How Treating Your Employees Like Turtles Can Smother Innovation

If you buy a turtle and put it into a small aquarium, it will stop growing to accommodate its limited living space, regardless of how large it might have potentially been. The same thing happens to people in companies who are “boxed in” by rules, bureaucracy and hierarchy – which stunt their personal growth and organizational contribution.

According to Chris Derose and Noel Tichy, those at the top of many organizations not only fail to ask for ideas but are often dismissive when associates offer suggestions. When middle managers and senior leaders claim that frontline leaders lack the necessary strategic context or see criticism of organizational processes only as resistance to change, they have the same limiting effect as the turtle tank. Employees never achieve their potential and the organization misses out on great ideas and potential innovations.

In the worst cases, those who occupy senior or mid-level leadership positions become HiPPOs who quash the creativity of the people around them. Relying on gut feel, the “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion” (or HiPPO) tends to override genuine customer insight in hierarchical organizations that assume intelligence and capability are correlated to a person’s job title. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the pernicious effects that a few HiPPOs and Turtle Farmers can have on the willingness of people to contribute their ideas or engage in problem solving.

Despite all the cries for more innovation the authors routinely hear in many companies, the truth they all too often find is that most organizations have overlaid a pastiche of initiatives on top of a command-and-control structure designed for a mass production era.

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