Collective Intelligence: The Genomics of Crowds

Group intelligence beats individual brilliance – and businesses are willing to pay for the crowd’s wisdom in the social sphere.  The MIT’s ‘genetic’ model allows combining social ‘genes’ to harness the collective intelligence of crowd wisdom successfully and sustainably, for example in scientific research or business/employee resource groups.

We use collective intelligence every day

Whenever we face a big decision, we turn to our friends, our family, or our confidants. We seek information, guidance, advice, confirmation, or an alternative perspective.  No matter if we make a life decision (partnership, job, picking a school, etc.), a purchasing decision (house, car, mobile phone) or a less monumental decisions (which movie to watch, which restaurant to go to), we make our decision more confidently and feeling better informed after reaching out to our personal network.

What we do is tapping into the collective intelligence, knowledge, or wisdom of a crowd that we know and trust: we are ‘crowd sourcing’ on a small scale.  We do this because we instinctively know that the focused collective intelligence is higher than the intelligence of individuals.

What is collective intelligence or the ‘wisdom of the crowd’?

Wikipedia, the iconic product of global collaboration and collective knowledge, brings it to the point:

“The wisdom of the crowd is the process of taking into account the collective opinion of a group of individuals rather than a single expert to answer a question.  A large group’s aggregated answers to questions involving quantity estimation, general world knowledge, and spatial reasoning has generally been found to be as good as, and often better than, the answer given by any of the individuals within the group.  An intuitive and often-cited explanation for this phenomenon is that there is idiosyncratic noise associated with each individual judgment, and taking the average over a large number of responses will go some way toward canceling the effect of this noise.”

Scaling up to a ‘crowd

When we read a movie review and rating on Netflix or customer ratings of a product on Amazon, for example, we tap into a larger and anonymous crowd.  On the other end, Netflix and Amazon know how they get people like you and I to deliver them free content (reviews, ratings) that runs their business.

So, let’s take this to a level where it really gets interesting for you!  How can you get a crowd to do your work?  How do you build a framework in which strangers work on your business problems and deliver quality result for free.

Crowd
Crowd Wisdom

Genetics of Collective Intelligence

MIT professor Tom Malone dissects the mechanics of collective intelligence in his groundbreaking article (MIT Sloan Review, April 2010).  The MIT Center for Collective Intelligence researched to understand this matter better and identified a number of building blocks or ‘genes’ than need to come together to engage and tap into the ‘wisdom of crowds’ successfully and sustainably.

Since these ‘genomic combinations’ are not random at all, we can also combine genes to build a collective intelligence system.  Depending on what it is that you want to achieve, the genes can be combined to a model that suits your specific purpose.  This is ‘social genomics’ made easy, and you don’t need a biology major!  🙂

Interestingly, this social genomics can be used independently for social projects you have in mind but also in relation to Employee or Business Resource Groups (ERG/ERG).  – The common link lays in the organizational design that is similar to the generic BRG/ERG business model discussed previously.  Thus, collective intelligence systems need to address the same questions as a business model:

  • Strategy or the goal: what needs to be accomplished?
  • Staffing or the people: who does the work?  Are specific individuals doing the work or is there collaboration within a more or less anonymous crowd?
  • Structure and Processes or how to organize and conduct the work?  How is the product created, and how are decisions made?
  • Rewards or why do they do it?  What are the incentives, what is the measure for success?

Motivation is Key

It is crucial to get the motivation right, i.e. why people engage and continue to come back to contribute more to the cause or project.  It comes down to finding the basic drivers for human motivation.  This explains why people invest much of their time and resources to crowd sourcing.

The famous $1million Netflix Prize was a 5-year open competition for the best collaborative filtering algorithm to predict user ratings for films, based on previous ratings.  The winner had to improve Netflix’s algorithm by 10%.  The million-dollar reward in 2006 gives a flavor of just how valuable the crowd’s wisdom is for a company!  In contrast to common belief, money is not always the driver.  If it was, how do you explain the popular virtual ‘farming’ on Facebook, for example, where players pay hard cash for virtual goods?

In the more clandestine intelligence community, recruiting individual operatives plays to four motivational drivers: Money, Ideology, Conscience, and Ego (easy to remember as ‘MICE’).
The drivers for attracting collective intelligence are a bit different, as Tom Malone found out.  Nonetheless, there are parallels: He calls the key motivators Money, Love, and Glory.

Real-World Examples

Everyone knows Wikipedia, arguably the best-known social collaboration and crowd-sourcing project thriving from an intellectual competition over Love and Glory, no monetary incentives involved for the authors.

How powerful Glory and Honor are we see also in areas away from the mainstream where you may not expect to find crowd-sourcing and gamification: in scientific research.  The following two impactful examples reflect successful implementations for large crowds collaborating and competing to solve scientific problems:

  • Seth Cooper’s AIDS research challenge  on the “FoldIt” online platform challenged players to find the best way of folding a specific protein.  We will not dive into the science behind it and its medical significance; here are the details for those who are interested to dig deeper: MedCrunch Interview with Seth Cooper at TEDMED 2012.  For our purpose, we establish that a relevant scientific problem in AIDS research, which remained unsolved within the scientific community for a decade, took the crowd 10 days to solve!
    You may find it surprising that there was has no monetary incentive involved whatsoever – yet FoldIt attracted over 60,000 players(!) from around the world.  The winner of the AIDS-related challenge was later recognized and honored at the 2012 TEDMED.  It was not a Nobel-prize laureate from an Ivy-League institution but a laboratory assistant from Britain – who, well, enjoys folding proteins and collaborating on the puzzle with think-alike from other countries.  This is the power of Love and Glory!
  • Another example is the ongoing “Predicting a Biological Response” on Kaggle.com, a geeky online platform for people who like developing descriptive models.  My friend and colleague David Thompson of Boehringer Ingelheim (a major yet privately held bio-pharmaceutical company) designed this scientific competition to compete for the best bio-response model for a given data set of scientific relevance.
    The challenge offers a $10,000 prize for the winning model and lesser amounts for the models coming in second and third.  The monetary award together with a time limit of three months helps to speed up the process and keep up the competitive pressure.  Last time I checked, 467 teams competed and have already submitted 4,300 entries with another month to go.  The quality of the model is summarized in a single number (‘log loss’), so competitors can compare their results directly and immediately, the same quantifier determines the winner.
    Note that the Kaggle participation is not driven by the monetary incentive primarily; otherwise, the number of participants should correspond directly with the amount of money offered for a particular challenge, which is not the case.  Thus, participants are in it more for the challenge and fun than for the cash.  (If you are a participant and disagree, please correct me if I am wrong!!)
    On the other hand, don’t underestimate the business value of the gamification of science either: another ongoing competition in Kaggle offers a serious $3million reward!

The bottom line

Social collaboration, crowd-sourcing, and collective intelligence all rely and depend on humans collaborating to make things happen.  What holds true in the real world seems to hold true also in the virtual world: the magic formula is all in the genes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking down barriers by innovating from within using ERGs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and additional reading