Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘workplace initiatives’

Why Do Ideas Have Such a Hard Time Surviving at Work?

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Image: Bob RosnerAn old UK study found that 81% of people had their best ideas outside of the office (but you’ll have to guess what percentage found them in the bathroom!).

Visit any business web site, read current business magazines or listen to business gurus and it’s all about the “ideas”. In fact, it sometimes feels like “new ideas” are the answer, no matter what the question.

This blog will spend time NOT exploring how to think outside the box. Rather, it will look into how we all got jammed into the box in the first place and why it’s bad for our organizations and really bad for us. And deadly for new ideas.

Okay, let’s give you some additional information on that UK study about where our best ideas are generated. Sony Ericsson conducted the study and found 81% had their best ideas outside of the office. Top places for idea generation? The car, in bed and socializing. At the bottom of the list was in the pub. And finally, as promised above, 6% of us have our best ideas in the toilet.

So why do we have to escape our desk to find our best ideas? I’ve got three reasons why. First is the ubiquitous cubicle. Sure a great idea can come to you while sitting in a cube, but is it because of the cube or in spite of the cube? The cubicle company’s literature emphasizes that cubes foster conversation, bring teams closer together and can be darn good looking. But the reality is that we need less noise and distraction, especially if we are going to wander in that fragile area called idea generation.

Another part of the problem is the tendency of organizations to promote the people who have never had an idea on their own into management positions. Sure it makes sense; people are put into management because they support the status quo. This reminds me of a line I once heard about Al Gore. “Al Gore is an older person’s idea of what a younger person should be.” And people who don’t have ideas have a really weird view of how people with ideas should be treated. Actually weird isn’t the best word to describe it. How about dangerous. Why? Because people who’ve never had a good idea like to pick at ideas, play devil’s advocate and attach timelines and budgets to them much too early.

Instead of giving the idea, and the idea generator, room to maneuver they often force the baby to survive outside of the nurturing cubicle where it was created much too early (okay, the words “nurturing cubicle” are totally oxymoronic and run counter to what I wrote about cubes above. But since this is called a blog, a certain amount of inconsistency comes with the turf.).

Finally the biggest idea killer is the “corporate immune” system. This idea was first described by my friend Gifford Pinchot, best selling author of the book “Intrapreneuring”. He talks about all the ways that organizations seek out and destroy anything that runs counter to the status quo. The challenge is that the corporate immune system is relentless in its ability to remove threats and ensure mediocrity.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how organizations kill ideas. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to tell you where I have my best ideas, because right now, I gotta go.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

The Annoying Part About Innovation

Monday, September 21st, 2009

One of the most important innovations of all time—the tin can—was first patented in 1810 by a British merchant named Peter Durand.
 
What’s so important about the tin can? It dramatically extended the reach of the British fleet, providing its sailors access to well-preserved food which allowed them to go on much longer voyages.
 
Which leads to an important question—what year was the can opener first patented?
 
The answer is in the next paragraph, but I’m going to stall a bit for dramatic effect. I’d really like for you to guess before you look at the answer. Come on, it’ll be fun.
 
Ezra Warner, an American, got the patent in—drum roll please—1858. For almost fifty years, if you wanted to open a can, you had to hit it with a chisel and hammer and spew most of the contents on the wall or floor. Or you could try a hack-saw and get lots of little shards of metal in your food.
 
If you read most books and articles on innovation, it makes the process seem so logical, structured and orderly. Obstacles come up and they are overcome. The correct decisions are magnified and the mistakes minimized. So the entire process of innovation is sanitized, homogenized and glorified.
 
This is dangerous because it gives a false sense of security to organizations that they can actually “manage” a process of innovation. And nothing could be further from the truth. Like an unruly pet or teenager, innovation is often survived—not managed.
 
Take Viagra. It redefined the entire field of male enhancement products when it was first discovered and has generated huge profits. But the drug was discovered almost by accident when a certain side effect started to rise in male patients recovering from heart attacks.
 
The other problem with innovation is that we all spend a lot of time studying things that worked. I maintain that we can often learn far more from things that didn’t. For every Starbucks or 747, we can learn a valuable lesson or two. But we can learn even more from the New Cokes and the Enrons and the other colossal failures of our time. Unfortunately most of us tend to be success junkies and we don’t have the patience to sort through the tales of woe from a bunch of losers.
 
But there is something even more annoying about innovation. As interesting as it is to read about the innovations of others, the most valuable stories about innovation are from within your own organization. That’s right. If you really want to understand why innovation is such a struggle, do some digging to find the last few attempts at innovation in your organization.
 
If your experience is like mine, you’ll discover that your organization has its own immune system that seeks out innovation and kills it. Corporate policies, management and profit targets are just three of the villains.
 
However, if you are grounded in the reality of what, and who, has been successful in your organization, you’ll dramatically increase the odds of success as you embark on your voyage of innovation. Hopefully this article will help to provide sustenance for you to maintain a can-do attitude when the journey gets bumpy, as it undoubtedly will.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

What Will First Lady Michelle Obama's Work-Life Balance Efforts Look Like?

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

We have heard for some time that Michelle Obama’s pet concerns on the campaign trail, which she hoped to be able to continue while in the White House – and will indeed be able to after last week’s dramatic election finish for her husband, President-Elect Barack – are helping families create a healthy work/life balance and easing the struggles for military families.

It’s no wonder the former is an issue that’s close to Mrs. Obama’s heart.  This article from the UK-based Telegraph newspaper talks about her own work/life balance struggles, in three distinct phases of her life: while growing up on the South Side of Chicago and seeing an ailing father continue to work hard, and leave business matters at the office; while herself transitioning from the legal field to civic and community work after marrying Barack and having their two daughters, Malia and Sasha; and most recently while Barack was on the campaign trail.

Mrs. Obama even wrote a heartfelt essay on the topic of work/life balance last month on the popular BlogHer community of women bloggers.  Here’s how she spells out the plight for working women:

As we all know, our country is in the midst of a major economic crisis.  And we’re all feeling the effects.  …

And folks are feeling it at the workplace.  Because right now, thousands of women across the country don’t have family leave at their jobs.  And those who do can’t afford to take it because it’s not paid.  And 22 million working women don’t have a single paid sick day.

That’s just unacceptable.  Families shouldn’t be punished because someone gets sick or has an emergency.

This is from the employee perspective, but Obama’s cause has direct implications for small and midsize business leaders.  Morra Aarons-Mele, a graduate student specializing in women and leadership, framed this exceptionally well recently on The Huffington Post,

Why should we care about “work life” issues when our savings and retirement funds are literally halving by the day?  Because “work life,” as nondescript as it may sound, is the stuff that keeps American families afloat.  Work life refers to issues ranging from sick leave to health care to early education and child care.  It also encompasses flexibility and better work-life balance, which have strong effects on companies’ bottom lines and employee productivity.

So what would organizations’ employee engagement activities geared toward helping workers achieve a more harmonious balance look like – ideally – four or eight years from now?  Obama hinted at this during a plenary address she gave at our annual small business leadership conference two years ago, when she spoke about creating relationships between businesses and the community.

Community organizing didn’t just help Barack become President-Elect; it has also helped his wife use resources at her present employer, the University of Chicago (and later its Hospitals) to transcend both entities from simply a “name” in their neighborhood to a visible, tangible source of inspiration and assistance.

As we spelled out in our article summarizing her remarks at our event, Obama pointed to the creation of such initiatives as school “Principal-For-A-Day” and community fitness programs as ways to not only bring the University’s and Hospitals’ employees out in the open, but to better connect their passions to their work.

This model has been readily adopted, to great effect, by some of the firms we’ve since honored as Top Small Workplaces.  For instance, 2008 winner The Redwoods Group, an insurance provider for YMCAs and Jewish Community Organizations that’s based in North Carolina, requires its 100 employees to volunteer 40 hours of service annually to nonprofits.  A condition of their employment, the company argues this has contributed directly to their steady employee growth (27% over the last two years) – including the ability to recruit cost effectively – and industry-low turnover (less than 6% on average the last two years).

So one plausible – again, ideal – work/life balance scenario is the government serving an encouraging, perhaps advisory role in helping small business leaders adjust their employee engagement best practices so employees can focus their passions on helping their communities, while at the same time benefitting the organization through enhanced workplace team building and lower rates of absenteeism and presenteeism.

Do you concur?  Or do you see Obama’s work/life-related efforts playing out differently?

Cross posted at Winning Workplaces

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