Your Company’s Top Innovation Weapon26 January, 2016 / Articles
What do the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, President of ESPN and ABC Sports divisions, and the founder of Famous Amos Cookies all have in common? They began their careers in the mailroom.
While I imagine these strong corporate leaders gained incredible expertise, insight and experience along their career journeys, you can bet they weren’t clueless neophytes in the mailroom when they were just getting their start.
A common symptom we see in organizations and industries across the world – particularly those struggling to innovate and stay relevant – is that they place a value judgment on where they believe their next best idea will come. It’s as though innovation is exclusively reserved for the innovate few: 1) senior leaders, 2) personnel in the strategy group, 3) product teams whose day job it is to innovate and 4) external consultants.
Yet, we see a tenfold increase in innovation when all employees are both expected and given the permission to find ways to innovate and improve their organizations every day.
Consider the following situations:
A global pharmaceutical/medical devices corporation was struggling to deliver a product on time due to demand that far outstripped their most optimistic forecasts. While further manufacturing capacity was being built, it simply wouldn’t be fast enough. We convened a cross-functional team from across the globe comprised of sales and marketing experts, supply chain, packaging, compliance and logistics professionals all focused on one singular goal – accelerate the cycle time from manufacturing to product delivery in 90 days or less.
As the team began to struggle with the question of how to shave days off their cycle time, a junior distribution professional from the U.S. shared a frustration. “When we pack and sterilize the pallets to be sent to Europe versus other parts of the world, it takes us at least double the time it does for other geographies. Why is that?” Almost immediately, his German counterpart deflected the unintentional criticism by saying, “And it takes us twice as long to unpack any of the product that we receive from the U.S.”
After about five minutes of discussion the group realized that they were complying with outdated policies that had long governed their global distribution practices. The most junior person on the team identifying a 10% improvement in cycle time was the first of many quick wins. Similar conversations unfolded throughout the team’s two-day launch session and, just 90 days later, the team achieved a 35% improvement in overall cycle time which far exceeded the senior leadership team’s expectations.
A large hospital system identified the patient experience as a critical strategic priority for all of its hospitals, a particularly important focus in light of Medicare and Medicaid Services reimbursements being tied to patient satisfaction scores. A cross-functional team made up of physicians, administrators, nurses and patient care assistants was brought together to identify methods to decrease the average length of patient stays – a significant driver of both hospital costs and worsening patient care.
Guess who identified the most important innovation that led to millions in annualized savings? It was a patient care assistant. Not only was she the most junior person on the team, but also had the least amount of formal education.
These are merely two of countless personal examples of the “least likely” member of a team contributing the most important thinking to the success of a strategic initiative. These experiences should precipitate a number of questions for your organization:
Does your organization systematically celebrate these types of wins or new ways of working and thinking? How often does your organization reinforce the importance that everyone can and must contribute their ideas to stay competitive? To what extent do your people feel comfortable experimenting with the status quo, even if it means falling down and scraping their knee, only to get back up and try again?
What can your organization do to immediately ratchet up its innovation quotient?
- Embrace the many versus the few:Innovating every day requires more minds, unique perspectives and experiences contributing to the success of the business – not less. Extricate the sole innovation responsibilities from the top of the house and distribute it to the entire organization, thus reinforcing its importance as a cultural imperative.
- Cultivate the permission to innovate:Most organizations lack both the permission and collective venue to explore and experiment with new ways of working. If the vast majority of your people are not regularly a part of cross-functional initiatives comprised of all levels and multiple roles, you are failing to tap into an incredible wealth of talent just sitting on the sidelines. I assure you – many of these individuals are craving opportunities to contribute more than their day job permits.
- Celebrate innovation wins, big and small:Many organizations make the mistake of only celebrating a new product or service and fail to recognize the many micro behavioral changes or necessary mini wins along the innovation journey, from creative concept development to the application of that concept.
- Embrace the notion of pseudo-serendipity:The most junior members of countless cross-functional teams contributing multi-million dollar ideas are not serendipitous or random. Actively design work to ensure your “least likely” team members have an opportunity to emerge as important contributors.
The Harvard Business Review recently reported that 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees. That’s not an accident. And that’s not enough. Too often we forget to invite the “least likely” to the table. Our best ideas may just be stuck in the mailroom.