Starting an ERG as a strategic innovation engine! (part 3 of 3)

While many companies demand creativity and innovation from their staff few companies seem to know how to make it work. – Is your organization among those hiring new staff all the time to innovate? The hire-to-innovate practice alone is not a sustainable strategy and backfires easily.

An alternative and sustainable way to tap deep into your employees’ creative potential and turning it into solid business value is by forming an employee resource group (ERG). A well-crafted ERG serves as a powerful and strategic innovation engine for your organization!

Losing the innovative edge?
It is the large companies that seem to struggle with innovation most. When companies grow they tend to become less innovative. When this happens we see great talent turning into under-performing employees. – Why is that and is there a way out?

Stuck in mental models of the past?
Remember the heavy dinosaurs that finally got stuck in the pre-history tar pits and starved, too heavy to move themselves out of the calamity? Mental models are the tar pits that companies grow to get stuck in – unless they find a way to shed (mental) weight and think nimble again to survive.

The mental models often originate from days past when the business started and flourished with initial success. The models worked when the company grew back then but models out-date easily over time. At some point the company began to work harder to standardize its processes to ensure the output is delivered reliably and predictably and costs are driven down: the focus shifted from innovation to efficiency. Specialized and refined business functions create increasingly complex and bureaucratic processes, ‘standard operating procedures’ rule the course of action. Things don’t move fast here anymore. Improvement ideas from employee on the floor hardly make it to the top executives and starve somewhere in between, probably in the famous ‘idea box’…

> For more general insight on complexity as a leadership challenge, read this: ‘Complexity’ is the 2015 challenge! – Are leaders prepared for ‘glocal’?

This focus on incremental efficiency also traps R&D departments to a point where true creativity and innovation get stifled, the innovative output drops. In short, the larger a company the less it innovates. Sounds familiar?

Many companies chose the dangerous and seemingly easy way out in buying new ideas from the outside through acquisitions and hiring ‘new talent’. The danger lays in applying this practice too broadly and becoming reliant on this practice, i.e. getting trapped in a vicious and reinforcing cycle. This practice also alienates and frustrates the more seasoned employees who feel underutilized and –quite rightly so see their career opportunities dwindling. Soon enough the sour side of the hire-for-innovation practice for employees becomes transparent also to the newer employees and drives them away in frustration. This organization just found the perfect recipe to turn top talent into poor performers!

Don’t waste your human capital
Bringing in fresh brains to an organization may justify mergers, acquisitions or hiring at times – but not as a strategy for continuous innovation and without also at least trying to tap into the innovative capacity that lays dormant within the organization.

Don’t write your staff off easily by following blindly the common yet wrong assumption that an employee loses the creative spirit after a few years and that new hires would be more innovative than whom we already have working for us. Haven’t we hired the best and brightest consistently in the past? Well, then this logic doesn’t add up, right?

Ask yourself: have you lost your innovative edge? Will you personally be more innovative once you change to another employer? – I don’t think so either. The good news is that even if you don’t believe it, changes are that managers and human resource experts of your new employer do, at least the ones who follow the outdated mental model! – But then, how long can you expect to last there before you get written off? It’s like getting on a train to nowhere.

Derailing the train to nowhere
But seriously, the seasoned employees’ intimate knowledge of the organization and its people can hold enormous potential for innovation not only under financial considerations but also as a morale booster for staff. Getting personally involved more and engaging them in driving change again actively leads the way to measurable and favorable results for the organization. These employees are the people who know your business, your markets, your customers and where to find resources and short-cuts if needed to get things done! Remember the “Radar” character in M*A*S*H who creatively procured whatever his unit needed by knowing how to play ‘the system’ and navigate the cliffs of bureaucracy on unconventional routes?

So, how can you motivate and (re-)activate your employees to come forward with brilliant ideas and getting them implemented to boost the organization’s profitability? How can you spread new hope and direct the enthusiasm to practical and meaningful outcomes for the company and the individual employee alike?

Facing organizational barriers
There is no shortage of good ideas in the heads of employees. Too few of them, however, actually get picked up and implemented since organizational barriers have many dimensions the need to be overcome first. Here are some examples:

  • A vertical barrier effectively disconnects employees from the executive level which hold the (financial and other) resources to make things happen. Penetrating this barrier means to connect the people within the organization closely and effectively again. > Readers of my previous post What does take to keep innovating? (part 1) will recognize that an executive champion is needed who brings together the technical and business champions. If you feel intrapreneurial and consider becoming an executive champion, check this out: How to become the strategic innovation leader? (part 2)
  • The horizontal barrier separates business functions and operating units that evolved to become silos or manager’s ‘fiefdoms’ of sub-optimized local productivity often with lesser concern to the overall performance of the organization. What you are up against here is often enough beyond specialized deep expertise but also defensive egos and managerial status thinking that led to a comfortable and change-adverse local equilibrium. As an intrapreneur you bring a much needed yet disruptive element to the organization. Since you are rocking the boat you can get caught up in ‘politics’ easily. Functional managers and their staff may perceive you as throwing a wrench into their well-oiled and fine-tuned machine that could jeopardize not only their unit’s efficiency but also their personal incentives for keeping operations running smoothly. > For more insight on the tension field of management vs. leadership check out Leadership vs Management? What is wrong with middle management?
  • Another barrier relates to the perceived value that your work creates for the organization, so let’s call it the value barrier: When you start acting intrapreneurial, you may be seen as someone wasting resources, incurring additional cost or generating questionable value (if any value at all) in the eyes of executives and other managers.

Therefore it is of critical importance to clearly demonstrate the business value your work adds to the organization. Based on an unambiguous success metrics the value proposition needs to be communicated clearly and frequently especially to executive management to gain their buy-in and active support.

These and possibly more barriers are a tough challenge. Now, I assume you are not the almighty ‘Vice President of Really Cool Stuff’ (that would be my favorite future job title!) but hold a somewhat lower rank. Perhaps you got stuck in the wrong department (the one without the Really Cool Stuff).

So, where do you start to innovate and ‘rescue’ your organization from a looming train-wreck scenario?

Breaking down barriers by innovating from within using ERGs

A vehicle I tried out quite successfully over the past years was forming an employee resource group (ERG). This grassroots approach has the power to crash right through the vertical, horizontal and value barriers while driving change effectively and sustainably through the organization as a strategic innovation engine.

> A previous post discusses the business model behind the ERG approach in more detail: Build ERGs as an innovative business resource!

Here are the first steps on the way to founding an ERG:

  • Identify a business need and build a business case, i.e. a clear value proposition aimed at executive management convincing them of the need and benefits of forming an ERG within the limits of company policies. Attracting an influential executive sponsor to gain buy-in is a key requirement for instituting an ERG successfully. The sponsor serves as a political and resourceful ally, an experienced advisor and advocate but also ensures strategic alignment of the ERG’s activities with the broader goals of the company.Since executives value their time more than yours, keep it short and to the point. Think executive summary style and offer details separately for those who chose to dig deeper and to demonstrate that you thought this whole thing through. If your organization already has a distinguished officer or departments with a vested interest in employee engagement for example then connect, collaborate and leverage your joint forces. > More on how to build a case study for an ERG at: Q&A – Case study for founding a business-focused ERG
  • Get organized! Seek voluntary members and reach out to future constituency of the ERG. Active members are needed as the driving force and source of ideas that the ERG turns into business projects aimed to innovate and energize the organization.
    The first ERG I founded was “NxGen”, which stands for the “Next Generation at the Workplace”. The NxGen ERG has a generational orientation but is open to all employees regardless of their age or workplace generation. Nonetheless, from the start mostly the youngest employees (Generation Y) drove NxGen. In many cases they did not know of each other as the GenY-ers were spread thin across the various business functions of the company.The GenY-ers, in particular, found a forum in the NxGen ERG to get to know each other in the first place. We then focused on goals based on shared values or needs to build a strong support network within the company. At all times we kept the ERG open and inclusive to interested employees join from other workplace generations.

    The ERG offers its members a safe environment to discuss issues and ideas. It also serves as an informal forum to find coaches and mentors for personal development or specific projects and initiatives. Active ERG membership allows less experienced employees to quickly acquire new skills and test them in real-life by running a project hands-on even in areas outside of their job description or business function to address needs close to their heart with tangible business value. Here, the ERG serves as a very practical leadership development pipeline and safe ground for experimentation within the organization.

    > More on the virtues of Generation Y as I experience it in NxGen under: Generation Y for managers – better than their reputation?

  • Get active by launching business-focused projects. Again, you are targeting management and executives in particular to build credibility and thereby become more effective over time.Start with feasible projects of high visibility and short duration that address a significant business need with a clear and quantifiable success metrics. For each project seek executive sponsorship at the highest level you can attain from the business area that the project affects. Make sure to communicate your successes broadly and frequently to kick-start the ERG. Stick to a clear, specific and unambiguous metrics for your success; if you can tie it to a monetary ROI the better, as this is the language of business. > More on establishing a success metric under: Driving the ROI – where to start your projects metrics?

    Showcasing and celebrating your successes as an ERG motivates the already active members, keeps attracting new members and builds credibility among executives to keep the ERG wheels turning as a strategic innovation engine for your organization.

On a personal note
The example of the NxGen ERG is very real. NxGen was nationally recognized as best-practices ERG within 5 months (!) of its founding and became a valued and frequent sounding board for C-level executives within one year. The ERG has no funds of its own yet runs projects and initiatives nationally and internationally that already shifted the company culture and opened it more for change.

References and additional reading

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How to become the strategic innovation leader? (part 2 of 3)

What is an innovation leader? Is this role similar to an innovator? (The answer is ‘no’.) – Recognize the three key roles in innovation, how to find an approach and avoid critical pitfalls.

Typically, the innovation leader is not the innovator but there are exceptions such as founders of innovative companies that start out as innovators and remain innovators; think Steven Jobs of Apple, for example. However, let’s focus on more common organizations that need innovation leaders often more than they are aware of…

Conquering the world from your garage?

We all heard the stories of the sole genius inventing in a garage and a few days later they run one of the most influential companies in the world like Apple or HP. However, strategic innovation cannot rely on a one-time-wonder hoping to be repeated over and over again. Organizations become too large, technology too complex and the competitive clock-speed ever faster to leave innovation to a single genius sitting in an ivory-tower coming up with all the good stuff for the rest of the organization. Nobody is an expert in everything or savvy enough to cover all necessary angles. Even more so, many people have great ideas that can contribute to better innovative products, so make use of this critical resource!

Strategic innovation requires governance and collaboration to succeed continuously. What it takes is a process, a framework, a ‘system’ that delivers innovations consistently, timely and sustainably.
‑ Unless you believe that Steven Jobs developed your iPad all by himself, right?
He understood how to turn Apple into an ‘innovation machine’ and –over time‑ how to effectively capture the value it generates.

(To get a better flavor where I’m coming from, please check out my previous post “What does it take to keep innovating?”)

Champions for innovation

What organizations need when they ‘grow up’ beyond the ‘innovation garage’ stage is many innovation leaders in different functions. You can distinguish different innovation leaders or ‘champions’ in an organization by how they contribute to the innovation process.

In general, there are three essential kinds of champions:

  • The technical champion holds the technical know-how for innovations.
  • The business champion comes up with the funding to develop an innovation into a product of sorts.
  • The executive champion “follows the fellow who follows a dream” as a professor of mine put it, and this is what we will focus on shortly.

The roles of the technical and the business champion need little explanation. Let’s assume for now we have identified or (perhaps more likely) unidentified technical champions in our organization somewhere (try the R&D function) and will also find a business champion (in the C-level suite) to fund a great idea that has potential to produce a significant return-on-investment.

Are you an executive champion?

As the leaders we are or want to become, let’s focus on the executive champion as the critical and most complex ingredient in the continued innovation process. Perhaps, this is where you can shine as an executive champion in your organization!

The good news is that anyone can be an executive champion and propel the organization forward! Yet few are aware of what it actually takes to be an effective executive champion. I found it surprising that even people in professional jobs with fancy ‘innovation’ job titles often simply don’t know this! So let’s move on.

Executive champions focus on the value

The executive champion understands the difference between creating value and capturing value of innovations. No worries, it took even Apple years suffering through the consequences of bad decisions to finally get it right…
Creating and capturing value are not the same. A company can create value by developing new technologies, for example. However, at this stage this novelty by itself has no value for the organization unless it can also reap the profits from the novelty.

It takes innovation leaders to ensure this crucial step is taken deliberately and effectively. They ensure the idea or prototype makes it all the way to a marketable product and the company rakes in the profit.

Steps to success

How does the executive champion operate? What does an executive champion do to succeed?

First and foremost the executive champion promotes an innovation broadly, which includes to

  • Articulate a clear vision
  • Develop an actionable strategy
  • Develop capabilities that power the innovative thrust of the organization such as capabilities to build and foster specific skills, behaviors, creativity, values or a mindset.
  • Steer execution to not only generate the newly created value but also capture it throughout the value chain. This may include analysis of the value chain and its players, initiating projects, controlling project portfolios, driving the commercialization of creative products or services, establishing entry barriers for competitors, measuring performance, etc.

Fuzzy values? – Here are some how-to examples

Do you find all this ‘value talk’ too abstract? Then let’s look at an example how ‘capturing value’ works in real life where Apple, for instance, controls each layer of its vertical value chain to a point where it ‘owns the customer’:

Let’s take the phone and data network for iPhones in the USA: iPhones come only with the AT&T network which is inferior to the Verizon network. ‑ Trust me, I know and experience it every day!

Why would Apple chose AT&T over Verizon? Because customers want an iPhone so badly that they will literally walk out of a Verizon store and straight to AT&T to get the iPhone that Verizon cannot offer. Customers don’t pick another Verizon phone and use the superior Verizon network. Instead, they are willing to swallow the (AT&T) toad because Apple owns the customer! This way Apple holds a much stronger position over AT&T than it could ever have over Verizon, i.e. Apple controls this tier of the value chain. Too bad only for the iPhone customers stuck with AT&T like myself *sigh*… the gamble worked out nicely though for Apple.

The simple rule here is that if you don’t own the customer you don’t make the money!

The message is clear: It is not enough to have an innovative product like an iPhone. You need to know how to capture the value and this goes far beyond a fancy piece of technology! This can be the most challenging task of the executive champion to consider and figure out.
And, yes, I know there are mobile phones out there with better technology and features but they don’t have the same ‘love factor’ that continuously attracts Apple customers and locks in their loyalty.

Why innovations fail

We have seen many times that when even the most promising innovation flopped, a flabbergasted management falls short to explain why. Therefore, let’s take another perspective and a quick look at what can go wrong (and did go wrong in Apple’s past too but Apple learned over time).

Innovations can fail for many reasons. Here are the basic pitfalls to look out for in reality:

1. Failure to create value that the customer recognizes.
Often the inventor or manufacturer sees a value in an innovation that is not shared by the customer because the customer does not recognize the value, i.e. the customer is not willing to pay premium for the special feature but only spend for what they clearly see and value.
This is a frequent trap for a technology champion and can lead to products with incremental improvements towards a state of perfection that the future target customers just don’t value.

Also business champions can make the mistake to get inspired too much by the technology and fund the product development without thinking through the value chain.
You have guessed it: the technology champion and the businesses champions are the ones that lack the explanation for the failure – that’s why we need the executive champion!

2. Missing to erect effective entry barriers for competitors.
Entry barriers are an interesting chapter on their own and widely discussed, so I’ll keep this short. Since Apple is such a rich source for examples, here is another one:
The iTunes store sells apps and other content like audio and video in proprietary formats. This is a great example how Apple established an effective entry barrier for its competition by establishing itself as the sole source. It can even control the content while raking in the profits. Other companies try the same approach but find it hard to compete with Apple’s dominance.
Victoria’s Secret, the successful lingerie company, took a different approach: They fended off competition by creating apparently competing lingerie stores under a different brand in the vicinity of Victoria’s Secret stores; this led competitors to believe the market was saturated and entering it was not attractive and attracted more customers to shop in either store adding to Victoria’s Secret bottom line – smart!

3. Failure to capture the value with vertical channel innovation.
Honestly, this is a complex and tricky topic that I might dedicate a future post also extending into strategic marketing. What it comes down to is this: how you can control the vertical value chain with the question to answer at each tier ‘who owns the customer?’ ‑ The right answer is: ‘it better be you!’
For now, let’s just say it requires cooperation and offering incentives for your channel partners to remain loyal and supportive to your strategy. The iPhone network example gives you a flavor or think of the apps providers for iTunes that engage in a symbiosis with Apple.

Leading without mandate

Bottom-line, more innovation leaders tend to be better for an organization than less. An organization cannot leave innovation to individuals or an ‘innovation department’ somewhere. Everyone can and should contribute to innovation! – Take your chance and drive it, it’s fun!

‑ Please share your thoughts or questions!

References and additional reading

What does it take to keep innovating? (part 1 of 3)

Can strategic innovation rely on creative chaos?To make a long story short, the answer is: No!
Read here what it takes to consistently innovate and give you a very cool example too.

Creativity ≠ Innovation

Let’s first be clear about what we talk about when we use words like ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’.

In this context, creativity refers to the novelty or ‘newness’ of a product idea. However, novelties can exist without a real-world application. There is usually no shortage of new ideas in your organization but merely generating ideas alone does not lead to tangible innovations. Most creative ideas do not come to fruition because they are not feasible, too far ahead of their time or just not developed effectively to take the next step towards realization.

This is where an innovation is different from a novelty: it is the combination that translates a novelty into a marketable product (or service), so an innovation brings together the newness, the value it creates and the adoption to something marketable – or as my professors calls it: “where the rubber hits the road!”

The application gap

Some people believe that new ideas can only emerge and take shape in an environment of creative chaos or in an anarchic workplace. This may bear some truth; nonetheless, it takes more than that to propel an idea through the organization to develop it to become a marketable product.

This is where so many organizations fail and the bigger the company the bigger the challenge: good ideas emerge from employees but they get stuck and starve somewhere in the middle layers before making it through to the decision-makers in executive management. Too often there is a disconnect between ideas, decision-making and implementation.

So, what does it take to bridge the gap? What is needed to ensure ideas with potential make it through to the top to become the innovations that will drive an organization’s future success?

Bringing structure to the creative chaos

It comes down to creating a balance between the creative space and focus on the future application. Innovative organizations manage to establish a rigid process or ‘production system’ that allows their staff to be creative by harnessing the process in a way that it delivers innovations reliably, continuously and within a specific time frame. – If you don’t believe that creative chaos generates cutting-edge ideas and leads to tangible output in a clearly defined productions system: here comes the example!

The IDEO shopping cart example

A company that masters this balance between creativity and structure consistently is IDEO, a successful company and innovation leader that makes its living by developing products for others. IDEO’s successful strategy is actually quite simple and straight forward; it focuses on innovation, speed and tangible prototypes.

To get the most out of this, watch the video first before reading on. It takes 8 minutes or so and your time is well spent! In the example, IDEO’s challenge of the week is designing a new shopping cart – a product that we all know and hardly anyone seems to give a second thought about how it could actually be improved much…

While you are watching, see if you can make out how IDEO’s process works in what they call ‘the deep dive’. The guy that reminds me of Groucho Marx is actually the boss of IDEO.

So, please watch this video before you read on: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M66ZU2PCIcM&feature=youtube_gdata_player

Learning from IDEO

What did you observe about how IDEO works?

Let’s compare. Here are some elements of IDEO’s process that you might have noticed and that are essential to their innovation process:

  • The team runs one project at a time. There is focus and no distraction by other projects or interferences.
  • The creative work is done in a playful environment that helps to getting to fresh ideas faster. The staff has the freedom to design their working environment themselves, the creative space.
  • All customer interactions take place outside this creative space and don’t interfere with the creative process.
    I bet some customers might be quite shocked to see how IDEO actually works if they could walk around and observe the process.
  • There is no hierarchy, no ‘boss’, just a commitment to follow the given creative process or framework.
  • The accepted attitude within the company is to dare and ask for forgiveness afterward rather than asking for permission upfront. It invites to trying out things instead of being reigned by (real or assumed) constraints from the beginning.
  • The team first identifies several critical dimensions then splits up to build several separate mock-ups in parallel before consolidating and converging to the final product. Trade-offs come late in the game after basic requirements have already been incorporated.
  • The team goes out to meet experts to learn from about relevant facts faster and shares all insight and findings they come across with the others.
  • The discussion or ‘deep dive’ of a team is focused and non-judgmental to allow for creative ideas to surface in a safe and trustful environment. Only one person speaks at a time and the team members support each others’ ideas while deferring any judgment.
  • Chaotic as it may look, the team actually follows a strict protocol or process with much discipline. One person, called the facilitator, keeps the team moving forward and was selected for the ability to be good with people, not for expert knowledge. This facilitator ensures the team remains on track, focused and follows the framework of the creative process.
  • There is a strict time constraint for the project to force teams to produce results. Occasionally, the facilitator acts somewhat autocratic by forcing group decisions to keeping the team on schedule.
  • Teamwork and trial-and-error succeeds over the plans of a lone genius.
  • Every team needs to produce a tangible product like a prototype or mock-up. A merely ‘theoretical result’ does not suffice. The prototypes are tested in real-life environments by the end users.
  • All team members vote for the best and feasible ideas while everyone contributes working towards the final product.
  • ‘Adults’ coordinate the overall process to ensure the teams meet customers’ expectations in the end.

What you do not see in the video but you might be interested in is how IDEO selects its people, the company’s most important asset and success factor. The teams are deliberately composed of members with mixed backgrounds and expertise. Much effort is put on the recruiting process and it takes 17 or so interviews before one gets to work for IDEO. These interviews focus on the culture fit and attitude of the interviewees. Performance evaluations found on peer reviews.

Oh, and don’t miss this one: IDEO deliberately hires people that would not listen to their boss!
Imagine that in the places you and I work!

So, what does it take to innovate?

What are the essential and generic characteristics of the innovation process?
Here is what it comes down to in summary to systematically and continuously innovate in an organization:

  • Open and conductive environment and company culture.
  • Carefully selected, highly motivated and diverse teams
  • Process aligns creativity and discipline
  • Leaders who demand and promote innovation.

As IDEO puts it, they are experts of the process, not of the product they start working on. – This is the (open) secret of IDEO’s success.

Still want more?

There are more free videos on IDEO and how they operate as well as on their shopping cart project publicly available on YouTube, for example.

In case you want to get involved yourself in innovating with IDEO, check out their open innovation network!

I plan to discuss more aspects of strategic innovation soon such as what it takes to be the innovation leader in your organization…

– Stay tuned and please share your comments!

References and additional information

Build ERGs as an innovative business resource!

The proposed business model for ERGs forms a foundation for continued innovation, strategic alignment and measurable results. It turns an ERG into a true and sustainable business resource for its members as well as the hosting organization.

Summary – The increasing diversity of employees at the workplace led to employees gathering along affinity dimensions like birds-of-a-feather to form networking groups within organizations. The next step goes beyond affinity and establishes employee resource groups (ERGs) strategically as a business resource and powerful driver for measurable business impact and strategic innovation bottom-up.

Limited to social?

Employee resource groups (ERGs) emerge for various reasons. They tend to start with a social underpinning that naturally unites and organizes like-minded employees. ERGs come in different flavors mostly along the traditional lines of diversity characteristics such as ethnicity, skin color, age, gender, physical (dis)ability, sexual orientation, military veterans, etc.

For ERGs, a ‘social stickiness’ is important and can be the key integrating factor of employee populations within organizations. It may also influence the choices of ERG goals and activities to a large extent. This may result, however, in possibly limiting the ERG and its members to be seen as a ‘social club’ of sorts by others. Management, in particular, may not see the direct (or even indirect) positive business impact that an ERG can have.

This is where ERGs can fall short: when they fail to tie a strong business-focused bond that ensures continued support by leadership that in return ensures the ERG can sustain and proper for the better of its members as well as the hosting organization.

Becoming a business resource

From a management perspective, ERGs can provide social ties within the workforce that are mostly seen as favorable ‑ at least as long as it does not affect the employee performance; whether perceived or real.

Better off is the ERG that demonstrates an unambiguous contribution to the bottom line. A clear business value proposition sets a solid foundation that makes it easy to communicate with and convince executives securing their continued support. The company benefits from positive business outcomes as a direct result of the ERG activities, while it engages employees broader and deeper. This uses more of the employees’ true potential to ‘maximize the human capital’ as an important element also of employee engagement, development and retention.

This approach serves not only the company but has advantages also for its employees and the ERG in return. The ERG members benefit directly in many ways such as by interesting work outside the immediate scope of their job, by developing new skills and by increasing their visibility within the organization and continued ‘employability’, i.e. their personal market value as an employee.

So what is the key to success, how do you ‘build’ an innovation-driven and business-focused ERG?

A ‘business model’ for ERGs

My proposal is to establish the ERG as a self-propelling and sustainable system, an ongoing process that continues functioning quite independently from changes in the ERG leadership and consistently delivers innovations. Individual leaders are important for operations and make valuable contributions, but the ERG must be able to continue functioning even if key players become unavailable and replaced.

The following dimensions are generic and apply to any organization. Here, we use them to describe a general business model for the ERG:

1.       Strategy

2.       People

3.       Processes

4.       Organization

5.       Metrics/Rewards.

Dimensions of a business model
The five dimensions of an ERG business model

To illustrate the model and making it more tangible I use a generic example. It is based on NxGen (for Next Generation at the Workplace), a generational-oriented and business-focused ERG that I founded. NxGen was recognized in early 2010 as a best-practices approach by the National Affinity Leadership Congress (NALC).

1. Strategy

The strategy brings to the point the ERG’s goal and objectives. A well-thought-out value proposition is a foundation for the ERG.

For example, NxGen is a forum to develop leadership skills, networking and problem-solving that aims to open up cross-functional/cross-disciplinary opportunities for its active members through strategic business projects with measurable results. As a goal, NxGen aims to become a sounding board for management as a valued business resource.

2. People practices

People, active volunteers, are the life-blood of every ERG. Staffing and selection are crucial and continued activities to induce fresh ideas and prevent burn-out of established ERG members. What you are looking for are active volunteers who are passionate and energetic. You want members who become active change agents, role models, within the organization. Value a diverse set of backgrounds and capabilities that can complement another.

Rather than trying to recruit new members, focus on how to attract new members to engage and actively participate (in contrast to the ones signing up to receive email updates or a periodic newsletter, which is a passive form of membership). NxGen membership is open to all employees.

There is a broad range of benefits for active ERG members that can include (but are definitely not limited to):

  • Insight and work in other business functions and departments
  • Members lead a relevant project possibly in another business function
  • Experiment and learn in a safe and nurturing environment
  • Develop and apply skills like leadership, consulting, problem-solving
  • Build an open and supportive network with members coaching each other
  • Increased visibility within the organization
  • Potential to open new career opportunities
  • Making a measurable change in the organization here and now.

At NxGen, we see that younger employees (primarily Generation Y also called Millennial, born after 1980) tend to drive the ERG activities most. The explanations I offer is that GenY’ers, in particular, enter the workplace as well-educated professionals, optimistic and motivated to make a difference. GenY was brought up to believe they can achieve anything and are interested to explore lateral career moves. They are used to collaborating in teams to overcome obstacles and network while leveraging technology effectively to this end. At the workplace, GenY typically is not (yet) part of the decision-making bodies due to their junior positions ‑ but they do want to be heard (and should be listed to given their increasing numbers in the demographic shift of the population that has reached the workforce).

3. Processes

The ERG acts through business-relevant projects. At NxGen, the member ‘grass-roots’ identify otherwise un-addressed or under-served business needs that the ERG chooses to pursue. Based on a clear value proposition (return-on-investment, ROI) for the organization the ERG seeks executive sponsorship for each project. The executive sponsor ensures strategic alignment with the organization’s goal, expertise in the functional area, political support and funding for the project (since the ERG has no funds of its own).

The project scope often lays outside of the immediate job description of the ERG-appointed project leader allowing for broader hands-on learning opportunities. Applying professional project management methods to all projects ensures the projects deliver the specified deliverables.

The ERG core team steers and administrates the ERG project portfolio which is documented in an annual business plan and shared publicly. As resources are limited, not all imaginable projects can be conducted at once but are staged. Projects can build upon and leverage each other while making use of synergies whenever possible.

In the beginning, it might be challenging to find meaningful projects that make the best use of the ERG’s resources and capabilities with favorable business impact. It takes time and persistence to develop a trustful relationship with executive management and to gain credibility as an ERG to attracts more complex and important projects from management in return.
NxGen works and communicates openly, it acts transparently and leverages (social) media to inform and connect with its members and non-members displaying operations and result of the ERG’s work.

4. Organization

The NxGen ERG operates within a general framework set by a company’s office to ensure all ERGs abide the company policies. This office also provides an organizational home for ERGs within the company. It generally coordinates and supports the different activities across ERGs and ensures each ERG has a distinguished executive sponsor to connect the ERG with senior management.

A charter defines the basic roles and processes of the NxGen ERG in more detail and is posted publicly. A core team of active members guides the ERG activities and ensures ERG operability. The core team is lead by the ERG’s elected chair and co-chair(s); it further comprises the project leaders, distinguished role-holders, and liaisons to key functions in the organization. The core team members support and advise each other. The ERG provides a safe and social environment that relies on trust among the members to connect, to build relationships, to network and to run projects.

NxGen actively reaches out to other ERGs, innovative groups within the organization but also other operating units and companies to cooperate, share, benchmark and collaborate on common goals.

5. Metrics and rewards system

How do you measure success, i.e. the effectiveness of an ERG? An annual business plan covers the portfolio of ERG projects. It serves as an instrument to measure the ERG performance across all ERG activities that the ERG chair is held accountable for.

What are the rewards for active ERG members? Besides the benefits listed in the above section ‘People’, accountability and success for individual members derive from their projects or their input to other ERG activities that all have clear objectives and a success metrics attached. Driving the change and making a difference is a reward in itself.

NxGen and individual members received several awards and recognition for their work inside and outside the company which the ERG celebrates in public. Some members list their ERG involvement and experience proudly on their résumé which is an indicator that the ERG’s value proposition is effective for its members, i.e. the members value the ERG membership, projects, recognition and awards as means of their ‘employability’.

Building the ERG as an innovation incubator

The business model positions the ERG clearly as a powerful business resource for the organization but it can be even more. The ERG can serve as an ‘innovation incubator’ by combining an attractive system with creative space in an effective governance framework. The processes create measurable value for the individual and the organization that can significantly contribute to process innovation and also drives product innovation.

In an empowering bottom-up movement, the ERG directly connects its active members from any level of hierarchy with the decision-makers high up. This bears the potential to cut right through established or perceived boundaries such as hierarchy, bureaucracy, and red-tape or functional silos that may severely limit the effectiveness and innovative effectiveness of other units that were created top-down within the organization.

Herein lays the deeper potential of ERGs as a true business resource and going beyond possible self-inflicted limitation to social affinity. ERGs can well be the means that contribute to driving the future success of an organization for an organization that understands and value how ERGs open opportunities to tap into its workforce and unleashes hidden potential.

Additional reading

Leadership vs Management? What is wrong with middle management?

Is ‘middle management’ to blame? About the differences between managers and leaders, two conflicting roles that are both needed in an organization.

What is wrong with middle management?
Listen around, ‘middle management’ gets blamed all around for many things and even more so, for the big disconnect between executives and the staff and managers in the trenches.

A colleague just asked me again today – what is wrong with middle management?
Is there a systematically flaw that affects so many organizations?

Management versus Leadership?
The confusion originates from a lack of clarity over the roles: We need to look first at what the difference is between a manager and a leader: Is there one at all and are these roles exclusive or do they overlap?

Don’t be mistaken, significant differences exist between managers and leaders; yet an organization needs both, managers and leaders. It is necessary to distinguish these roles, since their focus and goals are quite different. Not only can they conflict to some degree, they actually have to for the better of the effective organization overall. ‑ Let’s take a close look at both roles:

Management role
A manager typically supervises a unit that produces an output consistently (such as a product or service). The manager’s job is to improve the input (resources) and output (deliverables) and make tactical adjustments. Most changes are moderate and of an evolutionary character focused on optimization by refinement of the here-and-now.

Given their tasks and responsibility, managers do have a professional tendency and even obligation to resist changes that disrupt their well-oiled and optimized “machine” whose output is also their immediate measure of success in most organizations.

For an effective manager it is all about “doing-things-right”. The ways often get documented in procedures to solidify and guard the established processes to guarantee the reliable delivery of results. Focused on preservation and functional optimization, managers can also easily fall in the trap of judging too soon and then making an adaptive decision too late.

Leadership role
In contrast, a leader takes a step back and looks at the bigger picture that aims strategically at the organization’s future. The effective leader shakes up the established structures and “does-what-is-right” by bringing about change that will position and optimize the organization for future success through transformation. (Read more on Innovation Strategy: Do you innovate or renovate?)

Leaders must stay flexible and willing to deviate from the current path to drive the needed change to successfully shift or even turn the course of the organization. Consequently, the leader must take into account major disruptions of otherwise smooth and sub-optimized operations.  (Read more on How to become the strategic innovation leader)

The farther a leader is removed (usually way up in the hierarchy) from the level where the output is produced, the more abstract the work appears. It becomes easier for leaders to make game-changing decisions flexibly that may turn out unfeasible on the factory floor or other real-life business settings or that confuse the staff.

A good leader follows guiding principles and keeps the staff in the loop to prepare them for upcoming changes. Removing elements of surprise where possible is an effective early step of successful change management when it comes to implementation.

We need both!
The goals of leaders and managers conflict and create a constant tension field. It requires active balancing and healthy negotiation to prepare the organization for the future while not sacrificing the ability to deliver results reliably as the organization moves ahead on the bumpy road of change and uncertainty. (More on Mastering the connected economy – key findings of IBM’s 2012 CEO study)

This makes clear that an organization needs both, effective managers and visionary leaders. It also makes clear though that both roles may not be best united in one person to avoid a conflict of interest that compromises best results for the organization overall.

Where middle management gets stuck
As you move farther down in a hierarchy from the leadership level and closer to operations, the harder it becomes for managers to balance the high-flying leadership vision with the demanded production or service targets on the ground.

So here is where you find the clash and overlap between leadership and management: The middle management gets caught in the middle, literally!

Middle management needs to bridge the gap even for self-preservation by negotiating and brokering between the workers and the leaders. It’s a tough job! Middle managers deserve some sympathy as they get torn by the conflicting needs of the organization every day and often enough not fully included by leaders while yet having to make sense of the dilemma and translating it for their staff.

Can’t do without…
Thus, there is no ‘systematical flaw’ but only the reality of conflicting needs of an organization that requires both, effective managers and visionary leaders. This comes with accepting the entailing tensions and conflicts to deliver results reliably and consistently while readying the organization for meeting the challenges of the future – which puts the middle management in the hottest spot!

Why do companies need business-focused ERGs?

Changing the organization from within by engaging employees in business-focused employee resource groups (ERGs) – the practical “how-to” guide!

Why do companies need business-focused ERGs?

The answer can be as simple as this: Because it makes good business sense!

But what makes this answer so simple? – Well, because it’s made up of a few simple aspects:

First of all, every company, unless it is classified as a non-profit, is in business for one reason: to make money by providing some sort of product or service to its customers.

Simply put, if a company fails to rack up profits it will go out of business. That’s why focusing on the business benefits, the “bottom line”, the return on investment (ROI) makes not only sense but is key for successful employee resource groups (ERGs). It’s the bottom-line arguments, the financial benefits, that open the doors to executive support, buy-in, and funding.

Second, to take advantage of the diversity and capabilities of the human capital readily available.

Let’s look at companies, its workforce and its markets today: We live and work globally – everyone is connected. Our markets today are just as diverse and multi-faceted as our workforce should be. It takes all we know and who we are as diverse human beings (coming from different cultures and ethnicities, religious beliefs, physical characteristics, sexual orientation, and so on) to understand what our customers need and how we can give it to them.

Therefore, it makes sense not only to diversify the product portfolio to mitigate risk and seize opportunity but also to diversify the workforce for the same reasons. Not tapping into all of your workforce’s diversity and capabilities puts you at a disadvantage to companies who know how to maximize their human capital effectively.

Are you still with me? So, the next question is how to meet this goal.

Stay tuned for practical advice, keeping it simple, and examples taking you through the steps on how to build a business-focused ERG.

– Any questions so far?