March 9, 2008

Good day, team,

There are two ways for an organization to kill a good idea. One is with bad management. The other? Good management.

So writes the author Jane Linder in her new book, “Spiral Up.. and Other Management Secrets Behind Wildly Successful Initiatives.” We frequently see cases of bad management that kill great ideas boldly and blatantly. But we often don’t recognize how management teams can also kill a good idea, because they fear it won’t get approval, would be too hard or expensive to execute, or doesn’t fit an existing plan.

In fact, most innovative teams perform much better when they “fly under the radar,” meaning they escape scrutiny and get a lot done precisely because they don’t have to ask anyone else’s opinion or approval. Management’s role is to plan, budget and execute. The very functions that make for good management can kill a new idea before it ever gets off the drawing board.

The best ideas are explorations. Consider Lewis and Clark going before a management committee. “How long will it take?” “Don’t know.” “How will you get there?” “Don’t know.” “What will you find of value to the government of the United States?” “Don’t know.” They couldn’t even imagine what they would eat or how they would survive, and yet they persevered and became two of the greatest explorers who ever lived.

Years ago, I was asked by the vice president of a large corporation to design a coaching program for a new team of managers he had inherited in an acquisition. This was long before coaching was accepted by large corporations; when people asked me what I did for a living, and I said I was a coach, they would often reply, “Oh, of what, volleyball?” So this was quite an unusual step for an executive of a fairly conservative company to take. He encouraged me to be as innovative as I could to help his team move forward.

For the first year, we developed a program that included coaching the managers and supervisors and assisting them in becoming better coaches themselves. By drawing on each manager’s previous experience and strengths, we empowered them to design and train each other in their areas of expertise. This allowed us to save money and to maximize everyone’s abilities.

In the second year, other people in the organization began to take notice, and obstacles appeared where they had not previously. I was contacted by the human resources department in the company and asked, “How does this fit into our regular training program?” or “Whose budget does this fall under?” or “We’ll have to review what you’re doing and make sure that it’s OK for our team members.”

Certainly, these were appropriate and important questions for the human resources department to ask, and you can see how, once they became aware of the coaching program, they felt it was part of their job to make sure it was managed appropriately. However, as other people scrutinized the program or attempted to merge it into the larger plan for professional development, little by little, the coaching program was whittled away and eventually disappeared altogether.

Employee surveys done at the time proved how well the supervisors were managing their people and how successful the business was, so it was clear that the coaching program had significantly affected the people and the business. Not only were the ratings up for each individual manager, but attrition was down and customer satisfaction had risen.

Your challenge this week is to look at the more innovative ideas that are bubbling up from your team and let them be. Try not to fit them into a tidy plan, or a tight budget, or a well executed plan. Understand that all new ideas are highly subject to failure and allow some room within your organization for things to fail. Try working with the idea that you’ll figure it out as you go and try not to manage these things from above, but rather, allow them to self-manage along the way.

Maybe you need to encourage some of your team members to do some “skunk works,” that is, to work on their innovative ideas in a more secretive fashion rather than in broad daylight where others can scrutinize what they’re doing. Or maybe it’s just as simple as encouraging a team member to explore a new idea without exposing it to the overall team for awhile, so the experiment can be free to succeed or fail without a lot of intervention.

Whatever it is, remember that with all experiments and explorations, you have to take not knowing as a given. This may be scary at first, but you may just find that although you’re not sure how a new idea will work, in the end, you’ll manage!

Have a great week!