Tag Archives: motivating employees

Warning: Innovation isn’t Comfortable

Nearly every organization I have worked with, either as an employee or as some form of consultant, wants to be known as “innovative.”  Organizations want to produce innovative products or services, or they want to be on the leading edge of <insert area here>, or they want to be innovative places to work such that they draw the greatest talent to their doors.

So nearly every organization wants to be innovative, but truly, very few ever achieve innovation.  Why is that?  Why is it so difficult for an organization, of any size, to be “innovative?”  After years of working with and for several organizations, I finally have seen the recurring patterns that thwart innovation.  I believe I finally have found the answer.  Are you ready?

Innovation isn’t comfortable.  Innovation doesn’t follow the process.  Innovation is chaotic.

That’s it.  No need to read further.  Okay, for those of you with time on your hands, a bit more explanation, by way of example.

When it’s time to hire in new senior level employees, organizations are often inclined to hire “outside-of-the-box” thinkers.  These individuals are energetic, hard-working, and have an internal passion for the business, whatever it is, that no typical worker can understand.  They tend to come into an organization with a bombastic flair and go forth breaking all the rules.

For the first few years, the typical workers who manage the processes tend to “chuck it up” to the short tenure of the innovative-driven hires.  These innovators simply don’t know the processes.  Why in no time at all, think the process workers, the innovators will conform and fill out the paperwork and wait in line just like the others.

As the process workers tire of the unprocessed innovators, the apple cart upsets.  The process workers refuse to move forward unless the process is followed strictly.  The innovators refused to move backward to processes that worked well for the last generation of customers, but that won’t work for the next generation of customers who too, are beginning to tire of the old product or service and looking for whatever is new and exciting.  Internally, the process-driven are at odds with the innovation-driven, and someone must win.

Along comes executive management.  What do they do?  The most common reaction I have witnessed is that executive management continues to shout “innovation” while holding tightly to the reigns of process.  What follows are closed-door meetings and sensitivity training and team-building exercises.  And in my experience, it never works.  The end result typically finds the highly-mobile innovator moving on to the next organization where the executive management there is also courting innovation (and the scenario often repeats itself).  In addition, the departing innovator leaves behind legions of supporters who got excited and stuck out their necks in the name of innovation wondering what the repercussions will be.  Will the process workers punish the innovator-supporters?  Or will the process workers simply relish their victory and go back to dotting their “i’s” and crossing their “t’s” leaving the innovation-supporters to grieve the loss of their innovator?  And how will executive management react?  Will they again seek an innovator or will they find it more comfortable to put their heads down and just follow process?

The morale of this story?  Executive management – it is up to you to turn the dream of innovation into a reality.  You’re either for it or against it.  In this case, there is no middle-ground.  If you truly desire to be an innovative organization, beware.  Innovation is uncomfortable, and by definition, it upsets current processes.  In fact, sometimes, innovation turns processes upside-down.  It creates chaos and if your organization is not set up to be comfortable supporting and managing chaos from the top down, innovation may not be your thing.

Not every organization needs to be an innovator.  Arguably, most are not, yet non-innovative companies can still be profitable by exercising whatever the competitive advantage is that they maintain.  Non-innovative companies can still be good places to work.  It’s exciting to be an innovative organization, no doubt.  They get all the press in the trade rags and their employees are often on the conference speaker dockets held in exotic places.  But it’s more comfortable adopting innovation slowly and tweaking processes.   So what’s it going to be –  comfort or chaos?  Pick one.

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Misery and Wet Noodles in the Workplace – A 40-Something-Manager’s Epiphany

Though I’ve been in the professional workplace for about two decades now, there are days when I feel like I just started – bright-eyed and naïve about the ways of the workforce.  As you gain years, you have your bubbles burst – some quickly in that first year and others more slowly, particularly as you gain knowledge of politics and other impenetrable barriers that exist.  You also realize as you gain experience that these barriers live in all workplaces.  Moreover, having been employed in a handful of organizations, I have found that the same personalities have existed in all, just under different names and faces (which come to think of it, might be a fun, future post!).

Those admirable professionals that cannot bear to work within preset barriers or work around barrier-setting personalities and who are risk-takers are the ones we see start their own companies.  Those of us who aren’t so risky, well, we take one of two paths.  We either work within the barriers and around challenging personalities, while trying our hardest to chip away at the barriers for the good of our workforce and our own sanity.  Or, we burn out, focus our efforts on that which we can control in our own department or unit and don’t worry about the big picture because after years of trying to push change, we get frustrated.  You know the people that I’m talking about.  I still recall some of the names of these now inward-focused middle managers at my former employers – there was Ted and Pete and Phil, and a few more of course. 

At points of high frustration with what I believed to be simple and logical changes for the better of the organization, Ted or Pete or Phil would wander to my office, sit down with an empathetic ear, and then advise me that they too had face similar issue(s) “in their day,” and after 20 years of trying to change it, had given up, accepted it and worked within it.  And this I would find amazing.  How could you give up?  But, as I grow in years, I have gained appreciation for their perspective.  Pushing the wet noodle of change is exhausting, and at what point to do you just give in saving your energy for perhaps more rewarding things like your family or friends or other aspects of your life?

I’ve always been a chipper and a pusher of wet noodles up hills.  I ache when I see inefficiency in operations and when I see unhappy employees.  And every time, I can visualize how to make things work more smoothly or how to make employees, my colleagues, happier with their environment.  After all, we’re spending a better part of our lives in the office.  Why not make it a fun place to work?  And I’m confident that fun and professional can be combined.  You don’t have to be stuffy to be professional – really!

But alas, I had a bubble-bursting epiphany the other day.  As I mentioned, in nearly every organization of some size, you see many of the same personalities at work.  There are the optimists, the motivators, and the quiet and highly efficient types.  There are those that seem to spend more time getting around doing work than doing the work.  There are the “I’m so busy all the time” types who go on and on about all the hours they are working, but you never see any work product to prove it, and there are the highly motivated, get it done and ask for more types.  And there are the complainers who find misery in so much of the organization that I always wondered, “Why do they stay?  Why not leave the organization and find a position where you will be happier?”  It can’t be rewarding to be that miserable every day for 10+ hours a day.  Or, can it?

And this was the epiphany!  Some employees, I believe, actually prefer to be miserable!  For whatever reason, they enjoy complaining about every aspect, every program, and most of their colleagues.  They don’t leave, because it is likely that every organization they have been at, that they did the same thing.  It’s not that they are absolutely frustrated with their job, or colleagues, or management, they just simply enjoy complaining about it all.  And they seek out others who will commiserate, and they do.

For me, this is liberating and why I’m blogging about it.  For years, I’ve tried in small and sometimes larger ways to improve morale in the workplace.  I’ve endeavored to make all employees happier and more satisfied.  I realize now, “all employees” is an impossible mission.  And that makes it easier.  I can concentrate on developing communication avenues and other employee-friendly tools to better the morale for the majority of employees.  And I can take satisfaction in the majority’s increased morale versus believing myself to be a failure because I cannot improve things for “all” employees.  I understand now that certain segments do not want improvement – they thrive, for whatever reason, on being miserable at work.  And as long as they get their work done and do not contaminate the rest of the organization with despair, who am I to suppress their enjoyment of misery?

So while I appreciate the positions of my former colleagues, Ted and Pete and Phil, I am not ready to stop pushing wet noodles up hills.  However, I will be better at selecting the hills – avoiding, once I identify who resides there, the hill of misery, since no matter how hard I push, I am not welcome there, and that is okay by me and its residents.  It just got easier!