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When things aren’t going marvellously

Today, I spoke to a large team at work about Innovation.  I had only 10 minutes.  They are smart, long-term IT folks (developers and programmers) with many years of service and have seen their fair share of corporate programmes come and go. While they don’t work at the sexiest end of the technology spectrum, their passion to continuously improve code as they maintain and enhance the core applications they maintain, is unquestionable. 

In the tougher economic climate we have been experiencing since the sub-prime mortgage crisis started contaminating the world, I have seen the number of innovation ideas diminish in direct proportion to the availability of fat in the system to absorb and fund a bit of experimentation,

and more importantly, the PERCEPTION that there is no point to try and innovate because we are in cost-focus mode.  How fragile and shallow our innovation culture still is….after 5 years, and how frighteningly powerful perception and leadership signals are if cost focus is not balanced with what else remains important while we keep an eye on the bottom line.

I was quite conscious as I entered that meeting that a rah-rah-rah pep talk about how hunky-dory and jolly great innovation was and please can we see more of it, would be simply stupid. 

So, instead, I set about to create and provoke a conversation.  

It was a dicey strategy because I don’t know this team well and in the past I have found them quite passive and uncommunicative. And, in addition to their team leaders and direct managers, their IT Director was also present and I wasn’t sure how comfortable they’d be to speak out in a large group.

But, the gamble paid off.  A few courageously started speaking out about how they feel when their innovation efforts and ideas go unheeded, what they saw as obstacles (much were perceptions, but as they say in advertising, PERCEPTION IS REALITY), and a few of the usual examples ( like Google gives people 20% of their time to work on innovation and where is ours), and so on. (We are not an advertising company like Google, we operate in a  conservative and highly-regulated industry where we look after other people’s money ) 

But here is the celebration!  

These questions were openly asked, passionately yet constructively, and leaders were challenged, work practices questioned, policies picked on and with equal openness and courage, the leaders engaged in the conversation, clarified positions without defensiveness but with fact and reality, took on board feedback, and helped explore a third way where all both leaders and employees can collaborate more effectively to find answers. 

It was a beautiful thing to behold.  A few years ago, I don’t believe we could have had those confrontational debates and robust conversations and ended with everyone feeling really good about it and staying well after business hours on a Friday night to carry on talking!  

So often, people just want to be acknowledged for how they are feeling, they dont expect leaders to be able to solve all of the world’s issues and problems.  Listening and paying attention and not ignoring suggestions and ideas is really not hard and it makes all the difference between how engaged and disengaged employees regard their leaders. 

Thats all I wanted to share today. Along with this great Slideshare presentation above full of practical advice!