The pharmaceutical industry struggles with the fundamental changes of the healthcare systems worldwide. For many reasons, the traditional mindset and business models of the past are failing today. New approaches are needed for innovation “beyond the pill” to stay profitable and ahead of competitors.
But how to change a large organization bottom up and from within?
Why? The pharmaceutical industry struggles with the fundamental changes of the healthcare systems worldwide. For many reasons, the traditional mindset and the business models of the past are failing. New approaches are needed for innovation “beyond the pill” to stay profitable and ahead of competitors.
But how to change a large organization bottom up and from within?
This session offers you a unique birds-eye and worms-eye view on pharma innovation and its shortcomings under the current paradigm, before diving into real-life case studies of intrapreneuring, disruptive transformation and strategic innovations within and beyond a Global FORTUNE 500 pharma company.
Join this masterclass and learn on how to bring intrapreneuring and transformation to life in a large pharma company.
Come to discuss my talk about “Changing employee mindset to boost collaboration and engagement for extreme business results”
How to overcome innovation hurdles in large organizations
How to build an entrepreneurial culture within your company to respond to change quickly
Measuring success beyond money – behavior change for best practices and boosting ROI
Workshop at 3:30pm on March 6, 2015
And take my Intrapreneuring Workshop “Building an innovation framework to design, launch and execute business projects”
The workshop participants experience the role of an intrapreneur to bring a project to life using disruptive methods and collaboration.
Innovation Barriers and Assessment
Becoming an Intrapreneur
Resistance, Sponsor and Team
Prototyping, Pitching and Investor Insights
About the Conference
Pharma companies stand on a cross-road for a few years now. They can choose to stick to their old ways that will probably slowly kill their business or successfully adapt to the reality of continuously shrinking pipelines and growing obstacles.
The 5th Annual Pharma PPM Toolbox will provide you with fresh ideas and solutions from experts who work hard to keep up with uncompromising market demands.
Meant to raise questions and serving as a learning opportunity for graduate students in academic program around the globe, this case study lifts the corporate curtain a bit to show how innovation through intrapreneuring really happens and decision points along the way.
The newly appointed director of Innovation Management & Strategy at Boehringer Ingelheim, a German-based multinational pharmaceutical company, is finding his way forward in his firm’s new, first-of-its-kind role, which is central to the company’s growth rejuvenation strategy. His job has a threefold mandate: to build internal networks, to establish internal structures and to leverage internal ideas. His biggest challenge, however, may be transforming the organization’s DNA. The blockbuster business model that has characterized the company for decades is no longer appropriate. Instead, the firm needs to develop healthcare products available to end users over the counter. This shift in strategy requires innovative changes in distribution, delivery and customer focus. To accomplish this goal, he needs to institutionalize innovation so that it becomes sustainable. But in doing so, he must also identify the metrics for assessing progress. The case provides an opportunity for students to step into the shoes of an innovation leader, to develop an innovation roadmap for the organization in the face of uncertainty and to understand how to engage in innovation leadership at various levels of a global enterprise.
This case has two key objectives. First, this case provides students an opportunity to grapple with the difficult decisions associated with innovation in an uncertain environment. Second, this case highlights that anyone has the ability to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset and to lead innovation. The case divides the attributes of an innovation leader into five components: observing, questioning, experimenting, networking and associating. It shows the real-life experiences of a manager doing seemingly routine activities, who evolved into a leader who transformed the DNA of a global enterprise. The case also provides a template of the tasks, responsibilities and value-added changes as an individual moves progressively within an enterprise from an operations manager to a senior manager to an innovation leader. This case can be used either toward the beginning or toward the end of any course that addresses innovation and creative thinking in a large organization. At the beginning of a course, it illustrates the challenges of acting in the face of uncertainty in a large organization. At the end of a course, the case provides an opportunity for students to apply what they have learned about innovation, entrepreneurial thinking and innovation leadership.
Meet me at the Intrapreneurship Conference 2014at the “Kennispoort”-building of the Eindhoven University of Technology, John F. Kennedylaan 2, 5612 AB Eindhoven, The Netherlands, from December 10-12, 2014! Contact me you are interested to attend, as I may be able to get you a discounted ticket!
Intrapreneurship is the most powerful engine for growth. With innovation being priority #1, how are you implementing and leveraging innovation from within?
Now being organized for the fourth time, the Intrapreneurship Conference 2014 is the premier global event for Corporate Innovation Managers, Intrapreneurs, Business Managers, HR-Managers and Innovation Consultants. This is not just another conference on innovation, where you will be listening to motivational speakers all day. We intentionally keep the number of available seats at a level that enables you to really connect with everyone.
Discuss the best and next practices in implementing and leveraging intrapreneurship. We have carefully curated a program for you that includes all relevant topics in the field of intrapreneurship, and invited experienced intrapreneurs and experts to co-create an impactful learning experience for you.
You will leave the conference with a clear action plan and practical tools for the next step in implementing intrapreneurship. Plus, you will meet like-minded people to connect, share and collaborate with – as most Intrapreneurs are the lone mavericks in the corporate jungle.
Why is this a billion dollar question? – The traditional business model of the pharmaceutical industry is broken. The focus shifts to incentivize patient-centric outcomes, prevention and behavior change in the global battle against a mounting wave of chronic diseases such as diabetes. In search for a new business “beyond the pill” the pharmaceutical industry joins other stakeholders in the healthcare system to align and pull in this same direction. First data-driven results are highly anticipated – well, here they are, so don’t miss this milestone event!
The traditional world of corporate Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) is being disrupted by a new take on D&I and combining it with innovation and talent management. What some perceive as a threat to the D&I establishment may just be the next step of evolution that could invigorate and drive D&I to new heights.
Though not an entirely novel approach (see also How to create innovation culture with diversity!) the new thinking gains traction. As this could play out in different ways and only time will tell what worked, here are my thought on where we are heading.
Struggles of the Front Runner
Many traditional D&I programs, let’s call them “version 1.0” of D&I, struggle transitioning beyond a collection of affinity groups, tallying corporate demographics and competing for D&I awards to post on their webpage. In these traditional D&I programs ‘diversity’ is often understood to be reflected by more or less visible differences among individuals at the workplace while ‘inclusion’ translates to supporting defined sub-populations of employees through, for example, establishing affinity groups.
The United States is seen as the front runner of the D&I movement. D&I has been around in the U.S. corporate world for decades. For historic and demographic reasons it hones in on removing obstacles for minorities at the workplace supported also by strict legislature and execution; exercising Affirmative Action, for example.
This legacy in the U.S. lends itself to an inside focus on organizations that became the backbone of the traditional D&I programs. It comes down to the question ‘what can or should the organization do for specific groups of people’ defined by ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference, faith, disability, war history and so on. Apparently, it still is work in progress as, for example, Silicon Valley just recently got on the public radar, which stirred up the debate afresh along the lines of D&I 1.0; see Google releases breakdown on the diversity of its workforce.
Stuck in the ‘Diversity Trap’?
The inside focus and minority messaging of D&I 1.0, however, can be limiting when D&I erodes to a process of ‘doing things right’ by pushing for quotas, ‘checking boxes’ and inflating variations of terminology perceived as ‘politically correct’. This can in fact be different from ‘doing the right thing’ for the company overall, its employees as well as the affinity groups and their constituency. It should not surprise that Affinity groups can be (and often get) stigmatized and perceived as self-serving and self-centered social networks without significant and measurable business impact.
Under this paradigm these D&I 1.0 programs struggle to get serious attention, support and funding from executives beyond operating on a minor level to ‘keep the lights on’ more for public image purposes than business drive. The fundamentals seem to get forgotten: in the end, a business exists to generate a profit, so less profitable activities are likely to be discontinued or divested. It’s a symbiosis and to say it bluntly: without healthy business there is no D&I program and no affinity groups. When this symbiosis get lopsided, D&I 1.0 gets stuck in the trap.
“Diversity” is catching on beyond the United States in Europe, for example, where many countries do not have share a highly heterogeneous demographic composition, for example. Here, companies can start with a fresh approach jumping straight to D&I 2.0 – and many do! It reminds me of developing countries installing their first phone system by skipping the landlines and starting right away with mobile phones.
The 2.0 internal focus corresponds to hiring workers that truly think differently and have different backgrounds and life experiences some of which overlaps with D&I 1.0 affinity roots. In addition, there is also an external focus putting the staff to work with a clear business proposition and reaching even beyond the organization. So here a candidate would be hired or employee promoted for their different thinking (2.0) rather than more visible differences (1.0).
While need remains for affinity groups to tend to their members needs within the organization, the “new” D&I 2.0 opens to shift focus to go beyond the organization. It goes along the lines of a statement President John F. Kennedy became famous for and that I tweaked as follows: “Don’t ask what the COMPANY can do for you ask what you can do for the COMPANY AND ITS CUSTOMERS.”
D&I 2.0 gears towards actively contributing and driving new business results in measurable ways for the better of the employees as well as the organization and its customers. A visible indicator for D&I 2.0 affinity groups helping their constituency beyond company walls is affinity groups identifying and seizing business opportunities specific to their constituency. They translate the opportunity and shepherd it trough the processes of the organization to bring it to fruition. For example, affinity groups are uniquely positioned to extending and leveraging their reach to relating customer segments in order to identify ‘small elephant’ business opportunities; see How to grow innovation elephants in large organizations.
The D&I 2.0 approach demonstrates sustainable business value which is why D&I 2.0 sells much easier to executives. It makes a compelling business case that contributes to new business growth, the life blood of every company.
U.S. companies stuck in D&I 1.0 are hard pressed to keep up with the D&I 2.0 developments and overcome their inner struggle and resistance. With decades of legacy, D&I 1.0 programs in many organizations lack the vision and ability to make a compelling business case, to develop a sound strategy as well as capability and skill to implement it effectively. This is the requirement, however, to truly see eye-to-eye with senior executives and get their full support. This can become a serious disadvantage in the markets relating to products and customers but also in attracting talent.
In the end, the saying holds true that “talent attracts talent” and all organizations compete over talent to compete and succeed. Therefore, a D&I 2.0 program combines business focus and talent management while tying it back to the core of diversity and inclusion: Fostering diverse thinkers and leveling the playing field for all employees. This requires a level playing field that offers the same opportunities to all employees, which is the real challenge.
How do you level the playing field effectively in a large organization? How this will be implemented becomes the differentiating success factor for companies transitioning to D&I 2.0!
Here is a example 2.0-style for a level playing filed that has its roots in the D&I affinity group space yet opened up to include the entire workforce. It empowers and actively engages employees while leveraging diversity, inclusion and talent management for innovative solutions with profitable business outcomes. It may take a minute or two to see the connection between D&I, talent and disruptive innovation but it is at work right here in the School for Intrapreneurs: Lessons from a FORTUNE Global 500 company.
Previous posts relating to innovation and employee affinity groups / employee resource groups (ERG) / business resource groups (BRG):
Most change initiatives fail. Statistics from MIT research suggest that for leaders managing change the ‘capability trap’ is the single major failure mode. So, what is this trap, how is it set up and, more importantly, how to avoid it?
As a quick disclaimer, the charts and examples are schematic and simple to get my point across. This is a blog, not a textbook.
New leaders get appointed to solve a business problem such as improving poor results of sorts. So from the start the new guy or gal is under pressure to perform and succeed. In politics the common public expectations are to see result or bold actions within the first 100 days – and business is not known for being less demanding.
So, soon enough the new leader faces a tough decision. Which choice do you favor?
“Worse before better” means doing “the right thing.” However, this approach may not deliver sustainable results fast and is a hard sell to impatient or less reasonable superiors.
“Better before worse” is a less stellar route to reap short-term benefits and lessen the immediate pressure but it comes at a price: knowing that the this choice is not sustainable and will cost more later down the road.
By the way, this is really not rocket-science but straight-forward logic yet many executives still get seduced by the low hanging fruit, namely “better before worse”… so stay with me for a moment to see what happens next.
“Better before Worse”
It starts out easy: you cut cost all over the place and look like a hero immediately. For example, you could reduce machine maintenance or cut the employee training budget. Schematically it looks somewhat like this:
What happens is that not only your balance sheet looks better quickly, you also increase productivity short-term. The machines keep running and people keep on working, so in the short-term you produce the same output with less input.
Productivity and the Capability Inertia
The problems arrive with a delay when ‘capability inertia’ starts kicking in. So here is what happens: You didn’t maintain the machines yet the machines keep working – for while. Then, they break really bad and it takes a lot more money to get them fixed than having them maintained. It’s like not putting oil in your car’s engine and driving on – somewhere down the road the engine will die on you. You will have to spend money to fix it and live with the downtime while fixing the machines.
At that time you find yourself in deep water and all your previous savings go up in smoke together with what else you didn’t budget for.
On the people side with employee training, for example, the effect is quite similar but often less obvious: You save the money for keeping them up-to-date with new technology, skilled, etc. and saved short-term. The real problem is your staff losing its professional capabilities to continue to perform on a high level in the face of competition or adapting to changing markets and environments. External focus comes with a cost of doing business – that you just eliminated, thereby fostering group-think and internal focus. Getting the crew back in shape later on takes effort and is expensive: not only will you have to train them but also they are unproductive during the training period.
With it comes the ‘leaky pipeline’ effect where valuable talent leaves. It is the best people who leave first (see How to retain talent under the new workplace paradigm?) if they see sweeping cost savings affecting critical investments in the company’s future capabilities and not surgically cuts. Talent does not wait it out on a sinking ship. If you are unfamiliar with the horrendous costs of turnover, check with your Human Resources person to get a sense for your burn-rate!
Despite all of this, many managers still embrace “better before worse” as the scenario of choice and believe they are “doing it the right way”.
Rewards for all the Wrong Reasons?
Unfortunately, performance and compensation frameworks in mature organizations usually support this easier approach. ‘Success’ is typically measured quarterly or yearly as a basis for bonuses, raises or promotions. The typical incentive systems don’t take long-term sustainability into account enough (other than stock options for publicly traded companies, for example) to change behavior.
Instead, rewards keep getting handed out on a short-term basis of evaluation. Research showed many times over that this approach simply doesn’t work for more challenging jobs of the 21st century. Don’t believe it? – Check out Dan Pink’s famous 18 minute TED talk “The Puzzle of Motivation” relating to the candle problem and motivation research.
As a bottom line, if don’t plan to hang around to ride out the consequences of your choice (or even have a golden parachute ready), “better before worse” appears an attractive shortcut to short-term success. Deep down, however, you know it was not the right thing to do. Your staff, your successor, and sometimes the entire company will suffer and face the consequence when you are gone. – So what could you do instead?
“Worse before Better”
There is an alternative choice: the stony road of “worse before better” by doing what is right. For leaders accepting responsibility this may be the only choice.
Right from the starts is gets tough: you increase cost to invest where things need to change most, be it people or technology. For example, invest in getting the best people to do the job and train them as well as you can for the challenges to come and step out of their way. Establish or overhaul technology, processes and managerial framework needed to deliver results reliably.
This takes time and money, so as you would expect, productivity suffers at first but then, if the change is executed well, recovers and quickly exceeds the additional costs by far while you deliver outstanding results reliably.
It is important here not to address all problems at one time but to prioritize and tackle change in smaller steps. Mind that change is a development process that doesn’t lend itself to shortcuts.
While this is clearly the more sustainable strategy the tough part is getting your stakeholders and superiors to buy in (especially if they are looking for short-term “better before worse” results) by setting realistic expectations. After all, “worse before better” is a sustainable basis for a business model where “better before worse” is not.
You may also have to accept not receiving the short-term performance incentives for doing the right thing if your incentive system does not reward building capabilities. However, there are other kinds of meaningful rewards to consider. They range from feeling good about withstanding the temptation, doing good for the company and its employees, as well as possibly getting attention from more forward-thinking parties who may want to hire you in the future as a leader with guts and brains.
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.
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.
Large organizations have vast resources – but this advantage inherently bears also a disadvantage: like large dinosaurs, with increasing size and maturity they lose the ability to adapt quickly to a changing environment as their smaller competitors can to seize business opportunities.
The Big Three
Let’s first identify the three typical obstacles that large organizations struggle with before we address how to disrupt and overcome them as intrapreneurs. The task at hand is to spark new energy, employee engagement and business growth opportunities in alignment with business strategy and company culture. By the way, if you are new to intrapreneuring, see also The Rise of the Intrapreneur and the Top 10 posts for Intrapreneurs.
So, these three big hurdles are the
Vertical Disconnect: Ideas from the bottom of the hierarchy do not find their way vertically to the top anymore to get implemented.
Horizontal Divide: Functional silos separate the workforce horizontally which limits putting to effective action the full potential of the company’s resources and diversity in a concerted way.
Inertia: More talking about change than taking action opens a widening gap between ideas and their implementation, as it is so much easier to lean back and improve incrementally than taking risks of major changes. Red-tape and ever mounting bureaucracy does its part to keep the wheels from turning and breeding a mindset of mediocrity.
These obstacles combine to form an unfavorable ecosystem of stagnation by containing innovative thoughts from growing and ripening, by inhibiting innovators to take action with passion and by blocking courageous action necessary to drive the organization’s future success and –possibly- survival.
Sketching a future innovation ecosystem
Here is what it takes to break the crust in order to reinvigorate and nourish innovation to flourish once again by creating an innovation-friendly ecosystem:
1. Vertical cut: Connect grass-root ideas with executive sponsors
A mechanism is needed to pipe fresh and promising ideas in an appropriate format from the grass-roots to find their way to executives, where the ideas get recognized, sponsored and put into motion for the better of the company. This holds true for disruptive break-through ideas in particular and in contrast to the continuous incremental improvement (see also 10x vs 10% – Are you still ready for breakthrough innovation?) that typically makes up most of the organizations day work.
Don’t be mistaken, executives worth their salt seek good ideas like the air they breathe. They are generally more open to necessary change and course corrections than one may think. The executives also hold the keys to feeding the ideas back into the machinery of the larger organization to get implemented.
A mechanism is needed that allows cutting vertically through the red-tape and hierarchical boundaries of the mature organization. It creates a pipeline of ideas that connect the top with the bottom of the organization and everything in between with intrapreneurial passion.
2. Horizontal cut: Connect across functions and geographical silos
Large organizations tend to foster functional (and geographical) silos to increase efficiency, quality, and reliability in their operations (again, see Leadership vs Management? What is wrong with middle management?). This, however, effectively inhibits ideas of game-changing nature to flow freely and being developed with input from diverse perspectives to the benefit of the larger organization.
A wise saying goes: “Innovation happens at the intersection of disciplines.” It is these diverse perspectives and adding brains to a problem that help to improve and develop an idea to become more robust, innovative and feasible. Thus, a mechanism is needed to effectively cut horizontally through organizational walls to allow employees to effectively collaborate, network and connect the established silos and islands.
3. Tangible results: Bridge the “Idea to Implementation” gap
In the end, what we to achieve is giving good ideas a chance that otherwise would never get considered or implemented – especially in a mature business environment that favors low-risk incremental improvement over more risky breakthrough experimentation (see 10x vs 10% – Are you still ready for breakthrough innovation?).
We need a mechanism that frees the intrapreneurial spirit of employees and directs the passion and potential of our employees’ ideas to tangible results that, ultimately, drive new business growth.
How does it work?
The intrapreneurial instruments and mechanism of this innovation ecosystem include, for example:
School for Intrapreneurs,
Internal corporate venturing,
Networks for implementation and
Opening to outside perspectives.
Over the next blog posts I will address each of these approaches (and perhaps more) and share my experiences from implementing exactly that successfully in a FORTUNE Global 500 company. So, check back soon or get updates via Twitter @OrgChanger.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Tear down cost center walls
Make presence easy
Level the (remote) playing field
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.
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.
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.
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 notsupporting 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
This second part of the blog post looks at how to make virtual teams work. Don’t miss the first part: “Why virtual teams fail“
Telecommuting is on the rise. It leads to more ‘virtual teams’, which means co-workers collaborate separated from another by location and often also time.
There is a bright side and a dark side to telecommuting.
Here is the upside: According to Staples Advantage’s study (see “Employers say work from home works“), 93% of employers found programs that allow employees to work from home benefits employees as well as companies. Half of the employers report more productive employees and 75% agree that telecommuting makes their employees happier. No wonder that the amount of telecommuters has roughly doubled in the US over the past 10-or-so years (http://www.globalworkplaceanalytics.com/telecommuting-statistics).
The stubborn tendency remains that work may get done at home, but careers are made in the office. The benefit of control over one’s work place and time comes at a price for the career as a recent study by Stanford University revealed: working from home cuts the chances for a promotion in half!
Obviously, there is a disconnect between where the professional world is moving towards rapidly and our mindset that seem to adapt slower and less flexibly to change using digital interaction for effective collaboration.
Because the world is not flat…
Even the most advanced and latest ‘virtual presence’ technology does not offer the same bonding with senior management as face-time does. The ones working from home can be overlooked or -when opportunity knocks- forgotten, even though they often work harder compared to in-office workers and their productivity is higher, as the study showed.
When it comes to telecommuting the world is not flat. Simply put, the playing field is not level between in-office and at-home workers, explains the gap between the positive perception of remote working by employers and employees alike, and the sobering reality of career crunch.
Furthermore, it is not the remote workers alone that require attention and need to be managed differently. It is also the staff remaining in the office (if there are any), since both parties are affected and need to perceive the same leveled plain.
It is human nature to favor those whom we feel close to and whom we work and spend time with in close proximity. To make working-from-home (or from anywhere else outside the office) work successfully, it is the management’s responsibility to level this playing field effectively and sustainably.
Achieving this is anything but easy; in particular, if managers are used to working out of an office. For them it means to break with their habits for the better of the organization. – It’s not impossible though: our habits of sitting at a table in front of a computer all day is just as unnatural for humans; yet we get used to it.
Cover the bases
There are some key aspects to make remote working work:
1. The work itself
First, the work must lend itself to be conducted remotely. Quite a no-brainer: other than in a factory setting, the necessary tangible tools and resources to collaborate cannot be concentrated in one place but must be accessible to the remote staff where ever they work from. For example, remote working is not possible for a factory assembling gadgets along a conveyor belt, where each worker contributes to some part of the process assembling the product. Tools are expensive and immobile, so resources need to be concentrated in around the tools to allow for efficient collaboration.
Not much different from factory workers, the collaboration of knowledge workers is enabled by tools to communicate and to share data and information. The difference is that technology allows information to be transmitted, so we can collaborate effectively and efficiently from all corners of the world. Choosing the most suitable collaboration tools can become a differentiating competitive advantage; you don’t want to lose quality or effectiveness when collaborating remotely.
2. The workers
Working from home is not for everyone for different reasons. It does require continued motivation and self-discipline to work from home as if in the office among co-workers. It takes establishing a new work-day routine in the isolated home environment that is invisible to co-workers. It becomes just as import for the home-workers to take regular breaks: Burnout can easily become an issue when home-workers over-compensate because they either feel under scrutiny by management and/or co-workers in the office. Also less interruptions at home can lead to missing breaks and working longer hours continuously than in the office.
When I introduced remote working as a pilot project in my department several years ago, one of my staff reported in the beginning that he felt guilty taking a bio-break at home, so not to appear unavailable to staff from other departments who remained working from the office.
3. The management
Managing a remote workforce requires a different management style. Managers need to become more pro-active, use communication channels that the staff is comfortable with and adopt ways to communicate with their staff transparently and effectively. Key points for managers are to:
Establish shared team goals
Establish communication best-practices together with the team; this also helps to mitigate timezone, language and cultural differences as well as choosing the proper communication channel depending on content
Manage by performance, not by face-time or physical presence
Actively create equal opportunities for on-site and off-site staff
Set clear rules for management and staff alike aiming to show transparency and leveling the playing field by incentivizing favorable behavior (a matter of organizational justice)
Remain flexible and ask your staff for ideas on how to improve knowledge-sharing and collaboration.
4. The performance metrics
Leveling the playing field comes down to truly embracing a performance culture that incentivizes results – not face-time. Managers need to articulate clear and measurable goals for the team and its individuals in advance and sometimes also more frequently than they used to. Acting transparently and objectively can be a serious challenge for managers and requires leaving the personal comfort zone.
To achieve this, training may be necessary to shift the culture of the organization and prepare management and their staff alike.
As an example, when I first introduced remote working, I asked my managers to establish and document weekly goals with each staff member and to review them for completion the following week. After a couple of months, I left it to the managers to use any other way to set and track performance with their staff. When some managers wanted to put away with the weekly goal agreement sheets, it was their staff who asked to keep them, as they valued the clear and documented goals in their hand. The staff also found them helpful to discuss facts during their following periodic performance reviews. Though not planned for, the weekly goal setting contributed measurably to increase trust of staff in their managers.
Plan for the “soft factors”
Interesting are the “soft factors”, which are the real make-or-break but often tend to get overlooked, forgotten or just not taken into account seriously. What it boils down to is the relationship (trust) and interaction (communication) between managers and their staff as well as among the members of a virtual team. These soft factors are subtile and often require behavioral changes or adaptation, more for managers than their staff.
Do you trust?
Take the time to ask yourself two questions honestly:
Do you trust yourself to be as productive working from home as in the office?
Do you trust your coworkers or your direct reports to work as productive from home too?
My own experiences are consistent with the research: we trust ourselves more than others. – And this is where the problem starts.
Why trust matters
A trustful personal connection is unsurpassed to build trust as a foundation for robust and sustainable business relationships and collaboration. Individuals trusting a person we don’t want to work or do business with this individual.
Trust also makes up much of the ‘social glue’ that holds together teams and organizations. Trust is critical for the success of virtual teams. With lack of trust also the willingness to share information dwindles and so does productivity.
When this happens, our energy gets wasted every day with concerns and redundant or counterproductive work. Workers focus to avoid perceived threats from others, which takes over more and more of their work time, focus, and productivity. In contrast, for people we trust we happily go the ‘extra mile.’
Trust (or the absence thereof) has been identified as the pivotal element ranging from detailed investigations in hundreds of organizations (by Virtual Distance International) to recent bestsellers like “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni.
Coming back to the two earlier questions, it proves hard turning the mirror towards ourselves and to accept that also we need to build trust with our co-workers to build and fuel our most robust and valuable business connects and relations.
What is trust?
Let’s take a closer look – what makes up trustful work relationships? Trust is an interpersonal phenomenon. It comes down to three factors that make up trust at the workplace as Karen Sobel Lojeski, NYU professor at Stony Brook and CEO of Virtual Distance International explains:
Benevolence – our co-workers have your best interest at heart
Ability – our co-workers have the knowledge and ability to get the job done
Integrity – our co-workers will do what they promise.
Innovation needs trust
High trust correlates with more successful innovation – why?
When colleagues trust another they open up and share information. Besides the obvious benefit of cross-fertilization that leads to more ideas and creative approaches, by giving away our views and knowledge we become vulnerable as an individual and even more so in a competitive professional environment. This openness comes with a risk to fail that people are only willing to take if failure is acceptable and does not come with repercussions.
Sharing ideas alone is not enough though. Asking thoughtful questions, constructive criticism and mutual support lead to better solutions while curbing hostility and competitiveness. Opening up happens when a task-related conflict will not easily deteriorate into a personal conflict. Innovation within an organization relies on trust among colleagues as a key ingredient that cannot be substituted otherwise.
How we build trust
Trust requires communication and is built most effectively face-to-face with another person, which offers the broadest information channels. An MIT study found a 47% higher performance in companies that are highly effective communicators. Team success is consistently tied to robust team communications. (I wonder if this communication-related increase in performance was ever considered by companies focusing on saving cost…)
Customer-facing business knows that no technology today can offer the same quality and trust-building dialog as in person face-to-face.
Thus, travel to meet business partners and team members remains essential at least in the beginning. Traveling more to meet in person is out of the question for organizations who boarded the ‘cost-cutting’ train: it is considered too expensive. Saving cost here, though, does not pay off over time when it cuts into building trust for good working relationships.
Even more important is trust-building when on-boarding new staff. It is a challenge if most or all work is done remotely by team members who already know and trust each other. It comes back to human nature that we tend to rely on the same people we worked with before, which puts newcomers at a natural disadvantage. Here, management must intervene to level the playing field and provide opportunities also for the new staff.
Perhaps, women are at a natural advantage to connect with others given a higher social sensitivity, i.e. the ability to ‘read’ other people’s emotions face to face better than men. This is also one of the three criteria that increases group intelligence (see “Boost ‘Group Intelligence’ for better decisions!“)
Investing in trust and technology
Since it is not possible (and defeats the purpose) to meet in person especially in virtual teams, we use digital technology to bridge the distance. Consequently, we need to invest in effective tools to remove communication barriers and open broad, information-rich channels of communication among all team members.
Rather than relying on one channel or system, it is more effective to enable the team to communicate by offering many channels that cater to the individual team member’s preferences; for example, phone, instant messaging, video chat, email, etc). For example, waiting more than one minute to establish a video-conference connection is too long and already poses a significant communication barrier.
‘Tele-presence’ seems to be the gold-standard for remote communication but sadly often remains reserved only for executive use if the technology is invested in at all.
Nonetheless, enabling technology can also enhance performance and add value by
Indicating if people are online and available to communicate
Finding experts or collaborators easily within large organizations
Share and exchange information to relevant audiences directly and without delay.
In contrast, here are some examples for communication barriers of organizations with a cost-saving focus that tends to include also ‘technological disablement’ such as
Using slow or time-delaying communication or productivity equipment
Users spending more time trying to connect than actually communicating
Information-poor channels or poor call quality
Resolving technology-related problems consumes a long time or is a cumbersome process.
The Deep Dive
Virtual Distance ™ is a powerful framework to identify and quantify barriers within virtual teams. This methodology helps not only to evaluate existing teams, but to anticipate barriers in future teams. Virtual Distance makes for a superb strategic forecasting and planning tool to build effective virtual teams.
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?
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.
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!
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 into 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!
The U.S. Army brand
Everyone knows the U.S. Army. This American icon has been around for well over 230 years!
The ‘U.S. Army’ is more than a well-known military force. We recognize it as a brand. Just like ‘Coca-Cola’ or ‘IBM’ portray and advertise a certain company image to sell its product, the U.S. Army needs to constantly appeal with a unique value proposition for new recruits to enlist. The ‘product’ offered if what the recruit expect to get out of it along the lines of ‘what is in it for me’ (WIIFM).
From this commercial perspective, it seems only natural that the U.S. Army hires world-class advertisement agencies to help meeting recruitment targets. Marketing and advertisement gained importance especially since the U.S. Army turned into an all-volunteer force in 1973. This is similar to a voluntary ERG membership.
Aiming at a moving target
We distinguish four generations at the workplace today. Each comes with different motivations and characteristics. The collective personality or zeitgeist influences each generation’s behavior and values. These need to be considered to adapt and effectively connect with each generation in its own way to maximize their potential and productivity for the better of the organization overall.
You can easily find this spectrum of generations reflected in the historic recruitment campaigns of the U.S. Army. The U.S. Army ‘brand’ changes over time and adapts to appeal and attract fresh recruits.
Let’s take a look at these recruiting campaigns for the four generations before we move on to extract the practical benefits for ERGs today:
1. Veterans, Silent or Traditional Generation (born 1922 to 1945)
I admit, in practice this campaign hardly affects today’s ERG anymore since most of this age group has already left the workforce by now.
Nonetheless, using the ‘propaganda’ flavor in this message proved very successful in both WWI and WWII.
‘Uncle Sam’ captures the essence of a generation of disciplined conformers with much respect for authority and an ingrained understanding that duty to the country is an obligation.
2. Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964)
The U.S. Army became an all-volunteer force in 1973, which changed the recruiting game entirely. Not being able to rely on a general draft anymore, the U.S. Army needed a new approach to attract a steady stream of voluntary recruits.
This coincided with an upcoming new generation of the younger Baby Boomers generally characterized as full of optimism and thirst for social engagement. To tackle the new challenge of effective marketing, the U.S. Army brought in a professional advertisement agency.
The first ads to the “Today’s Army wants to join you” campaign (1971 to 1980) suggest membership in a nice group of people sharing many similarities.
Also, women were now encouraged to enlist. It’s all about optimism, getting together and being involved!
This was a gutsy and somewhat liberal first step to attract a volunteer force. Though thinking ‘out-of-the-box’ it did not work out all that smoothly as indicated by changes following quickly.
This ad (1973 to 1976) is like a pendulum swinging back to the opposite extreme!
Tone and focus changed dramatically in this newer version of “Join the People” emphasizing the seriousness and commitment of being a soldier while also highlighting personal benefits.
The message is clear: No more playing around here, responsibility and duty is back, no more football on the beach!
Finally, the U.S. Army settled on a more balanced campaign.
Here is an example for “This Is the Army” campaign ads. The headlines read “In Europe You’re on Duty 24 Hours a Day, but the Rest of the Time Is Your Own” or “Back home, I wouldn’t mind doing the work I’m doing here” influenced also by a loss of military reputation after the Vietnam war.
One campaign or another, the U.S. Army missed its recruitment goal by more than 17.000 in 1979. This announced a new generation, GenX, coming with a different background and values that required the U.S. Army to re-think and find a new approach.
3. Generation X (born 1965 to 1980)
Birthrates cut into the recruitment pool. In addition, the smaller Generation X turns out to be tough to target.
This generation came with an inherent distrust of authority originating from geopolitical change as well as changes in western society and family structures. Despite GenX’s dominant drive for independence and self-reliance, this generation is also looking for structure and direction in life.
“Be All You Can Be” (1980 to 2001) emphasizes a personal challenge and an opportunity for self-development, i.e. taking charge of your fate to become a better individual. Note that the “we” is gone, it’s all about “me” for GenX.
The benefits offered by the U.S. Army included significant education support. (The U.S. military remains the largest ‘education organization’ in the U.S. in terms of funding tuition, in particular.)
The succeeding “Army of One” campaign (2001 to 2006) hits the true core of the independent GenX by underlining the single person in their message.
However, the campaign was also short-lived because a focus on the independent individual appeared contrary to the idea of teamwork that any military organization relies on and cannot work without.
Facing demographic decline, recruiting advertisement reached out into Spanish-speaking ‘markets’ (in a campaign known as “Yo Soy el Army”) to tap into the increasing Hispanic population.
The U.S. Army made more use of TV advertisement to reach GenX, a generation brought up in front of a TV.
Perhaps the boldest recruitment stunt was the 1986 smash movie “Top Gun” – sponsored by the Pentagon in need of a major image boost. And it worked! Think about it: Tom Cruise is a self-reliant ace who has a problem with accepting authority – a poster-boy Gen-Xer. In the end, he became a valuable team player for the greater good meeting the military’s needs and got the girl.
4. Generation Y or Millennials (born 1981 to 2001)
The ongoing “Army Strong” campaign builds on a proposition of lifelong strength through training, teamwork, shared values and personal experience. – What a change from the previous focus on independence for GenX!
Here, ‘strength’ is meant literally: The U.S. Army overhauled the fitness training to ‘toughen up’ this generation. Weakened by a more tranquil lifestyle (such as video-gaming), GenY-ers often lack experience with physical confrontation that is unavoidable and crucial for effective warriors.
Perhaps confusing for older generations, “Army Strong” caters to GenY’s interest in making a difference not only in their lives but also for their extended communities. Work is less central in this generation while individuality and leisure value high.
The campaign milks the social ties deliberately addressing not only recruits but also the people who love and support them, i.e. the people who influence the recruits’ decisions such as family and friends as well as the broader public.
Consequently, the U.S. Army presents itself more as a responsible and somewhat selfless social service in advertisements by highlighting how soldiers serve their communities and for their nation beyond executing force during a conflict.
The U.S. Army adapts its spectrum of communication channels to keep up with GenY, a generation for which technology serves as an extension of their personality and their physical selves. Constantly online and connectedness with an appealing adventurous fun-factor, the U.S. Army is present across the entire landscape of noteworthy social media these days – it even entertains its own video game to warm up GenY.
Targets on the demographic curve
Next-generation ERGs and the U.S. Army both aim to attract a specific demographic: The U.S. Army targets 17 to 24-year-old recruits, looking at the lower end, while ERGs typically look for the older end, i.e. young adults with professional training, perhaps a college degree and some work experience.
Thus, the U.S. Army’s target demographic starts just a few years younger than the typical employees entering the (civilian) workforce, so the U.S. Army operates a bit ahead of the age curve that becomes relevant for ERG membership recruitment.
Let the U.S. Army do your research!
Using this time difference to their advantage, next-generation ERGs, in particular, benefit from the U.S. Army doing the heavy lifting with regard to generational research. With the U.S. Army’s advertisement contract worth more than $200 million each year (or $2,500+ per recruit) don’t fool yourself: an ERG will never have funds anywhere close to hire a top-notch advertisement agency for attracting new members … unless you are perhaps the guys who invented Google or so… J
From a next-generation-ERG’s perspective, here is what you can reap:
Using its marketing dollars, the U.S. Army identifies the characteristics of your future demographics for you – for free! Look at how the U.S. Army is targeting today. It gives you a clear picture of what the characteristics are of your next ERG generation tomorrow.
The U.S. Army shares its findings publicly. This includes a sharp outline of the specific characteristics of the youngest employees that enter your workplace now or it in the near future. So, keep an eye on the U.S. Army’s next recruiting campaign and time is on your side!
Trial-and-Error without getting hurt
It gets even better. The U.S. Army provides you with field test results on whether their findings hold true in practice: The U.S. Army’s annual recruitment figures serve as a success criterion for the recruiting campaign. These figures are available in the public domain and found easily online within seconds.
The early warning signal
If the actual Army recruitment figure exceeds or falls short of the target figure (somewhere around 80.000 recruits each year), you get an idea what worked and what did not. The latter reflects not only that the campaign lost effectiveness but may also indicate that the next generation has arrived with a changed set of values and characteristics. – Use this as a free early‑warning system for your ERG!
Note that over the past five years the U.S. Army’s number of “accessions” (=recruits) exceeded the “mission” (=target value); note though that the “mission” bar was lowered in 2009 and 2010.
When the U.S. Army misses its recruitment target in the future, the next campaign is just around the corner. A significant change in the core message targets the next generation. So, here comes your next lesson and opportunity for the ERGs!
Back to the Future?
If the U.S. Army is not for you, don’t worry. Choose any military branch of your liking – they all face the same challenge. You don’t need to love the military to learn from it, and the lessons are valuable.
As a general yet effective approach to strategic innovation, keep an eye on industries and organizations that face similar challenges earlier than you do. Learn from them and prepare your business and ERG for the change.
The proposed business model for ERGs forms a foundation for continued innovation, strategic alignment and measurable results. It turns an ERG into a true and sustainable business resource for its members as well as the hosting organization.
Summary – The increasing diversity of employees at the workplace led to employees gathering along affinity dimensions like birds-of-a-feather to form networking groups within organizations. The next step goes beyond affinity and establishes employee resource groups (ERGs) strategically as a business resource and powerful driver for measurable business impact and strategic innovation bottom-up.
Limited to social?
Employee resource groups (ERGs) emerge for various reasons. They tend to start with a social underpinning that naturally unites and organizes like-minded employees. ERGs come in different flavors mostly along the traditional lines of diversity characteristics such as ethnicity, skin color, age, gender, physical (dis)ability, sexual orientation, military veterans, etc.
For ERGs, a ‘social stickiness’ is important and can be the key integrating factor of employee populations within organizations. It may also influence the choices of ERG goals and activities to a large extent. This may result, however, in possibly limiting the ERG and its members to be seen as a ‘social club’ of sorts by others. Management, in particular, may not see the direct (or even indirect) positive business impact that an ERG can have.
This is where ERGs can fall short: when they fail to tie a strong business-focused bond that ensures continued support by leadership that in return ensures the ERG can sustain and proper for the better of its members as well as the hosting organization.
Becoming a business resource
From a management perspective, ERGs can provide social ties within the workforce that are mostly seen as favorable ‑ at least as long as it does not affect the employee performance; whether perceived or real.
Better off is the ERG that demonstrates an unambiguous contribution to the bottom line. A clear business value proposition sets a solid foundation that makes it easy to communicate with and convince executives securing their continued support. The company benefits from positive business outcomes as a direct result of the ERG activities, while it engages employees broader and deeper. This uses more of the employees’ true potential to ‘maximize the human capital’ as an important element also of employee engagement, development and retention.
This approach serves not only the company but has advantages also for its employees and the ERG in return. The ERG members benefit directly in many ways such as by interesting work outside the immediate scope of their job, by developing new skills and by increasing their visibility within the organization and continued ‘employability’, i.e. their personal market value as an employee.
So what is the key to success, how do you ‘build’ an innovation-driven and business-focused ERG?
A ‘business model’ for ERGs
My proposal is to establish the ERG as a self-propelling and sustainable system, an ongoing process that continues functioning quite independently from changes in the ERG leadership and consistently delivers innovations. Individual leaders are important for operations and make valuable contributions, but the ERG must be able to continue functioning even if key players become unavailable and replaced.
The following dimensions are generic and apply to any organization. Here, we use them to describe a general business model for the ERG:
To illustrate the model and making it more tangible I use a generic example. It is based on NxGen (for Next Generation at the Workplace), a generational-oriented and business-focused ERG that I founded. NxGen was recognized in early 2010 as a best-practices approach by the National Affinity Leadership Congress (NALC).
The strategy brings to the point the ERG’s goal and objectives. A well-thought-out value proposition is a foundation for the ERG.
For example, NxGen is a forum to develop leadership skills, networking and problem-solving that aims to open up cross-functional/cross-disciplinary opportunities for its active members through strategic business projects with measurable results. As a goal, NxGen aims to become a sounding board for management as a valued business resource.
2. People practices
People, active volunteers, are the life-blood of every ERG. Staffing and selection are crucial and continued activities to induce fresh ideas and prevent burn-out of established ERG members. What you are looking for are active volunteers who are passionate and energetic. You want members who become active change agents, role models, within the organization. Value a diverse set of backgrounds and capabilities that can complement another.
Rather than trying to recruit new members, focus on how to attract new members to engage and actively participate (in contrast to the ones signing up to receive email updates or a periodic newsletter, which is a passive form of membership). NxGen membership is open to all employees.
There is a broad range of benefits for active ERG members that can include (but are definitely not limited to):
Insight and work in other business functions and departments
Members lead a relevant project possibly in another business function
Experiment and learn in a safe and nurturing environment
Develop and apply skills like leadership, consulting, problem-solving
Build an open and supportive network with members coaching each other
Increased visibility within the organization
Potential to open new career opportunities
Making a measurable change in the organization here and now.
At NxGen, we see that younger employees (primarily Generation Y also called Millennial, born after 1980) tend to drive the ERG activities most. The explanations I offer is that GenY’ers, in particular, enter the workplace as well-educated professionals, optimistic and motivated to make a difference. GenY was brought up to believe they can achieve anything and are interested to explore lateral career moves. They are used to collaborating in teams to overcome obstacles and network while leveraging technology effectively to this end. At the workplace, GenY typically is not (yet) part of the decision-making bodies due to their junior positions ‑ but they do want to be heard (and should be listed to given their increasing numbers in the demographic shift of the population that has reached the workforce).
The ERG acts through business-relevant projects. At NxGen, the member ‘grass-roots’ identify otherwise un-addressed or under-served business needs that the ERG chooses to pursue. Based on a clear value proposition (return-on-investment, ROI) for the organization the ERG seeks executive sponsorship for each project. The executive sponsor ensures strategic alignment with the organization’s goal, expertise in the functional area, political support and funding for the project (since the ERG has no funds of its own).
The project scope often lays outside of the immediate job description of the ERG-appointed project leader allowing for broader hands-on learning opportunities. Applying professional project management methods to all projects ensures the projects deliver the specified deliverables.
The ERG core team steers and administrates the ERG project portfolio which is documented in an annual business plan and shared publicly. As resources are limited, not all imaginable projects can be conducted at once but are staged. Projects can build upon and leverage each other while making use of synergies whenever possible.
In the beginning, it might be challenging to find meaningful projects that make the best use of the ERG’s resources and capabilities with favorable business impact. It takes time and persistence to develop a trustful relationship with executive management and to gain credibility as an ERG to attracts more complex and important projects from management in return.
NxGen works and communicates openly, it acts transparently and leverages (social) media to inform and connect with its members and non-members displaying operations and result of the ERG’s work.
The NxGen ERG operates within a general framework set by a company’s office to ensure all ERGs abide the company policies. This office also provides an organizational home for ERGs within the company. It generally coordinates and supports the different activities across ERGs and ensures each ERG has a distinguished executive sponsor to connect the ERG with senior management.
A charter defines the basic roles and processes of the NxGen ERG in more detail and is posted publicly. A core team of active members guides the ERG activities and ensures ERG operability. The core team is lead by the ERG’s elected chair and co-chair(s); it further comprises the project leaders, distinguished role-holders, and liaisons to key functions in the organization. The core team members support and advise each other. The ERG provides a safe and social environment that relies on trust among the members to connect, to build relationships, to network and to run projects.
NxGen actively reaches out to other ERGs, innovative groups within the organization but also other operating units and companies to cooperate, share, benchmark and collaborate on common goals.
5. Metrics and rewards system
How do you measure success, i.e. the effectiveness of an ERG? An annual business plan covers the portfolio of ERG projects. It serves as an instrument to measure the ERG performance across all ERG activities that the ERG chair is held accountable for.
What are the rewards for active ERG members? Besides the benefits listed in the above section ‘People’, accountability and success for individual members derive from their projects or their input to other ERG activities that all have clear objectives and a success metrics attached. Driving the change and making a difference is a reward in itself.
NxGen and individual members received several awards and recognition for their work inside and outside the company which the ERG celebrates in public. Some members list their ERG involvement and experience proudly on their résumé which is an indicator that the ERG’s value proposition is effective for its members, i.e. the members value the ERG membership, projects, recognition and awards as means of their ‘employability’.
Building the ERG as an innovation incubator
The business model positions the ERG clearly as a powerful business resource for the organization but it can be even more. The ERG can serve as an ‘innovation incubator’ by combining an attractive system with creative space in an effective governance framework. The processes create measurable value for the individual and the organization that can significantly contribute to process innovation and also drives product innovation.
In an empowering bottom-up movement, the ERG directly connects its active members from any level of hierarchy with the decision-makers high up. This bears the potential to cut right through established or perceived boundaries such as hierarchy, bureaucracy, and red-tape or functional silos that may severely limit the effectiveness and innovative effectiveness of other units that were created top-down within the organization.
Herein lays the deeper potential of ERGs as a true business resource and going beyond possible self-inflicted limitation to social affinity. ERGs can well be the means that contribute to driving the future success of an organization for an organization that understands and value how ERGs open opportunities to tap into its workforce and unleashes hidden potential.
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?
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!
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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!