Organizations feel their way through the rubble of the economic collapse like basement-dwelling refugees walking their belongings out of a fire-bombed city. The way forward—the most promising path to reclamation if not salvation to the promised land of the way things used to be—is “innovation.”
Leaders of the world’s organizations small, medium, large, and country-sized pin their hopes of future prosperity on becoming more innovative: by injecting a good dose of innovation into the resident culture. Makes for good copy. A rounded tablespoon of innovation for the organization works like a weekend at the spa for the body. Who can argue against the promise its curative powers hold for one and all alike?
Meanwhile, back at the reality ranch, I find a different dynamic at work. With utmost confidence and utter dismay I report that the word from on high has not made its way into the departmental nooks and crannies where organizational culture takes root.
At the places where the rubber meets the road—where the people who prescribe direction meet the folks who carry the load—the question the latter whispers in my ear remains, “How do I make time for this (fill in the blank for the name of the group’s branded innovation program and add mild profanity to taste)? Is innovation now part of my day job?”
How do I make time for this? Is innovation now part of my day job?
They would seem to rationally ask a reasonable question. Most gainfully employed people today juggle more jobs than a Jamaican cab driver working to put their youngest and most studious child through her last year of medical school. Do we need to add “be innovative” to the pile?
The only reasonable answer I can offer in kind? Yes. Yes. Yes.
Yes, make time to innovate.
Yes, follow the ideas you contribute and collaborate on to their logical or wonderfully illogical conclusion.
Yes, take ownership of and master the practice of innovation within your organization. And, if you find that your organization’s practice is, in practice, malpractice, take ownership of improving it.
Further, while we remain on the subject, yes, buy five (5) new Moleskins to carry in purse or pocket so you can capture your thoughts as you make your way through life. Thoreau kept a commonplace book. So should you.
You reflect for a moment. You observe to me that ten years ago, the word on the street was that people were the organization’s most valuable asset. Then, the hammer fell. Inconceivably, many of the valuable assets were shown the door. The rest put their heads down and have not looked up since.
What’s changed? What’s different now? Is the call for innovation new wine in a musty old cask reeking of the stale fumes of knowledge management?
Here’s what you need to know. Every day when you come to work or go to wherever you go to do whatever you do to occupy your time, you learn something. If you serve a client, you know more about that client than anyone else in the organization. If you operate a machine you know more about that machine than anyone else in the organization.
What does that knowledge get you today? Very little, likely. You do little to put yourself in a position where people can value the worth of what you know.
You achieve new levels of customer intimacy with a remote client. The boss sees you on the phone and wonders if you’re reconnecting with a sorority sister.
You learn everything you can about a new piece of machinery. The boss sees you driving around the shop floor and wonders if robotic assembly would reduce variability.
See the difference? The breadth of your insights exceeds the limits of your current job. You spent a productive hour on the phone with the client which kept them in the fold when the customers who worked with the competitor down the street bolted to greener pastures when the going got tough. You have perspective on what one needs to do to retain a client. How much is that knowledge worth in today’s hyper-competitive world. A lot. A whole lot.
Are you being recognized and rewarded for having and applying this knowledge? Possibly not. Probably not to the extent you should be if the organization focused on what matters to its future. Do not wait for the organization to awake. Awake first, then alert others.
In short: get out there. When given the chance to engage in collaborative innovation, take it. If nobody gives you the opportunity, then make your own.
When given the chance to engage in collaborative innovation, take it.
What if you work for the organization that proclaims its people as its most valuable asset, but has no interest in connecting the dots that lead back to a reasonable return on invested human capital?
Oh, snap. If you hold the only chair in the innovation orchestra at your place—if you contribute and take ownership of your own practice, but can find no kindred spirits, then you need to leave. Find the organization that has embraced innovation in an authentic way. Or, start your own entity. It’s a free world and becoming increasingly more so with each passing day. Just ask the Tunisians.
Your current organization will not survive. Further, its demise, short or long in coming, will be painful for all involved. Get out now. Or, prepare to explain to the next person who might want to hire you why you spent the last three years circling the drain.
A number of years ago Tom Peters wrote the seminal piece of the modern, digital age, “The Brand Called You.” Please Google it and read it. Many—too many—interpreted his call to action as an invitation to shameless self-promotion. They spend their days retweeting pabulum and friending distant relatives.
“The Brand Called You” calls our attention to the fact that we have an increasing number of opportunities to translate what we do into what we know and to in turn translate what we know into ideas that become innovations that can benefit our organizations, our communities, and ourselves.
Our brand reflects our ability to achieve and to articulate our achievements in a way that resonates with our communities at work and home. Can we be of use? Can we do something of value for someone else? Leave the virtual sandwich boards at home. Contributing and pursuing an idea that can help someone—a client, a friend, or a neighbor—represents one of the highest forms of achievement.
Make the effort, if for no other reason than to acknowledge that the economic potential of what you know—your intellectual capital—far, far outstrips your economic potential of what you do. Deferring the practice of innovation to the person down the hall no longer serves as a viable option. Today, the definition of a dead-end job is one that does not include an innovation component. Today, the definition of an organization on life support and fading fast is one that chooses not to realize its potential for leadership in innovation.
Figure 1: knowledge economy physics—using collaborative innovation to multiply the force of what you know to elevate your brand
By Doug Collins