Business leaders love to say that they are harnessing the intelligence of their organisations. But without the right systems and cultural structures in place, they are probably deluding themselves.
The problem with 'harnessing the intelligence of an organisation' is that it is so obviously a good idea that many mangers and leaders are convinced they are doing it already. After all, the leadership team is few, and the organisation is many; the organisation as a whole knows more than any one person; a great idea doesn't care who has it. Everyone knows this stuff.
Well, we all think that we know it, but it remains the case that remarkably few organisations put this idea into effective practice. Here are a few questions that may help to reveal whether your approach to harnessing the intelligence of your organisation is real and thoroughgoing, or whether it is more of a good intent—something that occasionally produces a good result, but more by serendipity than by design.
- What permanent systems are in place through which any member of the team can make an input? ('The Suggestion Box' or its electronic equivalent is not the right answer.)
- Is there genuinely a culture in place throughout the organisation that invites, recognises and rewards contributions from the organisation as a whole?
- Would anybody in the organisation, if questioned, volunteer that contributing ideas about quality improvement and innovation is a part of their basic job description?
- If a member of the team wanted to use his or her time to work on a new idea that they felt had potential, would it be easy for them to do so?
- Would colleagues be able to get help and assistance to explore a new idea—possibly even to assemble a temporary team of like-minded people and some physical or virtual tools?
Encouraging people to make a contribution - genuinely harnessing the intelligence of the organization - takes hard work and planning. It needs systems in place. Most importantly, there has to be a culture running right through the organisation that informs the actions of every team member. They need to come to work in the morning hoping that they will be able to contribute something that will make the organisation work just that little bit better.
Putting innovation and improvement at the heart of organisations
Leaders have wrestled with this issue for a long time. Bob Hewlett, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, famously tore the padlock off a tool store that he found locked when he went in one weekend to work on a new project, in the early days of the rapidly growing company. He left a note saying that the store should never be locked: if anybody wanted to use their spare time to work on an engineering idea that might turn into the company's next big project, then the company wanted to encourage them.
This was not some passing whim of Hewlett's. The company systematically and methodically created working conditions that would harness employees' enthusiasm and experience. Test areas were deliberately located next to assembly lines - if the testing engineers discovered a problem, they could walk right over and discuss it with the manufacturing line. Engineers were given the tools to pursue pet projects, all of which would receive the considered attention of senior management.
In the late 1990's David Whitman, chairman and CEO of Whirlpool, the largest worldwide appliance maker, decided that the company could no longer rely on a few major new projects requiring major funding: it needed a lot of new ideas that could be explored relatively inexpensively. He appointed an innovation champion and created three Innovation boards (I-boards) made up from senior leaders. But the fundamental work was done at a grass-roots level.
As the HR magazine Human Resource Planning reported in March 2007: The process of embedding innovation in the company included training 22,000 employees to look for market and in-job innovations. System changes, organisational design, customer marketing—all have to have innovation as a "front-of-mind" dimension. Importantly, the process also included tying short and long-term incentives to the value of the I-pipeline and the number of experiments in progress. In 2006, the value of the pipeline had grown from under $350 million to over $3 billion.
These examples are frequently aired, but their significance is perhaps often overlooked.
Innovation and improvement should not be the responsibility of management or of a particular team - the whole organisation should be involved and is the most likely source of successful new ideas. And leaders must put significant systems in place, both structurally and culturally, to enable and encourage the process.
If you are really serious about harnessing the intelligence of your organisation or your team, you will need to change the way that everybody thinks and behaves in order to put improvement and innovation at the heart of the operation. You will need to create structures to enable and recognise this. Nothing less will really work.