does this new idea have the potential to bring value to the company, it temporarily frees the idea originator from their normal habits of thinking. A sixth sense takes over, releasing the individual from the gravity of status quo thinking.

In this mindset, the idea originator is transported to a more expansive realm of possibility. All bets are off. The sky's the limit. All assumptions are seen for what they are -- limited beliefs with a history, but no future.

If you are a manager, you want people in this state of mind. It is not a problem. It is not the shirking of responsibility. It is not a waste of time. On the contrary, it's the first indicator that you are establishing a company culture that is conducive to innovation.

You, as a manager, want to increase the number of new ideas being pitched to you. It's that simple. You want to create an environment where new ideas are popping all the time. If you do, old problems and ineffective ways of doing things will begin dissolving. This is the hallmark of an empowered organization -- a place where everyone is encouraged and empowered to think creatively. Within this kind of environment managers become coaches, not gatekeepers.

How does a manager do this?

First off, by expressing a lot of positive regard. Get interested! Pay attention! Be present to the moment! This is not so much a technique as it is a state of mind. Simply put, if your head is always filled with your own thoughts and ideas, there won't be any room left to entertain the thoughts and ideas of others. It's a law of physics. Two things cannot occupy the same place at the same time.

And whether the pitch is now or later, your response -- in the form of exploratory questions -- needs to be as genuine as possible. Consider some of the following openers:
  • "That sounds interesting. Can you tell me more?"
  • "What excites you the most about this idea?"
  • "What is the essence of your idea - the core principle?"
  • "How do you imagine your idea will benefit others?"
  • "In what ways does your idea fit with our strategic vision?"
  • "What information do you still need?"
  • "Who are your likely collaborators?"
  • "Is there anything similar to your idea on the market?
  • "What support do you need from me?"
  • "What is your next step?"
Basically, you want the idea originator to talk about their idea as much as possible in this moment of truth. An idea needs to first take form in order to take root, and one of the best ways of doing this is to encourage the idea originator to talk about it -- even if their idea is not yet fully developed. The telling of the idea, in fact, is not unlike someone telling you their dream. The telling helps the dreamer flesh out the details of what they imagined and the subsequent hearing of it firmly installs it in their memory -- and yours -- so the idea does not fade quite as quickly.

Most of us, however, are so wrapped up in our own ideas that we rarely take the time to listen to others. Your subordinates know this and, consequently, rarely share their ideas with you. But it doesn't have to be this way. And it won't necessarily require a lot of time on your part. Some time, yes. But not as much as you might think.

Bottom line, the time it takes you to listen to the ideas of others is not only worth it -- the success of your enterprise depends on it. Choose not to listen and you will end up frantically spending a lot more time down the road asking people for their ideas about how to save your business from imminent collapse. By that time, however, it will be too late. Your workforce will have already tuned you out.

Text above is is a slightly shortened version of Mitch Ditkoff's original blog post.


Bob MacDonald said...

Wonderful ideas and truth in the comments on stimulating innovation. Bureaucrats believe ideas flow from top down, while the real entrepreneur understands that ideas and the success of a company flows from the bottom up. The key is to create a culture that encourages, recognizes and rewards those in an organization to participate beyond simply doing a job.
This is accomplished by creating an entrepreneurial culture that motivates all levels. This is something I discussed in detail in my book BEAT THE SYSTEM -- Building and Entrepreneurial Culture in a Bureaucratic World.
Building and maintaing an entrepreneurial culture takes consistent effort and dediction, but the rewards for the organization and the people are well worth it. Nice job.