Shut down! Why Successful Innovations Die

Why successful innovations get shut down. WhIle we expect unsuccessful initiatives and projects to get shut down, what sense does it make to stop hugely successful ones?

Punished Despite Success

It doesn’t make sense to shut down profitable programs – or does it?  It happens all the time when the current yet wilting business model still tastes sweet.  Investing in building a disruptive, future business model appears less palatable as it takes uncomfortable transformation that comes with investment cost and lower profits initially.  The sobering reality is that short-term gains often win over long-term investments, sustainability and bold moves to explore uncertainty and white space.

Here is a quick example from the fossil oil and gas industry straight out of Bloomberg Businessweek, “Chevron Dims the Lights on Green Power” (June 2-8, 2014):  Chevrons renewable power group successfully launched several projects generating solar and geothermal power for over 65,000 homes.  Despite margins of 15-20%, the group was surprisingly dissolved earlier this year after they had just about doubled their projected profits from $15 million to $27 million in 2013, the first year of their full operation. – Why would you kill a profitable new business?

Clashing Business Models

As for reasons for the shut-down, a former Chevron employee and Director of Renewable Energy notes that Chevron’s core businesses, oil and gas, still remain more profitable than renewable energy.  This development signals that Chevron’s leadership is willing to experiment with renewable energy but does not seem fully committed – it makes Chevron’s slogan “Finding newer, cleaner ways to power the world” sound like lip-service.

Instead, Chevron continues to hold on tightly to their old business model to squeeze out the last drop of oil.  Chasing short-term profit margins may prove not only a questionable path for long-term company sustainability but also from a business model perspective.  While oil and gas prices have been on the rise for the past decades, it is well-known that these natural resources become scarce, so extraction from more challenging locations becomes increasingly expensive.  It cuts into the company’s profits and the consumers’ pockets.  To date, Chevron already pays a higher cost for extracting oil compared to competitors.

Chevron focuses on the upper tail of the S-curve of the current technology instead at the expense of preparing for the disruptive jump to the next technology platform. (See section “Technology S-curves” in 10x vs 10% – Are you still ready for breakthrough innovation?)
The risk here is to lose out on developing and acquiring new technologies that will be the make-or-break competitive advantage in the industry’s future.

Bio Fuels

Interestingly, Chevron’s competitor and largest oil company, Exxon-Mobil, takes a different approach.  Even after initial setbacks where proof-of-concept did not scale to industrial size, Exxon-Mobile now partnered with Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics to produce oil from micro-algae at industrial scale. Hopes are high that this bio-tech and bio-agriculture approach proves more practical, profitable and sustainable to replace fossil fuels in the future.

Sounds risky?  It sure is, but with profits from oil and gas still in the tens of billions this is the time to invest heavily in the jump on to the next technological S-curve. You may recall Craig Venter as a most successful entrepreneur and also the first to sequence the human genome, so there is no shortage of top bio-brainpower, which opens the flow also for more investment capital.

Nearsighted Decisions

Truth being told, several other bio-fuel ventures of this nature exist all around the world.  Neither made it to produce in industrial scale needed to satisfy the world demand for crude oil – yet.  There is no question, however, that the world is running out of affordable oil and gas at accelerating speed.  Disruptive technologies will emerge to fill the gap and redefine the energy sector.

Leadership is needed to prepare and transform the industry beyond short-term management of profit targets.  Not taking a bold step forward is the absence of leadership.  (More on the clashing goals in Leadership vs Management? What is wrong with middle management?)

Learnings

The learning here is that even profitable disruptive ventures get shut down at times when the leadership is comfortable and holds on tightly to the existing business model they are familiar with and doing what they always did rather than taking transformative steps to prepare the organization for the future.  Even with the writing clearly on the wall, the way of how profitability of a new venture is measured and the (still higher) margins of the established business (fossil fuels) make short-term focus attractive despite concerns over business model sustainability.  So often enough there is little patience to further develop even successful, transformative ventures of tomorrow in favor of enjoying the sweet but wilting fruits of today.

Somehow this short-term mindset painfully reminds me also of the established car industry who, obviously, had little interest to bring electric vehicles to market at scale over the past decades until a Tesla comes around to show them how it can and should be done.

As for our example, time will tell whether Chevron or Exxon-Mobil made the better choice in the long run to win the new business model race leading us into the post-crude oil era – or if they both get disrupted by an even different new technology altogether.

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Balancing Risk of Innovation Project Portfolios

Risk of Disruption

Innovation projects are risky explorations.  Disruptive innovation projects even more so, and individual projects can be quite a gamble.  So, how can you limit the risk across your portfolio of innovation projects?  The goal is to increase the likelihood for the portfolio to succeed overall even if individual projects fail.

(Quick note for project management professionals: I am deliberately not differentiating terms like “portfolio” and “program” here.  My goal is to get the basic idea across.   More particular definitions don’t add value here.)

In mature organizations, incremental improvement can easily be and often is interpreted as ‘innovation’, which makes sense when optimizing a production environment, for example. Here, at the back-end of operations, big “elephant” projects tend to bind the organizations resources (How to grow innovation elephants in large organizations).  The innovation project portfolio I am referring to, in contrast, aims at the disruptive end: the “small elephant projects” with higher risk but the potential of extraordinarily high returns if they succeed.

Why to manage risk

In large organizations you hardly get a “carte blanche” to manage just highly risky projects.  With a corporate focus on predictable, short-term results there is too much concern of the portfolio easily becoming an unpredictable money pit.  You are likely to get shut down after playing around a while without demonstrating clear success in terms of return-of-investment.  Thus, you will need to come up with a strategy on how to compose your project portfolio to keep your stakeholders happy and your experimental playground open.

Risk Categories 

Managing risk across a project portfolio comes down to finding the right blend of high-risk/high-return projects and lower risk projects that come with less impressive potential for revenue or savings.  You also want to include a few projects that produce returns short-term to demonstrate you are making progress and reap some quick wins for impatient stakeholders while the longer-term projects need time to mature.

A common way to approach categorizing projects into into Core, Adjacent and Transformational based on their risk and return profiles:

  • Core projects are merely optimizations to improve the existing landscape of systems, processes, assets or products in existing markets and with existing customers.  These incremental improvements are the “safe bet” and “next small step” that, typically, comes with low risk, predictable outcomes but also limited returns.  They do not need high level sponsorship, are easy to predict and plan resources for, and so they are the favored playing field of mature, large organizations.  These can often be ‘large elephant’ projects seen as ‘necessary’ that the organization more easily buys into.
  • Adjacent projects come with more uncertainty and risks as they usually extend existing product lines into new markets.  Though not an entire novelty it is may be new territory for your company.  Sometime, ‘imitating’ a successful model in a different industry does the trick (read also: Imitators beat Innovators!).
    Adjacencies add to the existing business(es), which requires a higher level sponsorship (such as Vice President level) to move forward, to allocate resources and to accept the risk to fail.
  • Transformative projects are experimental and risky.  They create new markets and customers with bold, disruptive “break-through” products and new business model.  While the risk to fail is high, the returns could be huge when you succeed.  Highest level (C-level) sponsorship and support is crucial for this category not only to persist and get resources during the development phase but also for the mature organization to adopt and support it sustainably.

Finding the balance

When you manage a portfolio of disruptive (read: transformative) innovation projects, you should expect projects not to succeed most of the time.  Instead of calling it “failure,” see it as a learning opportunity.  As Thomas Edison put it so famously referring to his experiments leading to the invention of the light-bulb: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

The common rule for playing a safe portfolio is a 70-20-10 mix, i.e. 70% core, 20% adjacent and 10% transformative projects.  This way, many low-risk/low-return core projects keep the lights on while you play with few high-risk/high-return transformative projects.

Experiences

From my personal experience with the portfolio I manage, I leans towards accepting more risk, so you would expect and be comfortable with a lower success rate as a consequence but also higher returns.  To my own surprise, we completed 55% of our projects successfully and ended up discontinuing 26%.  Fortunately, also the average ROI from our “small elephant” projects is substantial and pays the bills for many years out.  Thus, for my portfolio, the 70-20-10 mix is too conservative.

As for how we select projects and fund projects, read also Angel Investing within the Company – Insights from an Internal Corporate Venture Capitalist and School for Intrapreneurs: Lessons from a FORTUNE Global 500 company.

Before re-balancing your portfolio in favor of a majority of risky transformative projects, however, make sure you have continued high-level sponsorship and alignment with strategy and organizational culture of your organization.  – If culture, strategy and sponsorship don’t align to support your innovation portfolio efforts, your risk increases for painful learning without sufficient business success.

> Interested in Project Management? – Don’t miss VASA’s historic project management lesson!

 

Innovation Killers: The Corporate Immune System Strikes Back!

Parallel Universes

Our immune system protects our health and defends us against threats entering our body.  It identifies intruding germs, isolates them from the surroundings and flushes them out of the system to prevent further harm. Our immune system also keeps track of intruders formerly identified to reject them even more effectively should they ever reappear.

Large organization consist of humans who tend to follow behavioral patterns not unlike their inner immune systems when it comes to evaluating new ideas brought forward by an aspiring intrapreneur. Especially, if a new idea comes with a ‘wishlist’ of demands is needed from us to make it happen; typically, time and money.

Joining the Dark Side

It’s our human nature: we approve ideas we like or that further our objectives while we tend to reject ideas that don’t match our liking, beliefs, commitments or that cause disruption to our equilibrium or budget. Disruptive ideas come with uncertainty and may require uncomfortable or additional efforts on our side. The outcome may appear risky, could waste precious resources or have other undesirable repercussions for us.  The fear of losing something is stronger than the incentive of gain. And often enough, we just don’t fully understand the idea or its implications, don’t take the time or find the impetus to look into its details, so it seems safe and convenient to reject it.

This way, as managers and coworkers, we act as a part of the organizational immune system. We become part of the reasons why mature organizations can’t innovate – we join the ‘dark side,’ so to speak.

Our body remembers a previous intruder in order to respond even faster the next time – and so do we. Interestingly, though, we tend to remember better who presented the idea that we rejected rather than what the idea was about. So when the ‘quirky guy’ shows up again after a while with the next idea, our suspicion is already kindled, and we more easily reject this next idea too.

Facing Defeat

For intrapreneurs it is crucial to avoid the “No,” because it is hard to turn it into a “Yes” again later on. This is why we teach How Intrapreneurs avoid “No!” at the School for Intrapreneurs: Lessons from a FORTUNE Global 500 company, a highly effective talent and leadership development program.

Too often an intrapreneur lets their enthusiasm take over and confronts us straight on with their ideas bundled with a request for resources of sorts. Most often, this discussion ends quickly with a “No,” when we perceive this ‘frontal attack’ as a threat to the status quo, the establishment, and the well-oiled machine that the manager runs; and so it triggers the ‘corporate immune system’ leading to rejection.

Stepping Stones to Success

So, just short of having “The Force” of a Jedi, how should an intrapreneur seek support for an idea from managers, potential sponsors or coworkers? While not ‘one-size-fits-all’ and there is no silver bullet, here is a selection of tried approaches for consideration:

  • Seek support: The trick is to ask in a ways that build support for driving the idea forward – and not necessarily for the whole implementation project at once. Even a small step is better than none. For example, supporting evidence can help to raise curiosity and deflate resistance. Find out if a similar approach worked out in another company or industry; it helps to emphasize validation elsewhere. It can help to frame and position your offer to a potential sponsor.
  • Build trust: Additional ‘selling tips’ I picked up from Gifford Pinchot III., the Grand-Master of intrapreneuring himself, suggest a more social approach that includes building a personal relationship first: It is much easier to connect from a position of mutual trust and openness to find support building the supportive network by asking for advice or references before you ask for resources.
  • Just a test: Cautious managers may open up when they hear the intrapreneur is not intending to change anything, just ‘trying something out,’ so not to threaten their established processes, investments or power-structures within the organization. Emphasizing the ‘experimental’ and non-threatening nature of the idea helps to prevent triggering the immune system at this early stage.
  • Gathering Insights: Successful intrapreneurs listen very closely to what the responses to learn from them. Rather than asking a closed question that puts them in a Yes-or-No cul-de-sac, it is much more insightful to carefully phrase questions in a way that the gate-keeper already solves the problem, or provides an answer or approach to the problem the intrapreneur is trying to solve.
  • Know the Goals: The larger a support network an intrapreneur can built for their idea, the better. Rather than the direct manager, it may be more informative to work with people who have insights into the goals and priorities of the organization, which may be sources of resistance. This way, the intrapreneur can learn about possible conflicting goals (for example, “do more with less” or “stability versus creativity”) that need to be known and understood in order to be addressed and dealt with constructively.
  • Show Gratitude: And finally, it is important for intrapreneurs to pay respect and express gratitude no matter what the outcome is of their conversation. A ‘thank you’ goes a long way and keeps the door open to talk more and possibly receive support in the future.

Angel Investing within the Company – Insights from an Internal Corporate Venture Capitalist

Breaking through the crust

One of my favorite and most successful approaches to building a powerful intrapreneuring ecosystem is internal corporate venturing!

It is an exquisite tool to cut through the crust of ‘red tape’ that bureaucracy builds up over time. Internal corporate venturing or “Angel investing” allows for nimble decision-making with a lean process to give disruptive innovation ideas a chance again in a large company.

Seed-funding promising ideas

How does it work?  Think of becoming a venture capitalist within the company: You invest in ventures within the organization and help building ‘intraprises’ in contrast to funding start-up enterprises outside the company. The difference is a you don’t venture for your own profit but for the better of your organization.

The idea here is to seed-fund promising disruptive ideas that otherwise would not be implemented or even seriously considered. These opportunities –typically‑ were rejected by the ‘corporate immune system’ previously, when an employee with an idea approached their line manager or a governance committee of sorts requesting approval to ‘try something out.’

POC over ROI

Often enough, there is no clear return-of-investment (ROI) predictable for these early ideas.  What you may be looking for is rather risky and experimental, a proof-of-concept (POC).  The metrics for payoff and ROI of disruptive ideas does not follow the same approach we are used to measure the more predictable returns of common cost reduction and incremental improvement projects. Disruptive POC projects often don’t have an ROI projection when you explore technology of sorts or its application that may become a game-changer for our future business.

In my experience, communicating the POC nature of the project over focusing on ROI can actually help!  It prevents the ‘organizational immune system’ from kicking in early on, since there is little threat to established practices.  Why?  It does not come across as competing with ‘big elephant’ projects over significant amounts of governed resources following the conventional processes of the company’s machinery.  Instead, we just try something out!  It’s a little experiment that doesn’t change anything, so it poses no threat to established practices, investments or the power-base of individuals defending their fiefdoms.

Aspired returns

Having said this, there is of course a commercial end to all projects. After all, we have no resources to waste and will have to demonstrate down the road that our ‘experiments’ pay off somehow. Our working assumption is that the disruption should lead to a ten-fold (10X) payoff – at least.

Personally, I prefer aiming at a bold 100X ROI target; two orders of magnitude, that is. It sets an ambitious target and -if things work out- a great success story. It’s a powerful point to make for disruptive innovation as part of our innovation ecosystem and shifting the mindset within an organization.  Sharing these success stories with executive stakeholders is crucial (for future support) as well as with employees (for future ideas).

Governance and authorization

Interestingly, what employees are looking for more than funds is authorization to do what is right and worthwhile for the company. Often, the obstacles are perceived and only exist in peoples’ minds. These barriers are formed by many factors over time, such as the management style they experienced and organizational silos that mold a company’s culture as well as the employees’ mindset.

In this particular company, a lean oversight board makes funding decisions. It is composed of a diverse team of more forward-thinking executives and a very lean decision process. The team acts as enabling ‘go-keeper’ for accelerated innovations instead of pushing the breaks as ‘gate-keeper.’

The little monies offered for trying something new only help smoothen the path for innovators in the company. The most important part is them feeling empowered and “authorized” to take action that overcomes complacency, inertia and organizational paralysis. On the spectrum of strategic innovation roles, the board serves as a “sponsor” and sometimes as a “coach,” when an idea aims to overcome internal barriers to increase efficiency, for example.

Dealing with Risk

The purpose of this governance board is to enable the exploration of disruptive ideas by giving internal innovators a chance. The focus is on projects that can be characterized as early stage experiments to explore transformative enabling technologies and value-adding services of higher risk or less predictable outcomes than conventional project portfolios in the mature organization would feel comfortable with.

Naturally, this approach comes with an elevated risk of failure when projects do not produce profitable outcomes or simply prove infeasible or poorly timed.  This ‘price’ is accepted as long as it generates learning.

The potential damage is low, since we are talking about swift and low-cost experimentation: try often and fail fast. Thus, these risky projects complement regular and more conservative project portfolios in the various businesses of the organization. In addition, the innovation project portfolio is somewhat risk-balanced, which avoids having too many high risk projects that may jeopardize the likelihood of profitability across the portfolio.  Reality is that also the disruptive innovation project portfolio has to demonstrate tangible returns over time, so the mature organization sees the economic benefit of experimenting and not shut down this ‘playground.’

Branding the projects as experiments with a proof-of-concept (POC) endpoint helps to calm the ‘organizational immune system’ and to argue that these risky ‘small elephant’ projects complement the other ‘big elephant’ project portfolios across the organization.

Getting Funds

Here are my experiences as an internal corporate venturer or ‘angel investor’ from the past years: First of all, I don’t have much money to spend. The budget I have for this kind of ventures is pathetically meager – and I overcommit it all the time! Nonetheless, I came in under budget once again by 46% last year. It sounds like an oxymoron, and since I don’t have a money tree growing in the backyard, how does this work?

The secret is in the psychology of acting as the “first investor.” Think of this way: when someone wants you to invest into their idea first with nobody else having made an investment before you, you are skeptical and most hesitant to put down your money, right?

All I do is to commit paying for an idea in full to overcome this initial threshold and get things started.  What typically happens next is that an executive from the business affected by or potentially benefiting from the project hears of my investment, reconsiders and wants to get on board too – as a second investor. Once the ‘innovation guys’ have put money down first, the investment in the idea appears less risky to the business executive, so either we split the bill or the business takes on the cost completely!

I’ve seen it happen many times with managers turning around 180 degrees after they had rejected the idea previously. This is how to deal with them: to save (their) face, don’t point out their earlier resistance but rather thank and recognize them for their support and foresight as valued contributors to change and success for the organization.  Celebrate them as enablers, win them over as allies and keep the connection for future collaborations!

Alignment and validation

Don’t be mistaken, funding by the business is not only crucial given the fact that my funds are few.  It is even more important because it validates that the idea makes sense to the business.  It aligns with strategy and goals of the organization but also helps implementing it once the business has ‘skin’ in the game! Otherwise, even if I funded a project alone, the intrapreneur running it would have a hard time getting it implemented without the support of a business sponsor.

So all it takes is making it easy for business executives to invest in a good ideas by making them feel comfortable not to invest first, which reduces their perceived risk and lowers their threshold to act.

Key Learnings

  • The lean innovation governance board is an instrument for reasonable oversight that benefits from diverse perspectives.
  • The “Go keeper” instead of “Gate keeper” process is crucial as is the willingness to accept risk of failure for disruptive projects.
  • The model proves highly effective to get around a convoluted “red-tape” bureaucracy as well as generating a surprisingly high return-of-investment (ROI) – even without the latter being the primary focus.
  • The “first investor” psychology validates the alignment of ideas with business needs and strategy while opening the flow of funds from the businesses and facilitating the implementation.
  • This internal corporate venturing or “angel investing” approach became a beacon of hope for employees and a very profitable innovation engine for the organization that starts to change the organizational culture to the better.

 

Join me at the Pharmaceutical Multi-Channel Marketing Strategy Conference in Philadelphia, PA on April 24, 2014

Q1 Pharma Multi-Channel Marketing Strategy
Q1’s Pharmaceutical Multi-Channel Marketing Strategy

Location: Hilton Garden Inn Philadelphia Center City, 1100 Arch St., Philadelphia, PA 19107

Join me at the Customer Experience Summit 2014 in Princeton/NJ on March 6, 2014

Pharma Customer Experience Summit 2014 at The Nassau Inn Hotel, 10 Palmer Square, Princeton, NJ on March 6, 2014

Pharma Customer Experience Summit 2014 at The Nassau Inn Hotel, 10 Palmer Square, Princeton, NJ on March 6, 2014

How open offices kill productivity – and how to make it work

Open offices are not a new invention.  They have been around for a long time as hallmark of start-up companies that simply cannot afford glitzy corporate skyscrapers with plush corner offices (yet). Open offices emerged less by deliberate design than driven by need.

Start-ups typically run on a vibrant culture of passionate people wanting to spend time together to create something great, everyone works together closely in the tight space available.  Information flows fast and freely.  Recreational elements and other services offered remove the need or motivation to leave.  Employees hang out to work maximum hours as a team in a fun, inspiring and supportive environment.  Productivity is up and work gets done.

Start-up open office (source: theepochtimes.com)
Start-up open office (source: theepochtimes.com)

Growing pains

Large companies are attracted by this powerful value-proposition for open offices – or so it seems.  Mature organizations struggle with their increasing size that, over time, entails increasing specialization and complexity with a stifling system of red tape and inertia.

While jobs are large in small companies and come with broad scope and high accountability, which are diluted when jobs narrow in large companies by increased specialization over time.  Functional silos emerge and sub-optimize often to the detriment of other business functions.

This siloed corporate world only contributes to a climate that works against diverse collaboration and inhibits breakthrough innovations; and business results degrade from 10x to 10%.  (See also 10x vs 10% – Are you still ready for breakthrough innovation?)

Cutting costs is a questionable driver

The reasons for large organizations moving to an open floor plan are often glorified and communicated as a measure to increase creativity and productivity in an appealing modern working environment: employees connect casually and spontaneously at the ‘water cooler’ to network and innovate together again.

The true and paramount driver for tearing down the office walls, however, is often more sobering: it comes down to simply cutting costs by reducing the expensive office footprint.  Fitting more people into less space comes at a price for the workforce.

Cost savings only get you so far.  It’s an easy approach but not a sustainable business model for productivity.  What do you really save if productivity goes down?  How sustainable is your business then?  Sacrificing productivity for cost savings is a narrow-minded approach lacking long-term perspective and, therefore, not worth it.  That is unless your goal is to achieve short-term gains without consideration for the future of the business, which is a disqualifying business perspective altogether.

The popular phenomenon in large companies is a move for the wrong reasons (the better driver being increased productivity) and entails serious consequences that jeopardize the company’s productivity, workforce satisfaction, and even the bottom line.

Design constraints

It gets even worse when the new environment is retrofitted space with structural limitations, founded in the legacy of existing buildings and investments, and if no flanking measures taken to enable effective collaboration needs.

A design from scratch has the potential support the collaboration needs and flow of the workforce best.  This is an advantage start-ups have when they can shape and rearrange loft space to their immediate needs without limitations carried forward.

Size matters

Controlling cost is necessary and reducing office footprint is an effective business measure.  Aetna, for example, has nearly half of their 35,000 employees working from home already, which saves ~15% to 25% on real estate costs – that’s about $80 million saving per year.

Do not get me wrong, there are undeniable benefits to open office spaces – when applied for the right reasons in the right context, with right priorities and proper execution.  The point I am making is that cost reduction alone is not a worthwhile driver if it sacrifices productivity.  There comes a point where a hard decision has to be made and if you prioritize cost savings, you sacrifice productivity and other aspects automatically.

Open Office Plan (source: Foundation 7)
Open Office Plan (source: Foundation 7)

What does it take?

Unfortunately, the start-up company model with open office space and its agile and enthusiastic does not scale for large organizations.  The corporate one-size-fits-all approach does not do the trick for several reasons.

Let us look at aspects that make the open office work:

  1. Tear down cost center walls
  2. Make presence easy
  3. Level the (remote) playing field
  4. Embrace work style differences

1.  Tear down cost center walls

Proximity favors who needs to work together closely.  In a start-up company, staff is few and jobs are big.  This ratio flips in large organizations where many employees work in highly specialized functions.  With increasing specialization comes complexity that leads to functional silos.  The employees become separated by every rising departmental and organizational walls.

In large organizations, work space is typically paid for by department and charged to cost centers.  Staff gets corralled this way and kept separated in functional clusters that are easier to administer but counteract productivity, streamlined workflow, and diverse collaboration cross-functionally.  After all, it wouldn’t make sense to have any department operating completely independent from the rest of the organization.

These artificial and structural boundaries make no sense (unless you are an accountant, perhaps).  Therefore, trade the urge for financial micro-management for what makes the workforce more productive, as this is the most important aspect of collaboration and, ultimately, the bottom line.

2.  Make presence easy

Make it easy for your employees to go the extra mile.  Now here is where large companies can learn from how start-ups: offer incentives for employees to hang out and remove reasons for them to leave to maximize time to work and collaborate.

The list seems endless: free beverages and food, services such as laundry, hair dresser, spa or receiving deliveries, exercise equipment, healthy snacks, child and pet care, and other useful perks that cost-cutting companies often omit.

Sounds like a waste to many large companies.  But is it really?  You get more out of your employees’ carefree working along longer than by pinching the free coffee and have them leave during the day or early to run their necessary errands.

3.  Level the (remote) playing field

It may sound counter-intuitive but when cost saving rules, the open office space often only works when not all employees are around at the same time.  If all employees showed up on the same day there may not be enough room and resources (seating, access to power and networks, etc.) to fit and accommodate everyone, since the physical office footprint is now too small ‑ a Catch-22.

When only a subset of employees can be present in the office at any given workday, the rest has to work remotely forming an –at least- virtual organization.  Consequently, the random personal connection “at the water cooler” becomes less likely as does spontaneous cooperation by “pulling together a team” since your pool of physically available staff is limited.

Management needs to take deliberate and determined measures to level the playing field for remote workers by giving them the same opportunities as colleagues present in the office.  Why?  “Out of sight, out of mind” is a powerful and human nature.  If not managed effectively, it only becomes worse when remote staff easily is continuously overlooked when it comes to projects staffing, development opportunities and promotions, for example. The resulting inequities undermine workforce cohesion, effectiveness, and talent development.

Read more on virtual teams at Why virtual teams fail, and how to make them work (part 1) and How to make virtual teams work! (part 2).

4.  Embrace work style differences

There are too many individual work styles to list them all – for example, just think of

FastCompany recently came up with a list of reasons by workers arguing against open offices, which is a good indicator where the pain-points are.  Representative or not, the list tends to resonate with people that experienced first-hand working in a corporate open office environment.

The key complaints are about

  • Distraction – hard to concentrate with surrounding noises of all sort; loud speaking coworkers; interruptions of coworkers stopping by at any given time
  • Discomfort – no privacy; by-passers looking at your screen and documents; food, bodily and other odors; white-noise generators blamed for headaches; spreading contagious illnesses; having to talk to people when you don’t feel like it; “hiding” by wearing earphones
  • Workflow obstacles – competing over quiet spaces, conference rooms or other rare resources; no place to store personal items or personalize the space.

In summary

One size does not fit all and it does not do the trick for large companies, in particular.  So if you have to downsize office space or accommodate more employees, take a sound and sustainable approach by making productivity the driving priority and not cost.

After all, we are human beings that work best when we have control over our work environment and schedule.  When we perform at our best, it is also for the better of the company as a whole.  Flexibility, empowerment and inclusion go a long way – otherwise, mind FastCompany’s warning: “What was supposed to be the ultimate space for collaboration and office culture was having the opposite effect” – also for the bottom line.

Join me in Boston for the Corporate Venturing in the Life Sciences conference this week!

Join me at the Corporate Venturing in the Life Sciences conference this week!
Join me at the Corporate Venturing in the Life Sciences conference this week!

How to grow innovation elephants in large organizations

Driving innovation in large organizations is like herding elephants.  Big and small elephants. – How so?

Elephants come in different sizes
Elephants come in different sizes

Big Elephants in the Back-Office

In large organizations, departments gravitate to sub-optimize their core business.  Silos form under local management to run their department more efficient – following the old mantra: do more with less.
(Read more about silos forming at Leadership vs Management? What is wrong with middle management?)

Although all business functions are affected, corporate Information Technology (IT) departments often lend themselves as best examples for a “big elephant” world: they are critical enablers in a pivotal position of every modern organization.  Even though the success of practically every business function hinges on IT, also IT is not immune to this silo-forming phenomenon in large organizations.

Over time and with ‘organizational maturity’, the IT department tends to end up focusing on what they do best: large back-office projects that cannot be funded or run by any business function in isolation, since they span across disciplines or impact the entire enterprise.  Just one examples for a “big elephant” project is implementing a comprehensive Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system across multiple locations internationally.

This is the back-office domain and comfort zone of IT with technology know-how, big budgets, long duration, high visibility, rigid governance and clear processes to follow.

Small Elephants in the Front-Office

In contrast, the front-office typically comprises Marketing, Sales and Product Development.  Here, a small tweak or agile change (that requires some IT input) can go a long way and have significant impact on organizational effectiveness and business results.  – These micro-innovations are “small elephants” as recent Gartner research coined them.

These little disruptions to the slower-moving big elephant world easily trigger the “corporate immune-system” that favors large elephants and suppressing small emerging ones.

Typically, most projects in large organization aim to reduce cost in some way.  Only a minority of projects address new business and growth opportunities that tend to come with uncertainty and greater risk.

While big elephants are typically incremental improvement project to save cost, it’s the small elephants that are more likely to be disruptive drivers of growth and future business opportunities: the much needed life-blood of sustaining business and future prosperity.

Barriers in the Big Elephant World

IT departments tend to struggle the farther they move away from their ‘core competency’ meaning leaving the big-elephant back-office and dealing with the myriad of small needs of the customer-facing units in the small-elephant front-office.

Many reasons contribute to say “No!” to emerging small elephants:

  • Small elephants are disruptive to the big elephant world, perhaps even threatening to the establishment
  • It is hard for the back-office to accept that there cannot be much standardization around these small small elephant solutions by the very nature of their scope and scale
  • It is cumbersome to plan and manage resources scattered across small projects that pop up left and right without significantly impacting big elephant projects.  Unfortunately, pressure to save cost only fuels the focus on fewer, bigger elephants.
    Gartner brings the dilemma to the point: “[..] the focus on optimization, standardization and commoditization that underlies IT’s success in the back office is contrary and even detrimental to the needs of the front office.”
  • Insights in front-end processes and customer needs are essential (and not usual IT back-office competencies) to seize small elephant opportunities, which are often disruptive and driven by the agile intrapreneurial spirit that makes full use of the diversity of thought and understanding customers deeply.
    – See also The Rise of the Intrapreneur
  • On top of it all, the challenge for IT is to understand the potential and pay-off for initiatives that rely on IT in a domain outside of IT’s expertise:  In the mature world of big elephants, ROI projections are demanded upfront and based on models that apply to mature organizations.  These models typically do not apply well to measure project ROI in the emergent worlds of small elephants, which puts the small elephants at a disadvantage; another disconnect that easily leads big elephant organizations to reject proposed small elephants.

As a bottom-line, for large IT departments it is simple and convenient to say ‘No!’ to requests for “micro-innovations” coming in from employees scattered across the front-offices.  And, sadly, often enough this is exactly what happens. Despite the lasting impact of “No!” (see also How Intrapreneurs avoid “No!”), turning ideas and proposals down too fast also leaves out opportunity for huge innovation potentials (see also 10x vs 10% – Are you still ready for breakthrough innovation?).

What happens to IT without small elephants?

Ignoring the need for micro-innovations and not supporting them effectively will not serve IT departments well in the long-run.  With only big-elephant focus IT departments are at high risk to lose sight of the needs of their internal customers.  Consequently, IT undermines and finally loses its broader usefulness, acceptance and footing in the business functions they intend to serve.

When small elephants are neglected or blocked, it practically forces the front-office to look for other resources sooner or later in order IT-services providing resources to get their needs taken care of.  Over time, the big IT department drifts to become more and more obsolete, and finally replaced by agile and responsive agencies and contractors that deliver on their front-office customer needs.

After all, IT’s general role is one of an enabler for the core businesses rather than being perceived by its customers as a stop-gap.

How to raise Small Elephants

So, what can a mature yet forward looking IT organization do to support micro-innovations – or ‘balance the herd,’ so to speak, to include a healthy number of small elephants in the mix?

  • Brad Kenney of Ernest&Young recommends limited but dedicated resources (including time) for micro-innovations in Ernest&Young’s 2011 report “Progressions – Building Pharma 3.0”;
    for example, dedicate 10% of the expert’s time to implement micro-innovations
  • Test changes in emerging markets first, if possible, where agility is high at a lower risk of jeopardizing the bottom line or threatening the established organization and its investments in mature markets
  • Establish effective collaboration platforms that make it easy for employees to openly and conveniently share content among each other as well as with external parties.

How Intrapreneuring helps

A systematic approach to Intrapreneuring can go a long way to help move these micro-innovations forward.  It starts with systematic intrapreneurial skill-building for employees across all levels of hierarchy and includes:

  • Understanding how innovation happens in large organizations, i.e. large and small elephants and the need for both to exist
  • Helping employees become aware of and overcome their own mental barriers and silo-thinking
  • Attracting, inspiring and engaging employees to take their idea forward knowing there are obstacles in their way
  • Training skills that help to frame, develop and pitch ideas to potential supporters and sponsors
  • Building and presenting a business case for review and improvement by peers and management
  • Enabling and empowering employees to bring their small elephants to life and sharing the story of their success to inspire others
  • Working to gradually change the mindset of the organization, its culture, as needed, to become more balanced on the elephant scale, to unlock the resources within the own workforce and to seize opportunities for growth and the future of the business.

Just as out there in the wild, without raising small elephants the life-span of organizations with only big elephants is limited.

10x vs 10% – Are you still ready for breakthrough innovation?

Google co-founder and CEO, Larry Page, continues to have big expectations for his employees:  come up with products and services that are 10 times better than their competitors, hence “10x” – that’s one order of magnitude!

10X vs. 10%

Many entrepreneurs and start-up companies, they seem to ‘shoot for the moon’!  Far more than 90% of these ventures fail within just a few years.  Few, such as Google, succeeded and grew to dominate internet giants.  The question remains though if they can maintain the innovative pace of 10x when the innovation rate tends to sink closer to 10% in matured companies.

How big dreams changed the world

This challenge effects also other visionaries that changed the face of the world and transformed society in ways nobody has imagined, such as:

  • Apple building a micro-computer at times when mainframes ruled the digital world and only few could envision a demand for personal computing
"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." - Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977; just a few years before the first IBM PC was sold.
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” – Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977 – just a few years before the first IBM PC sold.
  • eBay establishing a new online sales model that millions around the globe use every day
  • Google taking over the browser market through simplicity, by giving everyone control to use the most complex machine on Earth, the Internet
  • Microsoft cultivated software licensing to sell one piece of software millions of times over effortlessly at minimal cost.

Innovation downshift

As disruptive and transformative ventures grow and mature, the definition of what is perceived ‘innovate’ changes.  Both momentum and focus shifts.  With size companies struggle to continue innovating similar to their nimble start-up origins.

What happens?  With size comes a downshift from disruptive to incremental change. Simplicity makes space for adding features.  Adding features makes products more complex and ultimately less usable and appealing to the majority of customers.

Look at Microsoft’s Offices products, for example:  Wouldn’t you wish they came out with a ‘light’ version with reduced feature complexity by let’s say 75%, so the software becomes easy to use again?

It also starts haunting Google, as their established products such as Search or Gmail need to be maintained.  Additional “improvements” aka. features creep in over time.  Perhaps you noticed yourself that recently Google search results seem to be less specific and all over the place while the experimentation-happy Gmail interface confuses with ever new features?

Even the most iconic and transformative companies experience the reduction of their innovative rate from 10X to an incremental 10% or so.

Technology S-curves

Funny thing is that -at least in technology- incremental improvement quickly becomes obsolete with the next disruptive jump.  The current technology matures up along the S-curve (see graphics) and generates revenue, but the next disruptive technology emerges.  Companies hold on as long as they can keeping revenue flowing by adding features or improvements of sorts to gain or maintain a marginal competitive advantage.  Thus, incremental improvement and process optimization found their place here to minimize cost and maximize profit in a market where the product became a commodity, so the competition is based only on price.

The new technology does not yet make significant money in the beginning at the beginning of the next S-curve.  The few early units produced are expensive, need refinement and are bought by enthusiasts and early adopters who are willing to pay a steep premium to get the product first.  Nonetheless, development reached the point of “breakthrough,” becomes appealing to many and quickly takes over the market:  the big jump onto the next S-curve gains momentum.  Suddenly, the former technology is ‘out’ and revenue streams deflate quickly.

S-curve (http://www.carteblancheleeway.wordpress.com)
S-curve (http://www.carteblancheleeway.wordpress.com)

(source: http://www.carteblancheleeway.wordpress.com)

Large and matured organizations ride on an S-curve as long as possible.  They focus top-down on optimizing operations.  Little effort is made to address the underlying limitation of the current technology and seeking out risky new successors.  Maturing companies tend to transform into a ‘machine’ that is supposed to run smoothly.  A mind shift happens to avoid risk in order to produce output predictably and reliably at a specific quality level to keep operations running and margins profitable.  Incremental process improvement becomes the new mantra and efficiency is the common interpretation of what now is considered ‘innovative’.

10X has turned into 10%.  To keep up with the ambitious 10x goal, companies would have to constantly re-invent themselves to replicate their previous disruptive successes.

How Goliath helps David

Even our recent iconic ‘giants’ find themselves in a tighter spot today:

  • Google struggles to integrate a fragmented product landscape and maintain the ambitious 10X pace of innovation
  • Microsoft suffocates loaded with features that make products bulky and increasingly unusable while consistently failing to launch new technologies in the growing mobile segment successfully
  • Apple waters down their appealing simple user interface by adding features and clinging to defend their proprietary standards from outside innovations.

On top of it, all giants tend to face the stiffening wind of governmental scrutiny and regulation that influences market dynamics to protect the consumers from overpowering monopolies that jeopardize competition and innovation.

This is a fertile ground for the next wave of innovators, small Davids, to conquer markets from the Goliaths with fresh ideas, agility, and appealing simplicity.  Where does your organization stand on the S-curve, riding the current curve with 10% or aiming high at the next with 10x?

Observing the down-shift

What can you observe when the down-shift happens?  How do you know you are not on the transformative boat anymore?  Here are just some examples:

  • Small Jobs – job descriptions appear that narrow down the field of each employee’s responsibility while limiting the scope by incentivizing employees to succeed within the given frame.
  • Safe Recruiting – practices shift to playing it safe by hiring specialists from a well-known school with a streamlined career path to fit the narrowly defined mold of the job description.  They newbies are expected to replicate what they achieved elsewhere.  To risk is taken to getting the ‘odd man out’ for the job, a person who took a more adventurous path in life and thinks completely different, as this may disrupt the process and jeopardize the routine output by shifting the focus away from operations.
  • Homogenized workforce – as a consequence of hiring ‘safely’, the workforce homogenized thereby lowering the innovative potential that comes with the diversity of thought and experience.
  • Visionaries leave – with the scope of business shifting, the visionary employees that drove innovation previously lose motivation when innovation and creativity slows.  Now they are held to operate in a business space where they do pretty much the same thing as their competition.  Naturally, these go-getters move on, as it is easy for them to find a challenging and more exciting new job in a more dynamic place. – This ‘leaky talent pipeline’ gets only worse and costly when the talent management focus shifts to talent acquisition and leaving talent retention behind.
  • Complexity creeps in – the temptation to constantly add features increases the complexity and starts a spiral that is hard to leave again (see also ‘Complexity’ is the 2015 challenge! – Are leaders prepared for ‘glocal’?)
  • Procedures for everything – operating procedures regulate every detail of the job.  The new ‘red tape’ is not limited to the necessary minimum but rather by the possible maximum.
  • Short-term focus – work output becomes mediocre and focuses on short-term goals and sales targets; the next quarter’s numbers or annual results take priority over following the big dream.
  • Sanitized communications – broader communications within the company become ‘managed’, monitored, ‘sanitized.’  A constant stream of (incremental) success stories pushes aside an open discussion to target the bigger problems.  Opportunities are missed for open dialogue and creative disruption that fuels the quantum leaps forward to outpace the competition.  Peer to peer communication is monitored to remain ‘appropriate’ and can even be actively censored.  Trust in management and subsequently also among employees erodes.

Management fear of being the first

The real problem is the shift of mindset in top management that quickly works its way down:  not wanting to take the risk of being first, which includes avoiding the risk to fail while chasing to next big opportunity or technology.  Instead, they sail the calmer waters among more predictable competition fighting for small advantages and holding on to the status quo opportunistically as long as they can.  In some cases, the management even acknowledges the strategy shift from ‘leader’ to ‘fast follower’ despite whatever the company motto proudly promotes – and thereby accepting 10% and avoiding to leap ahead of their competition by bold and game-changing 10x moves.

Interestingly, these same managers still love to look over the fence to awe the iconic leaders but steer away to take charge and work to become the leader again themselves.  The nagging question remains if they could actually pull it off getting into first place.

Outside-of-the-box thinking may still be encouraged in their organization but is not acted upon anymore. Internal creativity or ideation contests become more of an exercise to keep employees entertained and feeling engaged, but the ideas are hardly being funded and executed.  Instead, company resources are concentrated to run the incremental machine predictably and reliably at 10% as long as its profitable, no matter what.  – They simply have no resources to spare and dedicate to 10x!

Business Darwinism

These businesses undergo a cycle of breaking through by successful disruption in a narrow or completely new segment, then continued growth to a size where the organization slows down to an incremental pace and somewhat stagnating innovation.  It may then get driven out of business by the next disruptor or pro-actively break up into more competitive fragments that allow for agility and risk-taking once again to become leaders in their more closely defined space of business.  This closes the cycle they are to go through next.  There is a strong parallel between evolution and Charles Darwin’s survival of the fittest.

Keeping this cycle in mind, it becomes easier to see why management undergoes the mind shift to predictable and incremental improvement during the massive growth phase of the company in the center of the S-curve.  It is also the time when the disruptive innovators have jumped ship to join the next generation of cutting-edge innovators and risk-taking disrupters that prepare to take the leap working on the next S-curve.

Which way to turn?

The question is where you want to be:  the true risk-taker or the incremental improver?  Understanding the trajectory and current location of your company helps to make the right decision for you.  It can save you from frustration and be banging your head against corporate walls and be wasting your energy in a dinosaur organization that is just not ready anymore for your ‘big ideas’ and quick moves outside its production-house comfort zone.

This leaves some of us thinking which way to turn.  If you are looking for predictability, longer-term employment (an illusion these days one way or another) and good night sleep, this is the place you will feel comfortable in.

Otherwise, dare to follow the risk-taking visionaries like Elon Musk (the brain behind PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors; see his recent great interview) to move on.

And then there is ‘intrapreneuring’ as a third direction that tries to change the company from within. (See ‘The Rise of the Intrapreneur‘)

To say it with the words of Niccolo Machiavelli, the wise and sober realist: “All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.”

Shoot for the moon (or Mars, if you are Elon Musk), change the world no matter what and enjoy what you do!

Why virtual teams fail, and how to make them work (part 1)

Turning back?

In times where many companies push their employees to work from home and employees request this new freedom, YAHOO’s announcement surprised putting away with it all and returning to the old 9-to-5 office hours.  (WSJ, March 5, 2013)

Senior leaders like YAHOO’s new CEO, Marissa Meyer, have doubts if remote working models work – or they struggle how to make it work effectively.

Executive paragigm: Cutting cost vs. increasing productivity

When organizations move to remote work models such as “working-from-home” or variations of it, their primary objective is either

  • Saving fix cost by reducing their office space footprint or
  • Increasing the productivity of their workforce.

They cannot have both because once hard decisions have to be made, the other side falls short – and hard decision will have to be made on the way.

If the chosen approach is to increase productivity, the implementation focuses on how to enable employees to become significantly more productive in a sustainable way, even if it incurs cost lower than the productivity gains.

Open spaces for collaboration

Sadly, however, cost cutting tends to rank top on the list for large and mature organizations, which can ultimately sacrifice productivity. Reducing office space “footprint” aims to cut cost from entertaining the real-estate and work environment including everything from utilities, to furniture, to site security, to property taxes, etc.

In practice, individual (‘closed’) offices are replaced by open office environments with the goal to have more employees working in less, shared space.  Setting up colorful open office environments with cubicle clusters or zones for different work purposes is often sold as boosters for creativity and innovation, which somewhat obscures the true motives.

These office setups typically mimic the environment and agility of entrepreneurial start-up companies.  They suggest increased collaboration by enabling those spontaneous and valuable ‘water cooler’ talks that randomly bring together a diverse mix of employees to exchange their ideas and collaborate on a spur, which then leads to new products and creative solutions.  Some offices spaces even seem inspired by “Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory” (with less edible elements): nice to look at and tempting to get close but caution is advised before taking big bites…

Why not to focus on cutting cost

While architecture and interior design can very well affect creativity and collaboration, there are many reasons why this approach tends to fall short:

  • The goal of cost-cutting is to have more people sharing less space, so the open office environment works best when not all employees work there at the same time, which becomes the end-game of cutting cost.  The approach consequently requires some employees to work remotely, typically from home as ‘tele-commuters’, which effectively leads to creating virtual teams.
    Thus, not all employees are physically present at the same time to start off with, which defeats the idea of spontaneous meetings around the water-cooler or pulling teams together spontaneously as needed.
  • Size does matter:  start-ups take their energy and agility from everyone collaborating in the same space at the same time, which is the opposite scenario of large companies trying to reduce this footprint and, subsequently, ending up moving towards remote working models.
    The start-up model does not scale for large, mature companies.  This is one of the reasons why large companies often break the monolithic organization at some point to form more agile hence competitive entities.  A lesson learned perhaps from Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.”
  • Since cost cutting has priority, typically, the workforce was trimmed down, so the remaining staff carries more work on less shoulders.  Not only does this leave less time for the remaining office staff to hang out next to the water-cooler for a random chat, but there is less staff to meet and hang out with in the first place.
    Little to no attention is given on how to make the remaining workforce more productive to manage the increased workload and invest accordingly, as here these ‘hard decisions’ come in and cost cutting is given priority.

Now, this does not mean there are no more water-cooler talks – they do happen and can be extremely valuable.  But they happen less frequent and with a smaller pool of people you could possible bump into randomly.  Since this “water-cooler innovation” model does not scale under the cost-saving paradigm, it effectively reduces the innovation potential resulting from random meetings overall.

What does your workplace look like, does this sound familiar at all?

Paying the price for cutting cost: Virtual Teams

Under a cost-cutting paradigm, the need for working remotely leads to the formation of more virtual teams throughout the organization.  We already find 66% of virtual teams in Global 500 Enterprises include members from at least three time zones and 48% including external business partners (Harvard Business Review study of Project Management Best Practices in Global 500 Enterprises).

When ‘cost-cutting’ has priority, the performance of virtual teams still comes second.  Faced with the increasing need to enable communication for a distributed workforce, for ‘cost-cutting’ organizations here comes the next challenge:  how to facilitate collaboration and information flow on a budget?
This is one of the hardest decisions management is confronted with.

With tight budgets in mind, the focus turns to ‘enabling technology’ and often leads to implementing a better phone or teleconferencing system.  However, cost-saving and -consequently- company-wide standards lead to compromises and mediocre features due to (what else could it be?) cost saving considerations.

What is the cost of ‘rich’ communication?

Face-to-face communication remains the ‘gold standard’ (more about the why follows in part 2 of this blog post.)
Typically, information-rich channels such as latest ‘tele-presence’ systems are disregarded for their ‘expensive’ price tag.  They allow communicating in the broadest possible (virtual) way peer-to-peer. 

If they are purchased at all, they often remain restricted for privileged use by executives; so there is an implied business case for rich communication channels.  

Unfortunately, these are far less frequently shared with their staff lower in the organizational hierarchy.  Regular employees and middle management are often enough left alone with more limiting conferencing systems and other technology to figure out how to make ‘virtual teams’ work.

Interestingly, I have never heard serious consideration given to quantify the opportunity cost, i.e. what the costs are of not implementing a tele-communication system that gets as close to face-to-face conversations as possible.  It would be interesting to find out if the actual cost to buy a more expensive system is offset by the gains for its users and businesses across the organization, don’t you think?

Though this would be coming from the less popular approach to increase productivity…

Composing effective teams

Also the mix of the team members should be considered and lots more can be said about this aspect alone, so let’s just pick a few that that tend to be less on people’s minds:

For example, generational differences translate into different work styles and preferences than can strengthen or weaken a team.  As an example: “Generation Y for managers – better than their reputation?

Another soft factor that remains stubbornly neglected is the team composition of introverts and extroverts complementing each other for better results.  Extroverts seem favored by hiring managers over introverts, but extroverts don’t necessarily make good team mates as recent UCLA studies show:

Introverts are often perceived anxious or neurotic, which feeds into the stigma of volatility and negativity that can drag on the team, when in fact they tend to work very hard so not to let their team mates down.

In contrast, extroverts appear to be the better team players yet in their core personality its all about being in the center of attention.  Extroverts are good at building relationships and getting themselves noticed; this self-presentation may leave a good first impression but the self-centric core proves rather disruptive in collaborative situations, so the researchers concluded.

Also little attention is given to whom needs to work together and should be closer connected or even collocated; this approach of looking at network and workflow is usually sacrificed by enforcing cost control top-down.  Established departmental silos and cost centers effectively become barriers for collaboration rather than by following the internal workflow and connections throughout the lower levels of the hierarchical pyramid that often remain hidden from the executive view down from the pyramid’s tip.

Why to Invest in communication and collaboration

A study on communications ROI by Towers Watson finds a 47% higher total returns to shareholders by companies that are highly effective communicators. (Capitalizing on Effective Communications, ROI Study, 2010)

Even more reason to focus on enabling collaboration and productivity – and to invest into enabling communication and relating technology accordingly.

Let’s leave the misery of why virtual teams fail here – check back soon for part 2 on How to make virtual teams work!

Top 10 posts for Employee Resource Groups (ERG) / Business Resource Groups (BRG)

Here are my Top 10 posts for Employee Resource Groups (ERG) / Business Resource Groups (BRG):

1.  Why do companies need business-focused ERGs?

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

2.  Build ERGs as an innovative business resource!

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.

3.  How to start building a business-focused ERG?

Let’s start with what it takes to found a successful ERG on a high level and then drill down to real-life examples and practical advice.  What you cannot go without is a strategy that creates a business need before you drum up people, which creates a buzz!

4.  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.

5.  How to create innovation culture with diversity!

Strategic innovation hands-on: Who hasn’t heard of successful organizations that pride their innovation culture?  But the real question is what successful innovators do differently to sharpen their innovative edge over and over again – and how your organization can get there!

6.  “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM)

What every new employee resource group (ERG) requires most are people: the life-blood for ideas and activities!  But how do you reach out to employees, help them understand the value of the ERG and get them involved to engage actively?

7.  Next-generation ERG learn from U.S. Army recruitment!

What do Generation Y (GenY) oriented Employee Resource Groups (ERG) share with the military?  – More than you expect!  A constant supply of active members is the life-blood for any ERG to put plans to action and prevent established activists from burning out.  The U.S. Army faces a similar challenge every year: how to attract and recruit the youngest adult generation?  Next-generation ERGs listen up:  Let the U.S. Army work for you and learn some practical lessons!

8.  Q&A – Case study for founding a business-focused ERG

If you are planning to found an ERG or are a new ERG Leaders, you might find the attached Q&A helpful.

9.  How to attract an executive sponsor?

10.  Generation Y for managers – better than their reputation?

It’s a long list to describe Generation Y with a commonly unfavorable preconception. This  youngest generation at the workworkplacern after 1980, also called Millennial) is said to be: lazy, impatient, needy, entitled, taking up too much of my time, expecting work to be fun, seeking instant gratifications, hop from company to company, want promotions right away, give their opinion all the time and so on. But is it really that easy to characterize a new generation?Don’t miss my Top 10 Innovation posts and Top 10 posts for Intrapreneurs!

The OrgChanger tag cloud

How intrapreneurs find executive sponsors

Finding a sponsor can be frustrating!

Have you ever had a great idea and went to your manager for support but found they were just not interested in it?  Did nothing come out of it in the end, and you were disappointed?  Perhaps, you just turned to the wrong sponsor for your project, a common mistake of intrapreneurs. Here are some thoughts on whom to turn for with ideas to make them happen within an organization.

Looking for a sponsor?
Looking for a sponsor?

Intrapreneurs are ‘executive champions’ that connect people with specific ideas (‘technical champions’) to ‘business champions’ who can provide the resources to make this idea happen; typically an executive sponsor providing funding and political support.  More on intrapreneurship at The Rise of the Intrapreneur and the intrapreneurial role of the executive champion at How to become the strategic innovation leader? (part 2 of 3).

Managers and leaders innovate differently

Let’s look at the ‘business champion’ or executive sponsor.  It is crucial to understand the motivation of executive sponsors for a simple reason: only if your idea or proposition fits their agenda are they be willing to listen to you and getting actively involved.   Consider that they take on risk too in supporting as poor results also reflect on them.  You need to know whom to turn to for what kind of idea to find adequate support.

For an intrapreneur, it is critical to understand the nature of the executive position.  More specifically if you approach a manager or leader to find support for an innovative idea.

Managers and leaders look at innovation differently, hence both groups innovate very differently and for different reasons.  It translates directly into their understanding of what ‘innovation’ is, its risks and rewards, and consequently their willingness to listen to you.  Turing to the wrong executive easily gets your idea rejected and you may not even know why.

Let’s take a look how the views of managers and leaders differ and how this molds their understanding of innovation and what kind of change.  On a side note organizations need both, managers and leaders.  Each role serves a different yet necessary purpose in the organization; see “Leadership vs. Management? What is wrong with middle management?

Managers focus on predictability

Managers are charged with running the daily business smoothly.  They manage a well-oiled ‘machine’ of people, tools and processes to deliver a certain output, a product or service, reliably and at a fixed cost ceiling.

The paramount goal for managers is business continuity – it is the daily bread and butter of the organization and what pays your employee salary today.  Running a fast-food restaurant is a good example, the expectation here is predictability: to deliver food to the customer at a specific quality level with as little variability as possible at a defined cost and within a certain time.  A competent manager delivers this predictability reliably over and over again.

With operational targets clearly defined, the appetite for improvements focuses on speeding up the process or cut cost here and there without compromising quality.  Favorable changes to the status quo are small, gradual tweaks.  This is the world of optimization and continuous improvement.

Little risk, little gain

Managers need to keep the risk small to fail or to jeopardize the production process with its predictable output.  The low risk of disruption comes at a price though as it limits also returns.

Here innovations are primarily of non-disruptive nature, they are incremental or evolutionary.  This approach is process driven.  It lends itself to automation as it aims to make the process repeatable, reliable, predictable.  No senior executive needs to be closely involved in operations to keep this ‘machine’ running; it comes down to the floor manager executing.

This is also the environment of a conventional development project, the ‘next version’ of something and ‘getting it right the first time.’

With an incremental change in focus, managers tend to look for ideas in their own organization, think ‘suggestion box’.  It means following a clearly defined and detailed process with development stage-gates or other review mechanisms that filter ideas typically the criteria of cost, time, quality and, more recently, variations thereof such as customer satisfaction and being ‘green’ and sustainable.

Managers are interested in learning about ‘best practices’ from outside the organization but are often enough reluctant to adopt and implement them if they appear to be risky and disruptive.

Leading in uncertainty

Leaders face a different challenge. They ask: what needs to be done to prepare the organization for success several years down the road with much uncertainty ahead? – Well knowing that the answer may disrupt the established organization.

It is this uncertainty that opens up the so-called ‘fuzzy front-end’ (FFE) to develop entirely new products or services: It is too early to know exact specifications of a solution at this time, the future markets and technologies are yet unknown.  Leaders focus is on getting a deep understanding of the problems that customers face to develop the technology and capability to address and monetize them.

Disruptive transformation

What we talk about here is, for example, a completely new product line, a major (adjacent) product line extension or a new (transformative) business model entirely.  Think how Apple’s iTunes Store started selling digital media and apps has changed the way we use technology and whose devices we use (hint, hint) – this gamble worked out for Apple and was based on a deep understanding what customers are willing to pay for.

With nebulous solutions in far sight, a tightly governed development process with stage-gates makes little sense because this development model is designed for incremental change and tuned for refinement.  It stifles the creative and broad view necessary to create something completely new in an unpredictable and yet undefined scenario of the FFE where much imagination, creativity, and flexibility is needed.

Creative with discipline

However, flexibility and creativity do not thrive only in the absence of discipline or some sense of order.  The early-stage research or design process does not need to be chaotic – it’s quite the opposite.  A company like IDEO, for example, operates successfully in this space and is famous for their disciplined process and methodology in producing creative and tangible prototypes over and over again.

Note, we are not talking about final products ready to go on the self in your neighborhood store tomorrow.  Check out this case study on how IDEO works in more detail: What does it take to keep innovating? (part 1 of 3)

This transitional step narrows down the broad funnel of uncertainty to develop a range of concepts towards increasingly detailed specifications of the final product.  The development of the final product itself is better left to the established development organization – back to the managers to cross the t’s and dot the i’s, if you will.

Active sponsorship needed

With disruption and revolutionary change comes high risk.  The outcome is unpredictable and the reward uncertain, failure is likely.  Yet, if the gamble works out the rewards can be enormous and the key players ‘rainmaker’.

When exploring which direction to go, the serial intrapreneur’s approach is trying many things.  Expect to fail most of the time.  See what ‘sticks’ and explore this option more.

Rather than rigid procedural guardrails, intrapreneurs need to secure top executive sponsorship for their continued active support, political weight and funding.  Thus, for a unique and exploratory venture what you look for is a leader, not a manager.  There is no staged process to follow really, only success determines what was right or wrong.

Maxwell Wessel’s blog for HBR on “How to Innovate with an Executive Sponsor” has some good practical tips for especially if your project takes the company down the disruptive, transformative route.

What kind of sponsor to you need?

Distinguishing the professional motives of managers and leaders comes down to the question of ‘Innovation Strategy: Do you innovate or renovate?

In general, leaders act more as strategic innovators and game-changers assuming the role of a Sponsor or an Architect while managers take more renovation-associate roles such as a Coach or an Orchestrator.  Follow the above link for a more detailed description of these roles and when to chose which role.

Which direction to take?
Which direction to take?

What is my idea again?

Start by taking a hard look at your idea first to find out which category it falls into.  Then decide what kind of sponsor, a manager or a leader, is best suited to approach and is, therefore, most likely to listen and catch interest.

Even better if you can already identify the role associated with the nature of your project (Coach, Orchestrator, etc.) which helps you framing and pitching the idea or a specific project to the appropriate executive sponsor in your organization.

Boost ‘Group Intelligence’ for better decisions!

How to increase group intelligence for better decision-making – or why not to rely on a group of geniuses!  New research breaks the ground to understand collaborative intelligence – but how to apply it to the workplace?

Better alone than in a team?

Think about this:  What teams make the best decisions?
We all experienced it at some point:  Even a group of the best and brightest people often ends up with poor decisions that do not do its individual member’s intelligence justice.

What goes wrong?  How does a group of smart individuals, even geniuses, end up with poor decisions when they stick their heads together?  What are they missing?  Moreover, how can we avoid those obstacles to come to better decisions as a group?

Measuring intelligence

Intelligence of individuals has been well studied for over a 100 years:  A solid framework exists to measure the intelligence quotient (IQ).  Individuals undergo a series of mental challenges under the premise that someone performing well in one task tends to perform well in most others too.  Overall, the IQ is regarded as “a reliable predictor of a wide range of important life outcomes over a long span of time, including grades in school, success in many occupations, and even life expectancy,” as researchers put it.

Modern IQ tests consider an IQ close to 100 as average.

IQ distribution
IQ distribution

Does ‘Group Intelligence’ exist?

When we look at what it takes to make more intelligent decisions as a group than as individuals, the first question this raises is whether something like a measurable ‘group intelligence’ actually exists.  If so, is it measurable and –perhaps‑ higher than the intelligence of its members?

Only recently, scientists took a deeper look at the intelligence of groups and made surprising findings.  The joint team included MIT’s Tom Malone, whom we met previous in a post (“Collective Intelligence: The Genomics of Crowds”) as well as others from well-known academic institutions comprising the MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Union College.

The researchers approached group intelligence following a similar systematic approach as the intelligence metrics for individuals.  However, they linked group intelligence to performance as an endpoint, which makes their finding even more valuable for the workplace!

Group Intelligence - more than a myth!
Group Intelligence is real!

Outsmarting genius as a group

First, the researchers established that group intelligence in performance indeed exists and is measurable.  They also found that the group’s intelligence does not add up to the sum of the intelligence of its individual members.  In fact, the collective intelligence, or ‘c-factor’, shows only a weak correlation “with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members” – this is remarkable finding!  It means is that you cannot boost a group’s intelligence by composing or spiking the group with genius-level individuals!

Obviously, factors apply other than high individual IQ to increase the intelligence of the group.

The results from two studies consistently and overwhelmingly demonstrate that group intelligence outsmart individual intelligence – by far!

Group Intelligence-study results (original graphics)
Group Intelligence – study results

Here are more details on the science for those how want to dig deeper: Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups.

Limited by a high IQ?

Individual intelligence only has a practical value to a certain point.  There is an important difference between what an IQ test measures as general intelligence and what Robert J. Sternberg calls ‘practical intelligence’ in his book Successful Intelligence: How Practical and Creative Intelligence Determine Success in Life.  The presence of one does not automatically imply the presence of the other.

What it comes down to is that a high general intelligence is merely a measurable value in the lab but it does not also translate into a more successful life!  An individual IQ above 135 or so can lead to quite the opposite (for reference, ‘genius’ starts at 140 on Terman’s classification).  The higher IQ becomes rather a hindrance than an advantage in real life: a very high IQ tends to clutter and confuse a genius’ mind with more irrelevant options, which make it harder for them to see the most applicable one and come to a decision.

In contrast, practical intelligence relates more to social savvy or ‘street smarts’ – a cunning and practical understanding that proves advantageous in the real world more than a high general IQ!

Here is the magic sauce!

Surprisingly, the strongest correlation of group intelligence is with three factors:

  1. The average social sensitivity of the group members, i.e. “reading the mind in the eyes” of another person.  There is something to be said for bringing together emotionally intelligent people.
  2. Equality in the distribution of conversational turn-taking meaning an equal share of time to speak.  Our society and businesses seem to favor smooth-talkers and attracted to extrovert and outspoken individuals that seem to signal competence, decisiveness, and determination.
    Group intelligence, however, does not increase when there is a strong vocal leader, who dominates the discussion to push everyone in his or her direction.  Be careful not to leave out the brilliance of individuals who may get steamrolled by the loud and dominating: introverts, in particular, are at a disadvantage.  They are easily stuck in an extrovert world.
    Given that the introvert/extrovert ratio in the USA is roughly 50/50 (according to the 1998 National Representative Sample), failing to include introverts effectively is a costly mistake, as it excludes their knowledge and valuable input to the decision making process ‑ and lowers the collective intelligence of the group.  Introverts, for example, favor structured communication that plays to their strengths by allowing them to research and prepare; they need more time to express their refined response.
  3. The proportion of females in the group composition; the more women the better.  This appears to account largely to a higher social sensibility that women have over their male group members in general.  However, all three factors have to come together, so building female-only teams does not do the charm either.

Woman raise group intelligence

In a nutshell

When we bring it all together, what surprises me most is how little of this solid research has penetrated the workplace.  Where employees and management teams make decisions, the survival of organizations is at stake and relies on leveraging the collective intelligence of the group effectively.

A myriad of practical applications for these findings come to mind.  Here are just two examples:

  • Women still struggle to achieve gender equality in many organizations ‑ the amount of women in management positions is a widely used metrics that refers to the female proportion of the workforce.  The common approach is to achieve this by ‘swinging the stick’ to establish and enforce quotas and leave it at that – Mission accomplished?!
    Wouldn’t it be more compelling to offer the ‘sweet carrot’ of increasing group intelligence in leadership teams for better business results that includes leveraging the natural advantage of females?

Again, the female quota alone does not boost the group intelligence.  We also need social sensitivity and equal shares of talking time.  Thus, a flanking business application would go beyond how we compose teams based on gender.  It considers social sensitivity measures and some structure to how we conduct group discussions or meetings to maximize the collective intelligence by including and engaging all participants. A challenge also for how we recruit, train, and evaluate our workforce.

Food for thought.

The Rise of the Intrapreneur

The Rise of the Intrapreneur
How to become an ‘Intrapreneur’?  Why are Intrapreneurs needed?  What is the difference to Entrepreneurship?  – The future of innovation within large organizations lies within, if you know how to tap into it with intrapreneurship!

What is Intrapreneurship?

Did you know that ‘Intrapreneur’ and ‘Intrapreneurship’ are not new terms but were coined nearly 35 years ago by Elizabeth and Gifford Pinchot in 1978?

As a definition for our purposes, an intrapreneur takes responsibility in large organizations for turning an idea into a profitable finished product through assertive risk-taking and innovation.  In contrast to an entrepreneur, the Intrapreneur operates within an existing organization with an internal focus.  Intrapreneurship requires an organization of considerable size for an intrapreneurial role to become applicable in the first place.

What is the difference to Entrepreneurship?

‘Intrapreneur’ is not as well known as the more established term ‘Entrepreneur’ which it derives from.  It even takes a deliberate effort to pronounce the word Intrapreneur so doesn’t sound like and get confused with Entrepreneur.

The word ‘Entrepreneur’ has been around since the 19th century with its functional roots reaching even farther back into the 16th century.  According to the original definition, an Entrepreneur is “one who undertakes an enterprise […] acting as intermediatory between capital and labour” or in other words, to “shift economic resources out of lower and into higher productivity and greater yield.”  (source: Wikipedia)

The role of an Entrepreneur is not so different from the Intrapreneur but many differences exist relating to the environment they operate in and the approach they take.  An Entrepreneur founds a new venture, a business, or company, as an independent economic entity.  This new entity then typically competes for profit in a market with other companies.  Today, Entrepreneurship has fanned out to include specializations such as lifestyle, serial, or social Entrepreneurship that also expanded in markets (in lieu of a better word) previously dominated by non-for-profit, clerical or government institutions.

As a bottom-line, Entrepreneurship roots in competition between companies or organizations by introducing and building a new entity that grows as a company to stand alone in an economic marketplace – while the Intrapreneur connects “capital and labour” using somewhat entrepreneurial methods within an existing organization.  You can even see Intrapreneurship as a downstream evolution for a successful and matured entrepreneurial venture.

Why do we need Intrapreneurs?

With increasing size, an organization slows.  Inertia and paralysis set in to replace agility and effectiveness.  This is often caused by the organization’s own success: The focus shifts towards delivering with increasing efficiency (cost, time) and consistency (quality).  You can easily observe the results in many organizations – it looks somewhat like this:

  • Business functions specialize and sub-optimization to become more efficient and productive; they thereby form ‘silos’ with communication and interactions thinning between them to the detriment of the organization as a whole.
  • Hierarchical structures become steeper to manage more employees; they effectively disconnect the executives on the top from the workers at the bottom of the hierarchy.
  • Promising innovation ideas from the grassroots don’t get through to the executive level for backing or funding to be developed and implemented; the ideas starve and innovation suffers overall.
  • More rules and procedures regulate the growing workforce and detailed aspects of work processes; governance, red tape, and bureaucracy pour over the organization like concrete and become obstacles to change.
  • Career paths become linear, job profiles and responsibilities narrow, entailing an equally narrow view and mindset of the staff that eats away motivation and creativity over time.
  • Talented and creative employees are the first to leave or become hard to retain, as they are always in demand and easily find interesting work elsewhere.
  • Innovation suffers while competitive pressure increases when nimble competitors and start-ups outpace the organization.
  • Management used to command-and-control eagerly seeks fresh talent and ideas externally, i.e. ‘hiring the best and brightest’, to reanimate the organization – yet the leaky pipeline continues bleeding talent, as also the new ‘super stars’ find themselves trapped and escape to new adventures elsewhere.

It takes a jolt to overcome this inertia, revive it, and get an organization moving nimble again ‑ this is the hour of the Intrapreneur!

Time for Action - Clock
Time for Action – Clock

How to become an Intrapreneur?

It takes a new role in the organization to jump-start it, so we “Innovate to Implement“.  Sometimes, a new CEO is hired to turn the corporate ship around from the top; sometimes it works.  The Intrapreneur, however, also considers working bottom-up by pulling the loose ends together and connecting people again across all functions and levels of hierarchy.  The Intrapreneur bridges the various gaps within the organization vertically and horizontally.

It takes a different approach to include, and engage all employees in ways outside their immediate job description that makes best use of all dimensions each individual brings to the (work) table.  The Intrapreneur inspires and spreads a new sense of enablement throughout the workforce.

The Intrapreneur looks differently at how we conduct our business and unlocks innovative value chains, new business models, or propositions.  It takes a strategic lead to become a facilitator for the organization, to adapt continuously and make best use of the changing environment.  The Intrapreneur builds networks and alliances to help actively moving the organization towards its business goals.

The Intrapreneur is a much-in-need and critical role within the matured organization.  It can come in different flavors too!  Being the ‘Executive Champion’, for example, is an intrapreneurial role (see “How to become the strategic innovation leader? (part 2 of 3).”

As an Intrapreneur it is important to be aware what hat to wear and when.  Sometimes an ‘architect’ is needed and an ‘orchestrator’ at other times, for example.  ‑ For more details see: “Innovation Strategy: Do you innovate or renovate?

Risks becoming an Intrapreneur

Now, as a word of warning, being an Intrapreneur is not always easy:  You tent to step on many people’s toes if you want to make a difference.  It can be so risky, that Gifford Pinchot even formulated The Intrapreneur’s Ten Commandments starting with: “Come to work each day willing to be fired.”

So brace yourself because there are many obstacles to innovation and change out there that the Intrapreneur will face.  Intrapreneurship is most and foremost a leadership role, which has a natural tendency to conflict with managers (see “Leadership vs Management?  What is wrong with middle management?”).

Prepare to hit the obstacles to an innovation environment that Irving Wladawsky-Berger in Business Week calls “indifference, hostility, and isolation” – I couldn’t agree more!

The bottom-line

It is not always easy to become an Intrapreneur.  It takes skill and persistence as well as courageous leadership and risk taking.  Truly making a difference and reviving an organization though is rewarding in itself – at least you will learn a lot and make new friends.  ‑ Most of all make sure you have fun!

Job description for an Executive Sponsor

Job description for an Executive Sponsor
Executive sponsorship is an important prerequisite for the success of employee groups.  The challenge is finding a great sponsor, so what should you look for?  What would a job description for an executive sponsor look like?  ‑ Here are some practical ideas that have worked.

Why executive sponsorship is critical

Employee groups consist of volunteers with good intentions.  They work, typically, in addition to their day job and after hours driven by the desire to address a need close to their heart.  Together with colleagues, they seize opportunities to complement the organization’s objectives and goals and to improve the workplace.  In most cases, employee groups are not an integral part of the organization: they don’t show up in organizational charts and have no formal authority.

For most group members, this voluntary work is ‘on top’ of the regular job and not reflected in their professional goals or performance evaluation.  What makes a difference is having a strong ally: the executive sponsor.

From the organization’s perspective, some governance is needed to:

  • Prevent the employee group left to operate in a void or detach from the rest of the organization
  • Align the goals of the group with the needs and strategy of the company in a complementing and synergistic way
  • Ensure the group’s practices comply with company policies and other regulations.

The leaders of employee groups owe their members to:

  • Focus the group’s work to make a meaningful impact on the organization (instead of wasting resources and the member’s time on projects or activities that do not create value, are meaningless or even harmful to the organization)
  • Get funds, active support, and political backing in the organization.

Both, the organization and the employee group benefits from the connection with an executive sponsor.

 

What to look for in an executive sponsor?
What to look for in an executive sponsor?

No silver bullet

When you are looking for an executive sponsor, what are you looking for?  What are the relevant criteria?  – Executive sponsorship is a role, just like any other job, so what would a job description for an executive sponsor look like?

Bear in mind that there is no one right answer for the working relationship with an executive sponsor.  The sponsor role and level of involvement varies and depends on many factors.  It also shifts over time with the changing maturity of the group and its leadership, for example, or levels of involvement and autonomy of the group.  A new group may turn to the sponsor for help with forming, direction, and funding where a mature group may seek business insights, refined success metrics, and leadership development opportunities.

 Criteria for an Executive Sponsor

A perfect sponsor effectively leverages their personal brand, relationships, resources to enhance the visibility and credibility of the group.  Look to ‘recruit’ a well-known leader, who is well-connected within the leadership team and respected throughout the organization.  In an earlier post, we briefly touched on “How to attract an executive sponsor?

Ideally, the sponsor is a top-level executive ‑ you hit the jackpot if you can get the CEO!

Overall, the group’s expectations of the sponsor’s role usually include that the sponsor:

  • Serves as a champion of the group
  • Gives strategic direction to align with the organization’s business strategy
  • Helps to identify measurable success criteria that support business goals
  • Provides advice and counsel to guide the group’s development
  • Connects to a broad network of relationships
  • Liaises with the executive team and accepts accountability
  • Helps actively to identify and overcome obstacles and resistance within the organization
  • Supports the group through communication and visibility.

The stronger your sponsor, the stronger the group!  A strong sponsor

  • Shares valuable business knowledge
  • Demonstrates leadership, and is
  • Genuinely willing to help others.

A good sponsor encourages people to focus on how to engage others and improve communication, enhances the members’ leadership qualities and developing partnerships while helping to overcome barriers.

The sponsor you do NOT want

On the other end of the spectrum, there are also people you should avoid as executive sponsors for the group.  This category includes people who:

  • Provide lip-service over taking action
  • Use the group for selfish reasons; for example, by claiming and promoting achievements of group members as their own
  • Do not see the potential and value that the group can add to the organization and its businesses
  • Do not make enough time to work with the group
  • Are ineffective or unwilling to support and protect the group from opposing forces.

Finally, if you have the choice, avoid the temptation to have a group of executives ‘share’ responsibility and ‘champion’ the group collectively.  This tends to dilute accountability and action while increasing communication and coordination overhead.

There is much truth in the saying:  ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth.’

Too many cooks spoil the broth.
‘Too many cooks spoil the broth.’

One of us?

Often enough, sponsors are chosen or step up because they originate from the group’s affinity core, i.e. they are of the same ethnicity that ethic-focused group represents, a female for a women’s group, a gay or lesbian for an LGBT group, and so on ‑ you get the picture.  I advocate against this practice for two reasons, in particular:  First, with an ‘outsider’ you achieve more diversity and mutual learning experiences in the group as well as for the sponsor.  Secondly, the group becomes more believable as a business driver that attracts a broader membership base instead of risking to be perceived as an ‘insider club’ limited to members with a certain ‘diversity ticket’.

For the same reasons, you may also consider rotating sponsors every few years.

Quid pro quo

What you want is an involved and effective executive sponsor.  Now, this sponsor role comes with additional work, responsibility, and risks for the senior leader’s reputation and career.  Therefore, this ‘job opening’ must be compelling enough to attract a senior executive to step forward and sign up.

It is important to offer a value proposition that makes clear what is in it for the executive sponsor to make this symbiosis work.  It is quite similar as discussed in “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM) for the group members.

Know your sponsor

Sponsors are humans too, so here are some thoughts on how to approach them:  Get to know your sponsor first, just as you would prepare and approach to meet any other very important customer or external business partner.  Find out their goals, interests, beliefs, priorities, constraints of the political and economic environment, and personal work-style.  What exactly is the sponsor’s interest in your group?

Clarify your expectations mutually.  Once you know your sponsor and built rapport, it becomes easy to offer what is important to them and helping the sponsor to achieve their goals too.

A value proposition that addresses the (financial) bottom line is powerful and convincing.  It also enables the sponsor to communicate the benefits with the leadership team in a (business) language that everyone understands.  It takes business acumen, though, to specify and articulate the financial impact.  If this is not your strong suit, you need to find other compelling upsides or values that the group can bring to the business and that is close to a sponsor’s heart.

Do and Don’t:  How to work with the executive sponsor

Here is some practical advice on working with an executive sponsor.

On the Do side, preparation and focus are key.  Remember, this is a business meeting.  The executive’s time is valuable, so be respectful of it and do not waste it.  You want the sponsor to remain approachable and willing to meet with you in the future whenever you need to see them urgently.

  • Schedule appointments regularly (monthly, for example, if the sponsor agrees) with an agenda of topics to discuss
  • Provide background information on meeting topics ahead of time and come well prepared
  • Be on time and keep meetings on schedule
  • Present any problems with a proposed solution
  • Inform of  issues in the workplace that affect the group and propose what the sponsor can to mitigate or resolve the issues
  • Be honest with your sponsor – do not sugarcoat, blame others, or cover-up mistakes
  • Give your sponsor a heads-up also before taking more public and visible action so they will not get caught by surprise – if there is bad news, share it with the sponsor first
  • Discuss key goals and ask them for guidance, advice or assistance – allow your sponsor to help you and the group
  • Reserve your requests for sponsor appearances and events to where it counts most.  For example, as a speaker at a ‘headline’ event to draw a crowd, attract new members, and demonstrate the group’s value for the business.  Ask if the sponsor is willing to recruit other executives or respected business partners and customers as guest speakers or participants.
  • The sponsor could host a luncheon or dinner for the group’s leadership once or twice a year to meet everyone in person, discuss, and recognize achievements of the group and individual members.

As for the Don’ts, try to avoid these pitfalls:

  • Don’t come with a hidden personal agenda – it’s strictly about the group
  • Don’t bother the sponsor with petty day-to-day issues – focus on the meaningful impact on the business and the group
  • Don’t ask for general funding or support – be specific and have data and facts ready to support your case
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance and advice – but also don’t come just to commiserate.

Beyond the job description

Don’t underestimate the importance of the right chemistry between the group leader(s) and the exec sponsor; it is crucial to establish and foster a trustful, constructive, and pleasant work relationship.

For an employee group, executive sponsorship is more than the group’s endorsement by senior management: a strong sponsor becomes the lifeline when times get rough.

So when you go out to ‘hire’ your executive sponsor, also hire for the right attitude.

Measure your company culture in real-time!

It is difficult if not impossible to assess organizational culture directly.  Instead, managers favor surveys to measuring organizational climate as a first step.  However, surveys fall short in many ways and can lead to skewed results as input to managerial decision-making.  Better than surveys is observing employee behavior with a meaningful metrics.

What is your organizational culture?

No matter where you work, you are a part of it:  the organizational culture.  Culture is understood to comprise shared beliefs, values, norms, traditions but also myths of employees about interpersonal relationships, behaviors and activities of the organization.

A (favorable) strong culture indicates alignment to organizational values and goals – some call it the organization’s personality.  This is the internal glue for collaboration and outstanding results as an organization.  In a strong culture, ‘can do’ stories share ‘how things are being done around here’ that inspire and motivate employees to action and ‘organizational citizenship behavior’.  A strong culture supports employee satisfaction and retention as well as innovation and productivity. (See also: How to create innovation culture with diversity!)

In contrast, misalignment of values and goals in an unfavorable weak culture has an eroding effect.  They easily lead to extensive rules and bureaucracy that rely on exercising control.  Working in this place is not much fun.  Don’t expect anyone to go the extra mile!

Unfortunately, organizational culture is a slippery and complex subject, which makes it hard to grasp – and hard to measure directly.  It is easier to feel than to express.
– Try it!  How does the culture of your organization feel in your gut?  How about putting it in words?

How to measure culture?

A common approach is to measure a company’s organizational climate by looking at the culture’s outcomes or consequences rather than trying to grasp culture directly.  Thereby, the climate is used as surrogate marker for the underlying culture, since outcomes are easier to observe and to measure.

Here we find a handle on whether the employees are happy at work and feel valued, if they enjoy their work environment and trust their colleagues, if they go the ‘extra mile’ for their team – or if they are frustrated, disengaged or even act hostile against coworkers or the organization.
Factors to establish a metrics offer themselves relating to –for example- communication, accountability, behavioral standards, rewards, trust, and commitment.

Organizational climate’s primary driver is daily leadership that influences the expectations as well as the behavior of all individuals in the organization.  The leadership also determines the organizational structure, another key to an organization’s effectiveness.  Both enable the organization to reach its goals, but also reflect priorities and heavily affect how employees communicate, collaborate and interact with each other.

Many factors obscure the clear picture including rapidly growing workforce and geographic separation but also the way we actually measure organizational culture.

Yet another survey?

Many companies invest in surfacing climate data to ‘feel the pulse’ of their staff and to confirm positive effects or apply corrective action to adverse findings.

The most common way to measure climate is a climate survey and repeated to compare changes over time.  Despite our daily information overload, many companies typically use surveys to collect data from as many employees as possible to paint a representative picture of the company.

Surveys seem the first tool in the managerial arsenal.  They appear attractive, seem simple and powerful.  Survey results are seen as straightforward, clear, quantifiable and reflecting the ‘truth’ since the workforce was asked directly.

‑ But are surveys truly the best tool available or even an proper tool at all as a starting point?

What is wrong with surveys?

Unfortunately, surveys are far from ideal for several reasons.

The first issue we face is that there is no common standard for measuring the ‘climate’.  Every organization or consultant comes up with a different scale.  If an organization introduces its own scale and applies their metrics consistently, it can build a database over time.  The data, however, only compares directly against other client organizations or industries that were measured similarly, i.e. sharing the same scale, at a premium for this proprietary benchmarking.

Even worse, results hardly compare because surveys ask questions relying on language.  A slight nuance in phrasing of a question may change the meaning and influence the responses.  After all, words are ambiguous and open for interpretation – and even more so in a multi-cultural society and multi-lingual.  For consistency and easy processing, they typically come with a fixed set of response options such as multiple choice, which can limit the responders’ options and influence what they respond.

Often overlooked, the real workload comes after the survey closed in the analysis, when you start slicing the data to combine questions, sub-populations or start exploratory analyses in an afterthought with all the shiny data you find in your hands that seem to open endless opportunity for finding answers.  This is where you easily run out of time or budget – and where it becomes tempting to cut corners just to finish up and deliver results while sacrificing depth and consistency.

Surveys tend to be inherently skewed – Why?

When was the last time you enjoyed taking a survey?

Our email in-boxes are full of customer service surveys for a recent purchase or some service call over the phone or online.  The whole world seems wanting to improve their services – and sends us a survey.

However, surveys are far from ideal for several reasons including these (and many more):

  • Fatigue – There is no shortage of surveys these days.  Coming back to our information overload and time constraints, many people just don’t want to fill out another questionnaire or find time for it in the first place.  ‑ Did you ever give random responses or skipped questions just to get it over?
  • Privacy – Some other questions you may not feel comfortable answering in the first place because they invade your privacy by collecting data with questionable benefit to you.
  • Anonymity – in the computer age, anonymity is hard to find.  Even in an otherwise anonymous survey, the combination of responses can identify individuals under certain circumstances feeding privacy concerns.
  • Past – Surveys measure the past.  Even the most credible survey questions inquire about past behavior at best, which is the most solid data you can get out of a survey.  The results may be good for forensics but hardly reflect the current situation.
  • Diversity – a diverse workforce can come with communication barriers of language or cultural background that leads to misunderstanding. Geographic idiosyncrasies can induce further bias in distributed organizations.
  • Delay – surveys take time to prepare, to conduct and to analyze.  Don’t expect to get the results anytime soon, especially because you cannot control when your responders choose to respond.  You have to adjust to their schedule, so getting survey results removes you far from ‘real-time’.
  • Precision – in surveys, you can easily measure everything to a dot and even farther right of the decimal point.  Some give you the tendency to ask and measure too much just because we can or we feel the results (and our work) look more credible this way.  Often it is an illusion that a higher level of precision adds to clarity when it adds to inertia instead by a flood of obscure information irrelevant to the decision you want to make.

The list goes on… you got the point.  The question remains what is a better approach to measure organizational climate?

Why it is better to measure behavior

A survey measures our intent – not our behavior.  Unarguably, behavior is a much stronger indicator than intent.  It comes down to whether we observe people putting their money where their mouth is or if we get only the lip service that a survey represents.  – Think of it as the litmus test you remember from chemistry class: It shows you the truth and reveals whether your assumptions hold true!

Let us look at the benefits of measuring behavior using the same list again:

  • Fatigue – As human beings we can refuse to respond to a survey ‑ but we cannot stop behavior as such.  Even if we refuse to respond, this is our observable behavior and becomes measurable.  For example, if large parts of the surveyed staff do not respond to the survey, this tells you something about the organizational and what is important to the staff.
  • Privacy and Anonymity – Usually, your observable behavior as an employee is not a privacy concern, since you are out in the open and visible to your co-workers anyway.  Again, you cannot not show behavior once you agreed to go to work, there is nowhere to hide. 
    (Let’s not derail by focusing on or encouraging questionable, unethical or even illegal intrusion of privacy at the workplace or outside.)
  • Past – Our observable behavior is now, it is the present.  You can’t get better real-time data!
  • Diversity – For observations, it does not matter if your workforce is diverse or understands the questions you ask.  There are no communication barriers when it comes to observing behavior. Actually, quite the opposite holds true: the employee behavior can help you to better identify communication barriers or other issues that a survey would not reveal!
  • Delay – observing behavior also takes time but it is mostly the time to identify what you want to observe for what reason as well as observing it and then summarizing the results.  There is no polishing questions and response options.  You get to results faster because you are on your schedule and do not have to wait for responses trickling in.
  • Precision – key is to measure only as much as needed, i.e. to establishing necessary and actionable facts.  Forget the fluff and focus on the one or two most important aspects needed for effective decision-making.

How to measure behavior?

Now, measuring behavior is not always easy.  It requires thinking through the cause-and-effect dependencies.  – A well-known example of how not to do it is the questionable relation of using the price of butter in Bangladesh to predict the stock market in the USA…

What the right metrics is depends on what you want to find out.  What is the underlying business problem you are trying to solve?  Many roads can lead to Rome, so to speak, but the basic idea is to keep your target simple.  Choose a target that is meaningful, robust and easy to observe.

Clarity helps.  As much as we crave being informed and gather data this approach is not helpful, since it tends to produce clutter.  Instead, focus on measuring the minimum you need as the basis for making a sound decision.  Don’t fall for the nice-to-have and garnish data you could have in addition.

How precise do you need the results really to be?  – As an example, you may be concerned about low meeting attendance.  Does it make a difference for your decision-making if you find out that in three consecutive meetings “63.26%, 58.18% and 69.4% of the invitees did not show up” versus “on average, 2/3 don’t attend”? – Let me guess, “2/3” does just fine to decide slimming down who is invited in the future or to change the purpose of the meeting, right?

The key is to stick to clearly observable behavior.  Some solid behavioral data may already exist within the organization.  – For example, a long tenure and low turnover may reflect that employees prefer to stay with organization, while many internal job applications reflect dissatisfaction with their current position or department.

Bottom line

Next time you think of running a survey consider taking a close look at employee behavior first!

References

Do managers miss the sweet-spot of remote working?

Stumbling in the dark?

Organizations often find themselves struggling with a dilemma: The need for employees working remotely, often from home, is at rise for many business reasons that include cost savings and the competition over attracting and retaining top talent.

On the other hand, many managers have a hard time allowing their staff to work outside their proximity and direct supervision. Their reasons often include the fear of change introducing the unknown but also a certain cluelessness of how to effectively manage a remote workforce and moving beyond their personal comfort zone.

These conflicting drivers open a tension field that organizations tend to struggle with. – Does this sound familiar to you?

No silver bullet
Unfortunately, there is no ‘silver bullet’, i.e. a one-size-fits-all solution that works for everyone and in every environment. Too much depends on the nature of the work, necessary interactions and communication between team members as well as the jobs and personalities involved. It takes a close look at the individual organization to craft a remote working program that fits an organization, maximizes collaboration at a measurable performance level.

Common ground for remote working
However, we can learn from others how to establish a basis for a fruitful remote working program in your organization (if you don’t have one yet).  Research offers tangible results such as the “MTI Report 09-14: Facilitating Telecommuting: Exploring the role of Telecommuting Intensity and Differences Between Telecommuters and Non-Telecommuters”. The study compares telecommuters and non-telecommuters and it came up with the following findings. (Note that I use telecommute, telework and remote working synonymously throughout this article.)

  • Telecommuters show increased commitment to their organization and experience more work-life satisfaction over the non-telecommuters group. No differences between both groups though on job satisfaction and turnover intent, i.e. how likely employees are to leave the company.

On a side note, the latter two findings are quite different from my own professional studies and experience, where employees working remotely reported a 57% increase in work-life balance. Increasing workplace flexibility including remote working, i.e. giving the employee more control over their schedule and location, became a driver also for employee attraction and retention.
– What are your experiences? Do you see remote work influencing job satisfaction and employee retention? Please comment.

  • Interestingly, the study explored also ‘personalities’ and found that more extroverts tend to be telecommuters, so people with a higher drive for social interaction and communication rather than the quiet ones.

This appears conclusive in the light of the simple finding that (a) telecommuting in many companies is not implemented consequently but rather as an “idiosyncratic deal” between individual supervisors and employees. (b) These supervisors prefer granting permission to telecommute to high-performers. This can explain a pre-selection of extroverts over introverts, who may not show up on the supervisor’s radar as much and therefore tend to receive less remote working opportunities.

  • Generally, teleworkers commute from farther away. They find commuting more stressful and want to avoid rush-hour traffic.
  • Less surprising, telecommuters were interrupted more by family members given their physical presence at their off-site work location.

This seems to suggest that working-from-home could be less effective than working in the office given more family interruptions. My own observations are quite different and based on a controlled pilot project which showed that the workers in the office feel distracted by their colleagues stopping by randomly; the workers preferred working from home when they needed focus and want to avoid distractions calling this their most productive work time.
Disruptions occur at home as well as in the office. It is the employee’s responsibility and best interest to ensure a professional work environment at their home-office so not to jeopardize their work results. Consequently, also performance needs to be measured by results and not physical presence. This levels the playing field and allows for fair comparison between all workers independent of their working location and distractions.

  • In the triangle of telecommuters, supervisors and Human Resources (HR) practices the telecommuters generally view the organization differently from non-telecommuters. Most telecommuters perceive technology training is available to them and that the organizational reward system as well as their supervisors was supporting telecommuting. Telecommuters also believe that there is an underlying business requirement that drives working remotely.

Once again we see that a level playing field is viewed as an important success factor for effective teleworking. Technology serves as enabler that makes teleworking possible in the first place and connects coworkers across remote locations. Offering remote working not only becomes a business necessity but also addresses increased expectations of the modern work force to telework powered by ever improving communication and collaboration technology.
Now, the telecommuters in the study seem to understand the changed business environment that pushes organizations to open up to flexible work arrangements for competitive reasons including cost savings as well as employee productivity and retention – the supervisors ‑apparently‑ did not ‘get it’.

For most of us the times are over where workers came to the factory or office only because the resources needed to accomplishing the work were concentrated in a specific location and could not be distributed (think early typewriters, heavy production equipment, incoming mail and so on). For a growing services industry these limitations no longer exist – yet this out-dated paradigm remained present in the minds of many. People tend to have a certain picture in mind what work ‘looks like’ and where it has to happen which comes down to an office with everyone present from 9am to 5pm.

  • From the supervisors’ perspective things look different than for telecommuters. Over 50% of the supervisors of telecommuter believe “that employees have to be high performers”. This view is shared by only 37% of the non-telecommuting supervisors.
    This brings us to a most critical component and success factor for making remote working work…

Management attitudes – the make or break
The MTI study phrases this barrier kindly as “challenges and obstacles emanating from attitudes of individuals in the organization”. The obstacles to implementing an effective telecommuting model often originate from management itself or even the Human Resources department tasked to make a policy.  The reasons for resistance can be multifold and include a lack of better knowledge, fear of change such as losing perceived control, lazy avoidance to probe outdated beliefs or taking a one-size-fits-all approach without evaluating the specific environment.

I even experienced the paradox of managers believing they can work from home just as effective as from their office desk and making use of this flexibility at their convenience while not trusting that their staff could be similarly effective or was trustworthy enough just as much. They see remote working being a ‘perk’ for their staff reserved for ‘top performers’ who deserve it – a double standard is being applied which is often enough based on murky or questionable criteria (if at all). These managers show a sense of entitlement while ignoring that (as the MTI study confirms) remote working increases employee satisfaction and commitment which tends to increase also performance; as an example, performance increased by 30% in the department I manage.

Some managers fear they may lose ‘control’ and that their staff may abuse the newly acquired freedom to control their schedule and work location. This ‘control’ is often based on the deceptive perception that staff works ‘better’ and is ‘under control’ when confined to an office location and ‘eye-balled’ by the supervisor.

More effective is the consistent application of measurable and pre-defined goals that demonstrate unambiguously, transparently and quantifiable whether an employee met the goal or not – independent from their schedule or work location. In practice, managing-by-performance showed more effective to distinguish effective performers from under-performers than a manager looking around the office space and hoping the staff is performing just by their mere presence.

What it takes to make remote working work
Implementing remote working is not exactly rocket science but takes an honest and diligent approach based on trust and clear expectations. From a practical perspective, a viable model includes:

  • Put away with the ‘telecommuting-is-a-perk’ attitude
  • Closely look at which jobs have remote working potential together with the affected employee
  • Identify the employee’s team, i.e. the people who need to cooperate closely even across departmental boundaries (organizational, geographic, etc.)
  • Include employees to model how remote working could work in their team, try it out and be flexible to improve the model
  • Strictly rate all employees by their performance based on measurable and tangible results that are clearly defined
  • Apply transparent standards for all employees consistently
  • Treat remote and non-remote workers similarly including equal opportunities treatment and rewards
  • Provide effective communication technology and adequate training
  • Address manager concerns and prepare management with adequate training and guidance.

It is true that managing a remote working environment provides new challenges. They include in particular:

  • Strictly managing-by-performance by setting clear expectations and exercising transparency.
  • Overcoming ‘old thinking’. Questioning ones habits and beliefs to approach with an open-mind new or different ways of working. Include your staff to come up with ideas on how to make it work.
  • Diversifying and mastering the spectrum of communication channels. Choosing and using the media preferred by the staff to communicate effectively and efficiently with employees.

If this includes peer-to-peer video, instant messaging or texting (SMS) then learn to master these technologies. Limit face-time for confidential or sensitive topics that should better not be communicated electronically; don’t abuse face-time for routine communication.

Most of all, mutual trust is the key component in the critical relationship between manager and employee. This can be the hardest to build. For managers, taking some temporary measures can prove helpful to establish a trustful working relationship with their staff; for example, start with documenting and reviewing weekly performance plans together with the employee until the manager develops more trust and is comfortable with exercising less timely supervision.

In general, if an organization lacks trust then remote working will hardly be implemented effectively, consistently or to its full potential – but then, remote working may not be the biggest problem this organization faces…

Generation Y for managers – better than their reputation?

GenY for managers: look beyond the labels! Understand the drivers and grasp opportunities that Generation Y brings to your workplace!

It’s a long list to describe Generation Y with a commonly unfavorable preconception. This  youngest generation at the work place (born after 1980, also called Millennials) is said to be: lazy, impatient, needy, entitled, taking up too much of my time, expecting work to be fun, seeking instant gratifications, hop from company to company, want promotions right away, give their opinion all the time and so on. But is it really that easy to characterize a new generation?

Generational clash has changed
Clashes between generations were always present to some degree: Young people want to prove themselves, probe the boundaries and seek opportunity. The older are in power, hold the wealth, make the decisions and are typically reluctant to change and letting go of their well-established and comfortable status quo.

However, something significant has changed: Where in the past three generations used to live at the same time, we now see that four generations are working together simultaneously.  A conflict that used to predominate the homes is now also present in the workplace (as a result of several factors that include demographic change, geo-economical impact, longer life expectancy and increasing retirement age).

While in our personal lives we may be able to avoid or by-pass some areas of generational friction these same ways may not be possible in the workplace. Here you have to get along and collaborate with your co-workers. This is challenging not only for the multi-generational workforce but also for the managers facing the new need to mitigate generational conflicts, integrate the staff, and provide a constructive and collaborative work environment.

Why managers struggle with the mysterious Generation Y
For managers it is important to take a close look at GenY, since GenY outnumbers the significantly smaller GenX (born 1965 to 1980) and is the largest workforce generation. The Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) retire from the regular workforce leaving a gap. Nonetheless, given the typical career progression, higher management positions are still firmly held by Baby Boomers or their preceding Pre-Boomer generation (born before 1946) – the generations farthest apart from GenY.

Ignoring the differences between generations or addressing them in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ manner backfires. It also misses to leverage particular traits of the young generation that become critical for an organization to sustain in the face of change coming at ever faster pace and with increasing complexity (see my earlier blog: ‘Complexity’ is the 2015 challenge! – Are leaders prepared for ‘glocal’?).

It is Generation Y that people seem to have the hardest time wrapping their heads around. Simply pigeon-holing GenY does not do them justice and doesn’t help understanding and managing them either.

‘Kids’ entering the workplace?
It is even a common misconception that GenY have not yet arrived at the workplace and that they are ‘kids’ just coming out of school or college. If you consider the demographics, however, the early GenY’ers are 30 years old now, so they are hardly ‘kids’ anymore. They come well educated and already gained some experience at the workplace for several years now. They are not ‘out there’ anymore but ‘in here’ now!

Instant gratification and fast promotions?
It is true that GenY seeks fun (who doesn’t?) and grew up with high-end video games in which the players typically rack up points in fast progression opening up new levels or challenges to continue the game. But that’s only one side of the coin. It also forms a mindset to figure things out, address challenges with optimism in a playful way, master technology, compete in ever-changing surrounding as well as hooking up with a network of friends to play and succeed together – don’t be fooled, these are the critical basic skills in the world we live and do business in!

Entitled?
Look at GenY’s parents that determined the up-bringing: The generation of Baby Boomer parents indulged in perks and benefits like only few before them; the succeeding GenX only saw these goodies going away when they started entering the workforce. Fortunes were racked up or inherited by Baby Boomers.

GenY kids often grew up in a world of abundance; nothing was too good for them or out of reach – and sponsored freely by the parents with enough cash in their pockets to offer their kids any imaginable aspect of a ‘better life’.

Instead of flipping burgers during summer holidays to earn their own money, many GenY kids had spare time on their hand to learn and have fun while ‘helicopter parents’ took (and continue to) care for their well-being and even professional advancement as adults. Who would say ‘No’ if you are young and your parents offered to pay for your car, your shopping dreams or set you up for a prosperous and promising career?

This way many Baby Boomer parents did their part to breed a generational culture of entitlement or at least high expectations while reinforcing the message “You can do anything and succeed!” – It does not seem fair to hold this upbringing against their kids.
(Instead, it provokes the questions why Baby Boomers, in particular, seem to have such a hard time letting go to let their kids live their own lives without excessive parental hand-holding? – But that is a topic for another time…)

GenY is prepared, assertive and speaks up. They know what they want and how to get it. Don’t underestimate them as customers either, since GenY is a serious economic power and probably even more so than any previous young generation in history!

Lazy, impatient and needy?
Let me share with you my first-hand experience with GenY at the workplace. I gain my insight as the founder and chair of a generation-oriented employee resource group (ERG) which gives me ample opportunities to work closely with GenY’ers on various projects. It made me probe my own biases and assumptions based on practical work experience (which, by the way, I don’t always see reflected in articles written about GenY).

What I learned is quite different from most preconceptions: The GenY’ers work hard and with ambition, they are not a bit lazy.

When we coin GenY ‘needy’ or ‘taking up too much of my time’ we are actually ignoring that they want to contribute to a meaningful cause in the most effective way. What they are asking is to understand the ‘why’ before going to work. This questions and challenges the status quo in a constructive manner – which is good! If we cannot answer their question satisfactory or insist that we already know the best way ‘how-to’ then it is us (the non-GenY’ers) standing in the way of innovation and change. As a general truth it is not their questions that can be compromising but rather our answers.

Some tasks require not only book-smarts but also experience (including managing people) that many GenY’ers cannot have made at this time in their careers. Therefore, they can be over-confident and over-estimate their abilities and effectiveness; support them and offer them learning experiences as a reality-check and growth opportunity.

Empower GenY to put their specific inherent qualities to best use given that they tend to be natural networkers and solvers of complex problems, they user modern technology effectively and approach different ethnicities and cultures with an embracing ‘color-blindness’. – Are these not exactly the qualities that we need in the world we live and work in today and tomorrow?

If you plan to start an ERG that addresses generational differences, you can find great research for free:  Next-generation ERG learn from U.S. Army recruitment!

Engagement and empowerment drives loyalty
A short while back I wrote in this forum about How to retain talent under the new workplace paradigm? It comes down to approaching the workforce differently by offering flexible career paths, support staff to remain employable and accommodate benefits to their needs instead of hiding behind archaic one-size-fits-all models.

As managers we need to consider GenY’s particular needs and expectations to attract, engage and retain them. We need to leverage their unique talents and skills for the better of the company while helping them to development and grow. Empowerment includes guidance and creating opportunities for GenY to make mistakes, learn and get active ‘their way’ in areas that wakes their interest and that are meaningful to them as well as to your organization. – Then relax, sit back and see beautiful surprises unfold!

Leverage employee resource groups (ERG) as an opportunity
Some managers may ask on how to get started, what could be a first step to engage and leverage GenY? One way of doing it is by founding an inclusive ERG to focus and organize your emerging workforce.

As an example, I founded the Next Generation at the Workplace (coined ‘NxGen’) ERG that has already changed the company’s perception of employee engagement, increased ERG credibility and raised the business value seen in ERGs among managers. Our NxGen approach is to address opportunities in business-relevant projects with measurable results for the business (such as return-of-investment, ROI). Our projects often focus on relevant topics are outside our immediate field of work but are always sponsored by an executive to ensure governance and strategic alignment. These projects provide an excellent and safe training ground for up-and-coming leaders. NxGen supports the organization directly through the project’s immediate deliverables as well as indirectly by establishing a free and hands-on management development program that comes with networking, coaching, and skill development already built-in. Everyone wins!

No matter if you have a dedicated ERG or not, don’t discount GenY based on labels. Dig deeper to find the treasures that this generation has to offer. Your organization’s future relies on them!

* * *

Additional information
NxGen was nationally recognized as a ‘cutting-edge’ approach to employee resource groups by the Network and Affinity Leadership Congress 2010 (NALC), a national conference focused on training ERG leaders to align with the business goals of their organizations.

Please leave a comment and, if you are interested in ERG topics, feel free to join our ERG Leaders group on LinkedIn.com to discuss, share and learn!

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