The following is a guest piece by Kotter International President, Russell Raath on behalf of The Economist Executive Education Navigator.
How often have you heard the phrase “that’s not how we do it here” uttered in your workplace? When employees suggest new ways to tackle challenges, are their contributions welcomed—no matter how outside-the-box they may be? Are staff members empowered to test new ideas and report back to management on their successes, as part of helping the organization constantly adapt and improve?
Maybe you have some version of the “suggestion scheme” where ideas are sent into some inbox in the cloud – where someone (hopefully) reviews them and determines whether an idea is viable and has merit.
In most organizations, the answers to these questions are often “no” or“never”. Yet the most innovative companies—those that can face challenging times and emerge stronger than ever—often recognize a key truth that is missing in many traditional, hierarchical organizations. That truth is that great ideas don’t only come from senior management.
The idea that saves the business $10 million may come from a production line supervisor; the concept that opens up an entirely new market for your products might come from a junior sales rep.
The point, one that smart organizations have realized, is that great ideas can come from any level of the organization. This is a concept explored in great depth in Dr. John Kotter’s latest business fable, “That’s Not How We Do It Here!”, which chronicles a clan of meerkats struggling with a drought that reduces their resources and leads to the rise of dangerous new predators.
Written as a business book, there are a number of key lessons on how leaders, at any organizational level, can bring great ideas to the surface:
1. Climb to new heights as if you’ve never fallen before
Regardless of title or level, leaders must teach their peers that just because they haven’t worked a certain way or tried out a new idea doesn’t mean they can’t. Half the battle to successful innovation and problem-solving is getting over that mental barrier of “I can’t”.
Deliberately create the culture to support risk-taking and discovery; create an environment where trying out ideas that may seem ridiculous, dangerous or outright wrong is encouraged.
Giving non-management employees the freedom to test out new ideas or step up as leaders is critically important to pushing forward as an organization and responding to challenges.
The best organizational cultures are those where employees are both expected and given the permission to find ways to innovate and improve their organizations every day, so that their gut reaction is not to say “I can’t” in response to new ideas or ways of working, but to feel comfortable experimenting with the status quo—even if it means falling down, getting back up and trying again.
2. Voice that “crazy” idea regardless of your title level
We are often told that inspirational ideas and leadership capability are directly related to hierarchy level. It’s an idea institutionalized in the concept of “hero” leaders, such as Steve Jobs, where those individuals are revered and seem to be the only people able to lead their organization to success. But the secret to truly agile and innovative companies is this: they encourage and invite new ideas from all levels and see leaders at every level.
The idea that seems crazy at first—developing sustainable new resources from something previously considered refuse—may be the key to helping your organization weather lean times, might build a new product line or fuel faster growth that keeps you leagues ahead of the competition.
How to do this? One approach that works well in fostering innovation and encouraging risk-taking at all levels is the creation of employee networks that operate within your existing operating hierarchy.
Based on our research at Kotter International, we know that a typical day job in a traditional hierarchy likely involves compliance to a service level or standard operating procedure and usually provides little room to experiment.
Informal networks, comprised of a diverse cross-section of the organization, can enable employees to move incredibly fast in ideation and implementation (at a pace far faster than the traditional reporting structures can handle) and provide them the permission to try out new ideas and concepts.
Passion and capacity are the only requirements for participation. And, once the freedom to try out new ideas becomes ingrained in employees’ behavior, it can spread and transform the entire culture of your organization to be nimbler and more creative.
3. Challenge the status quo as if no one’s judging you
If being open and willing to try out new ways of working isn’t practiced and encouraged in the culture at the top of the organization, how will junior employees have the courage to voice their ideas? While it’s true that ideas can come from leaders at all levels, recognizing and pushing those concepts into action often necessitates support from senior leaders who are willing to champion the ideas of those below them.
When employees are encouraged and empowered to speak up by their superiors, they become energized to participate even more. In fact, giving voice to one new idea will often fuel a cascade of new thinking that can feed a test-fast, fail-fast environment that identifies the best ideas that can help elevate the organization as a whole.
There is a huge dependency here, and it is it this: leaders need to let go of their need for absolute control and be comfortable in allowing their smart, engaged and knowledgeable employees to take calculated risks as they seek to improve their job, their work, their clients’ experience, etc.
While obstacles can come from anywhere, the biggest barrier to change often comes from our leaders and peers. It takes leaders who are willing to stand up for and speak passionately about the need to think differently, test out new ways of working to push the organization forward and create the conditions that can support organizational transformation. And then those leaders need to demonstrate that behavior too. “Do as I do, not only as I say.”
Russell Raath, President at Kotter International, the leadership and strategy acceleration firm founded by renowned Harvard Business School professor Dr. John Kotter, is responsible for supporting major client engagements that unlock the full power of organizations to achieve strategic, sustainable results faster than leaders believe possible.
This article originally appeared on The Economist Executive Education Navigator. Click here to view the original article.
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