Friday, July 13, 2018

Is HR Ready to be GIGantic?

In my most recent post HR and the Gig Economy, I talked about how the workforce is changing as managers staff their teams with more contingent labour.  HBR also wrote a thought-provoking article Run Taskrabbit Run, exploring a not-so-distant future where businesses no longer have employees.  Since my very talented former colleague Stacy Chapman, the CEO of SwoopTalent, has predicted that more doomsayers will write more about this topic… challenge accepted.

I'm actually not a doomsayer, at least I don't think I am.  I personally see the gig economy as an opportunity for HR rather than a threat, at least in the medium term (y’ know, before HR gets replaced by chatbots), because contractors are people.  For too long HR has let procurement own services talent as the proportion of contingent workers steadily increases.  It’s time for HR to step up and reclaim the people agenda.

Here are some of the challenges HR needs to be ready for to stay relevant in the gig economy:

People Data: I know we’re all still high fiving about moving to the cloud, but to prepare for the gig economy, your HR solution needs to track data for contractors as well as employees.  You need to know where your contractors are placed, when, for what, and how much they cost.  You also want to know if they are effective, which will be a challenge since they aren’t included in your performance appraisal process.

Compliance: There are some legal challenges with making contractors feel too much like part of the team - not to mention employment insurance - but someone needs to figure that out for the business.  Who better than HR?  Not procurement, unless HR also wants to share ownership of core competencies, performance management and employer brand.  Yeah, I didn’t think so.  : )

Organizational development: What is the right employee to contractor ratio?  Where should external skills be brought in on a project or fixed term basis v. in-house?  Most importantly, how can HR add real value to this discussion, rather than just consolidating input from different parts of the business?  Own this!!!

Recruiting: HR plays an active role in recruiting talent but not – typically – in acquiring contractors, besides signing the contract with the agency and/or sending over the NDA.  However, just like employees, contractors have diverse skills and personalities, and some will be a better fit than others.  Does HR really want to leave this up to chance, allow mission critical work to go to the lowest bidder, or fail to consider skills augmentation in a broader company context?

Performance and Engagement: Like employees, contractors need to be engaged and assessed for organizational fit and quality of work.  After all, they perform critical tasks for your company, provide a crutch for your company’s core capabilities, and cost money.  It’s important to make them feel like part of the team, help them succeed and establish some metric to assess the quality of their work.  

Skills Development: If we envision a future where most or all of the workforce is project based, at least in some industries, how will HR shape core competencies in that future?  What will core competencies even mean?  And how do you ensure today that skills for hire are also transferred, and that any skills or knowledge gaps your contractors have are addressed so they can work as efficiently as possible?

Leadership: Managing contractors requires somewhat different skills and perspective than managing employees.  It’s HR’s job to make sure managers are ready to lead a truly diverse workforce made up of employees, contractors and non-humans.

Rewards:  As more contractors are brought in to augment teams, compensation equity and company perqs will take on a new flavour.  There’s no one right answer, but plenty of wrong ones, and it needs to be considered in light of what is best for the business.  Ideally, you don’t want rewards to create a divide between internal and external team members, which is what will happen if contractors get treated like second class citizens.

Collaboration: The right collaboration and project management tools can help teams work more productively.  With the gig economy, having the right tools to streamline processes and tasks while linking work to company goals has never been more important.

Internal support: This one has long frustrated me as a hiring manager.  New employees get the red carpet rolled out by HR, a new laptop, a new workstation, etc., whereas contractors need to go on a treasure hunt to find a place to sit and get signed onto the system.  Which the company pays for in lost productivity, frustrated engagement and an hourly rate to boot.

Employer Brand: Just like employees, some contractors are a better fit for your organization than others.  How do you help ensure your organization attracts the best contractors, and equip them to deliver the best results?

So, you get the idea.  As contractors become part of the mix at work, HR needs to start thinking in very real terms how to attract, retain, engage and develop them.  Or… become less relevant to the business as the workforce changes.

Visual courtesy of Business in the Workplace.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

HR and the Gig Economy

Not long ago I made a decision to leave my executive job and embrace the gig economy.  I had a number of personal reasons for doing this that you can read about here, but the main reason was that I could.

What changed – besides a growing desire to define a new deal for myself – was the epiphany that organizations have problems they need solved but don’t always have the skills or the headcount to solve them.  

I experienced this first-hand in my previous role, in which I led a global team of FTEs but also brought in fixed term contractors to help with everything from content and customer marketing to maternity leave coverage to organizing our sales kick-off event.  

This article is not about replacing FTEs with contractors, or even about creating the right mix of internal and external talent, a great topic in its own right.  What I’m talking about here is the difference working with contractors makes to a line manager when it comes to working with HR... because it changes everything.

‘I need more headcount’

Consider the following scenario: You lead the content team at a medium-sized global organization and your team’s responsible for rolling out three large global campaigns, including key messages, headlines, content, thumbnails and a full social media plan.  Your global content team consists of three people, one of whom has been co-opted to support the field marketing organization in your largest market.  How are you going to create all that content? 

You talk to HR and long story short, there's no headcount.  Now, you can either continue to plead your doomed business case or use part of your operating budget to hire a contractor instead.

IT is dead.  Long live IT.

I don’t know if you remember what happened to IT when cloud computing changed the business application market forever, but the biggest change had less to do with technology than with how IT organizations were impacted.  Suddenly, global software projects were no longer controlled by IT because solutions were designed to be selected, implemented and used by business users. 

At the same time, the subscription model for cloud-based applications meant departments could pay for them out of their operating budgets.  Modern solutions were easy to use and included visual reports at the touch of a button, with amazing drilldown capabilities, and business users could even build their own.  Best of all, they were designed to be quickly implemented with no more upgrades!

In short, cloud computing left departments free to innovate and try new things without waiting for IT to catch up on the backlog of upgrades and issues created when the the current solutions were rolled out. 

So, what did IT do?  Something quite brilliant, actually.  They regrouped, downsized and transformed themselves into a service organization.  As point solutions popped up like mushrooms across the business, they demonstrated a new kind of value managing a complex ecosystem of solutions and responding to the business more promptly when special cases came up.  After a brief struggle against the inevitable move to the cloud, IT embraced the new reality and discovered it’s a lot more fun to be a hero than a gatekeeper. 

Embracing the Gig Economy

What does this have to do with HR?  Two things: First, HR has already responded to the call of the cloud but still has some work to do helping leaders acquire, develop and retain great talent.  Second, the gig economy will again change everything for HR, because the entire workforce composition will change.

Current cloud-based HR applications may not be able to keep up, because while they were designed for the cloud – some more than others - they may not have been designed for the gig.  In other words, if all that fabulous employee data you’ve been collecting only describes part of your actual workforce, you have a major blind spot.

But that’s not all: Just as the cloud enabled departments like HR to get around IT, the gig economy lets department heads go around HR.  For starters, consider how much easier it is to bring in a contractor than it is to hire someone.  It’s also cheaper because it’s on demand and you don’t have to pay benefits or invest in career development.

Working with contractors creates its own challenges but if it’s easier - not to mention cheaper -  for managers to bring in contractors, guess what they’ll do.

Also note that more skilled workers are choosing the gig economy, either because they’re having difficulty finding a permanent role, or because they want to spend less time jumping through administrative (or political) hoops and focus on the work they love doing.

So, the gig train has left the station but HR still needs to climb aboard.  Just as the introduction of cloud-based point solutions enabled IT to step in and propose a more coordinated IT ecosystem, having contractors popping up all over the business costing money and doing ‘something’ presents a golden opportunity for HR.  

If you'd like to read more, I've written a follow up post here about how HR can step up and be... GIGantic.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, June 25, 2018

My Year of Yes

I started reading Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes after making my decision to take a break from corporate life, but it’s my go to response when people ask me what I do: ‘Oh, you know, I’m taking a year of yes.’  

Unlike Shonda, my biggest personal challenge is not finding the courage to appear on the Jimmy Kimmel show – any time, Jimmy.  Nonetheless, I found we have more in common than I’d expected.  I don’t mean her incredible talent or Hollywood lifestyle, but her deeply personal experience as a working mom trying to have it all… and failing.  Not dramatically or all at once but in small doses, until something needed to give. 

I’ve held down a job since I was 12 years old.  Although I was privileged to attend a private school, I earned my own spending money, bought my own car, and paid my own way through college and grad school.  I babysat, taught English and aerobics, tutored, pumped gas, dispatched taxis, worked a cash register, interned at an advertising agency in Tokyo,… you get the idea.  Basically, if it paid money and wouldn’t embarrass me if I ever ran for President, I did it. 

Hard work and persistence paid off… and then what?
When I landed my first ‘real’ job at Accenture, I couldn’t have been more excited and proud.  I worked hard and did my best for my clients, and that job turned into another dream job as a development manager at PeopleSoft.  Which after ten amazing years – including the strange post-acquisition days - opened the door at a tiny start up called Workday.  Which after another ten amazing years paved the way to a marketing executive role at a company called Basware.

In each job I worked hard to prove myself and deliver results and as I took on more senior roles, success came from leading others effectively.  At the same time, work life balance became more important, as my kids seemed to get older more quickly every day.  While I loved leading a team, with each promotion it seemed I had to spend more time on politics and administrative tasks rather than meaningful work.  I figured that’s what I got paid for, but it wasn't what got me out of bed in the morning.  And as time passed I found it getting harder to get out of bed to do the things I was paid to do.  Nothing major, just… meh.

My decision to take a break wasn’t made overnight and I waited until I felt I could leave without dropping any balls, but it resulted from five key realizations:

Epiphany 1: This is as good as it’s gonna get

My first epiphany was that I had it all but that's not how it felt.  I had a wonderful family, a badass team that did great work, an executive job, and I managed to run a 6-person household and cooked dinner nearly every night.  I had the flexibility to work from home and travel wasn’t too onerous.  Thanks to my fantastic team, I rarely worked past 6PM or on weekends.  My years of hard work and coaching others to be successful had paid off. 

So if everything was so great, why was I always too tired to play with my kids or make new friends, let alone spend time with old friends?

Epiphany 2: Life will pass me by if I let it

That’s when I realized: If I keep doing what I’m doing, my life will pass me by in a blink and no one will thank me for everything I missed out on.  Not my kids and certainly not my company. 

Epiphany 3: I’m not my job

For many years I thought I was the job, but I finally realized that if you keep defining yourself the same way, you won’t ever discover what else you could be.  If you weren’t afraid.  If you let go and just… tried new stuff.  Talked to people.  Said yes to things.

Epiphany 4: It’s time to let go

My fourth realization was that although I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do instead, there was only one way to find out….

Epiphany 5: I've got this

So I handed in my notice, and it’s been an incredible journey so far.  I’ve travelled, made new friends and started practicing martial arts.  I’ve taken courses in design thinking, investment, statistics and graphic design.  I’ve helped start-ups define their mission and coached TEDx speakers.  My husband and I are renovating a lovely old farmhouse.  I spend more quality time with my kids.  I’m busier than ever, but I’m not tired any more.  I’m energized.  I’m open. I’m having fun.

Embracing the gig economy

These days, I get paid to do what I enjoy most, which is writing, speaking and creating content to help clients be more successful.  I can do it on my time and on my terms and I have more time for all the other things in life that matter. 

Are there things I miss about corporate life?  There are, but not many.  So, while I truly appreciate several offers I’ve received for a permanent role, I’d prefer to talk a fixed contract or project based work.

At least for now. : )

As Shonda says, yes yes yes!!!

Monday, June 4, 2018

Be the Right Candidate: Tips from a Hiring Manager

I’ve hired a lot of people and over the years and developed a reliable sense of what makes a good candidate and a great employee... and it isn’t necessarily what prevailing wisdom suggests.  For example, I’ve hired moms returning from extended maternity leave, people currently without a job, people in remote locations, contractors, and people who applied for completely different roles.

They were all very different but had a few traits in common that made them stand out during the application process.  Before I share these traits, your basic hiring manager typically has up to three motivations you should be aware of:
  1. I’m really busy: Particularly in organizations that have limited HR support for hiring, the hiring manager has limited time.  In addition to their demanding day job, they may have to write the detailed job spec, make sure the job gets posted, review dozens of CVs, coordinate recruiters, schedule and conduct interviews, and even manage the offer process. 
  2. I'm in a hurry: I want to get through this process fast so I can get back to my day job, plus if this process drags out I may lose my headcount.  I won't hire someone I don't believe can do the job, but I want you to be the one.
  3. Make my problem go away: There’s a decent chance the headcount approval came only after an organizational gap became impossible to ignore any longer, and although really three people are needed to do the job I only get to hire one.  To be that one, you must radiate: I understand what you want and will make you successful.
What will differentiate you from the other candidates is how well you convey that you value the hiring manager’s time, will fit into their team and can solve their problem.  Specifically, here are the traits of a great CV, and then we’ll move onto standing out in the interview:

  • Clarity – It takes me an average of 20 seconds to skim a CV.  I don’t have time to pore over every word you painstaking wrote about your job experience to get to know you - see point 1 above.  If I don’t see what I’m looking for immediately, I assume you aren’t able to communicate clearly and move on.

  • Brevity – I’m a marketer with a highly tuned BS radar, so unless you personally founded multiple successful companies and cured cancer, there's no good reason for your CV to be longer than two pages.  If you have examples of past successes, great, but keep it short, simple and to the point.  
  • Layout – You CV should be as attractive and polished as a solution brochure.  After all, you are the product.  Spend time making your CV look good, especially if you hope to work in marketing, and don’t forget your best friends proportion and white space.
  • Accuracy – Typos, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors scream sloppy so be sure to run spellchecker and have a couple of people read and comment on your CV.  I’ve hired plenty of people who spoke English as a second language, and a few non-native turns of expression can be charming, but easily correctible errors are not.
  • X Factor – If you have a catchy video, TED talk or portfolio of work you can link to in your CV, do it but never share proprietary information.

Now let’s talk about the interview.  Here are the qualities – besides the obvious ones like friendliness, courtesy, and professionalism - that help candidates stand out and make a positive impression:
  • Preparedness – Great candidates show a clear understanding of the business and have thought about the job, what they would bring to it, and why they want to do it.  Thorough preparation demonstrates you want the job and are willing to work hard to produce high quality work.
  • Confidence – One of the best product marketers I ever worked with was a bit nervous during her presentation, but her slides were superb and her confidence re-emerged because she was so well-prepared.  If you’re a nervous presenter, practice until you know your material cold. 
  • Pride – It’s OK to take pride in the work you have done, as long as you aren’t unpleasant about it.  In fact, pride in your work is a signal that you care about results and are motivated by a desire to succeed.
  • Positivity – There's a reassuring optimism that comes through in people that believe in their ability to master any situation and get the job done.  It’s OK not to know everything going in, your unique experiences will help you bring something special to the role.  Believe in yourself: You can do this.
  • Flexibility – I’ve hired people for completely different roles than the ones they applied for because they displayed other characteristics I was looking for, such as outgoingness (for customer facing roles), clarity (for training), creativity (for strategy), etc.  Keep an open mind and stay in touch if it doesn't work out, because there may be other open roles.
  • Authenticity – No matter how successfully you portray yourself during the interview, you’ll be miserable if the real you is in the wrong job.  Once during a skype interview my toddler ran in and started banging my keyboard.  It was a difficult situation, but I ended up impressing the hiring manager by staying calm.  Do yourself a favour and be yourself - within reason, of course : ). 
  • Readiness – A great candidate is ready to take the next step into more responsibility.  As a hiring manager, I look for these folks because I know I can help them grow professionally and they’ll work hard to prove themselves.

I know it’s a lot but here’s the good news.  Great candidates stand out.  You’d be amazed how many candidates don’t prepare properly, can’t articulate what they bring to a role, or deliver a clear and articulate account of themselves with quiet confidence.

One last thing: The hiring manager is choosing you (hopefully) but you are also choosing them, so my next posts will be about how to choose the right manager and how to persuade great people to work for you.

Thank you for reading.  I hope this was helpful and as always, comments are welcome.

Working Girl

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Predictably Irrational: Interactive Tools, Free Bagels and the Power of Appreciation

Picture courtesy of Villains WIki
I recently wrote a post about Dan Ariely’s fascinating work on behavioural science, Predictably Irrational.  You can read the post here, summarizing some of the key findings from the book, but after receiving several questions about how to operationalize this information I decided to write a follow up post.

1.      Everything’s relative: Humans understand and navigate the world by making comparisons.  That’s why when executive salaries were first published they skyrocketed rather than becoming more normalized, resulting in diverse organizational disfunctions.  It’s also why forced ranking can backfire in a high performing team.  From an HR perspective, it’s naïve to assume people won’t make comparisons regarding their own compensation, benefits, career progress, etc.  It’s therefore important to establish a perception of fairness in the organization, i.e. not equality per se but equal opportunity with a clear path to the next level of pay or responsibility.  I recommend investing in a visual career path as an employee branding and coaching tool (example below), because it creates an immediate frame of reference that helps people understand where they are on the journey and how to progress to the next level.  To promote higher engagement with the tool consider making it interactive, for example using Visme.  

Courtesy of Amoria Bond

2.      Emotions cloud our judgement even more than we realize: People like to think of themselves as fair and impartial but in fact most people are ruled most of the time by their own emotional biases. That’s why a great theory tends to break down in practice when it encounters the personal agenda, why nepotism exists, why people believe false information, and why the overarching goal of talent management as defined by Cornell University is to reduce the impact of human frailty (or bias) in decision making.  Although self-serving behaviour limits company growth by undermining people and trust, many organizations inadvertently incentivize confidence over substance and being seen over being impactful.  Whereas truly innovative companies stamp out undermining behaviours and recognize leaders who put team, customer or business first.  

3.      Don’t confuse social norms with market norms: Compassionate and authentic leadership can inspire great things from teams, and most people want to help others and be part of something greater than themselves.  So how do we explain bullying, marginalizing and self-optimizing behaviour in the workplace that prevent people from contributing as much as they could in a more supportive environment?  Amongst other reasons – including company culture - it turns out that monetary transactions bypass the helpfulness impulse and activate a ‘market norm.’  People behave competitively and won’t go the extra mile for a low reward when market norms are in operation.  If you’d like to learn more about how applied social norms such as recognition empower employees and drive higher performance, I recommend The Power of Thanks, co-authored by my former Compensation Café colleague Derek Irvine.  

4.      Expectations shape perception: Expectations colour our experiences, which is why two people can share the same experience but describe it completely differently.  Employee engagement research shows that people who feel appreciated and recognized at work are also more likely to enjoy their jobs, trust their managers and believe they are compensated fairly.  It’s almost like there’s no downside to this whole recognition thing…

5.      Free has magical properties: People can’t seem to resist the lure of the freebie, which creates all sorts of interesting possibilities for creative total compensation packages.  One of the companies I worked for that was consistently voted a best place to work in the competitive Bay Area paid a bit less than competitors but offered free Noah’s bagels and cream cheese two days a week.  You can’t beat a good schmear.

6.      It’s hard to let go: People like to keep all the options on the table for as long as possible, which is why limited availability or putting a time limit on options can help create clarity and spur people into action.  When preparing for significant organizational change it’s important to give people time to prepare, but it’s equally important to ‘burn your ships’ and start working in the new way.  Too often, people and organizations get stuck between old and new, spreading valuable creativity too thinly across too many initiatives.  My recent blog post on failure and innovation spotlights the role of leadership in focusing creative energy.

7.      First choice results in a better experience: The person who raises their hand first is in a unique position to set the tone or volunteer for a choice assignment, while less assertive voices may be unheard or ignored, leading to less satisfaction in the outcome.  A more inclusive strategy is to ask everyone to write down their thoughts and pick someone at random to share their notes first without interruption until everyone has had a chance to speak.  This tactic has the advantage of enabling introverts to have an equal share in the discussion, which doesn't usually happen.

Picture courtesy of Impulse

So there you have it: interactive career paths, recognition programs, free bagels, clear priorities, and more inclusive discourse can help put behavioural economics to work in your organization.

Thanks for reading and as always, comments and additional suggestions are welcome.

Working Girl

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Predictably Irrational: Behavioral Economics, Talent Management and Employer Branding

Inspired by my recent work sourcing and coaching speakers for the 2018 TEDxTUM event in Munich, I’ve been devouring great books by former TED speakers. One of these that stood out was Dan Ariely’s fascinating work on behavioural science, Predictably Irrational

If you don’t mind paging through a seemingly endless stream of creative, low cost experiments involving chocolate, beer, and unsuspecting MIT students, you’ll learn some amazing things. Some things you might have already known or suspected, but other things may surprise you because they not only irrational but predictably irrational.

I recommend the book, as the experiments are sometimes hilarious and always instructional, but here are a few highlights for talent strategy:

1.  Everything’s relative: If you want people to choose A instead of B, introducing a third option that is a slightly worse version of option A will make A more attractive than B and also make it easier to reach a decision. The reason is that making A better than something also makes A seem better than B. This is useful information when designing total compensation packages as well as communicating bad news.

2.  Emotions cloud our judgement even more than we realize: We know people tend look for data points to justify the decisions they already want to make, but if you ask people to predict how they would decide in a moment of emotional excitement, it turns out they are vastly wrong at predicting their own behaviour - even with the benefit of experience, meaning Dean Martin got it wrong. That’s why creating a positive emotional response to your employer brand is so important, and why charismatic and caring managers can do more for the business than complicated performance management strategies.

4.   Expectations shape perception: If I give you two menu choices and one is described as, ‘lightly braised pork medallions with a caramelized puree of autumn apple,’ and the other as, ‘pork chops with apple sauce,’ it turns out that a richer and more emotion-evoking description leads people to expect a more enjoyable experience, which in turn becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Similarly, a higher price creates the expectation of a superior product, which in turn creates a more positive experience. Important note for HR when defining your employer brand: Don’t confuse richer and emotion-evoking with longer and/or full of buzzwords.

5.   Free has magical properties: If you normally charge $2 for a service and offer a $1 discount, the impact is very different from a reduction of $1 to free, even though the difference in both cases is $1. Rationally speaking, there should be no difference and yet people can’t seem to resist the lure of the freebie. This creates all sorts of interesting possibilities for HR and compensation professionals to design compensation packages in creative ways.  

6.  It’s hard to let go: Any good sales person understands the value of the hard deadline when the current offer vanishes forever. Anyone working for a business in transition has experienced the treadmill of adding new workstreams while still keeping legacy parts of the business on life support (tips for avoiding here). People like to keep all the options on the table for as long as possible, which is why limited availability or putting a time limit on options can help create clarity and spur people into action.  For any HR manager who's had to chase people to complete the much hated engagement survey, a 'Free gift card if you respond by 3PM today' strategy can work wonders.

7.   First choice results in a better experience: In an interesting experiment where four menu options are offered to four people, the person who chooses first is more likely to enjoy their meal more than the others. The people who choose next feel subtly pressured to make a different selection and are then more likely to experience buyer’s remorse and wish they’d ordered the same thing as the happy early adopter. This highlights the potential of making people feel they are getting special consideration or ‘first dibs’ on a new project or opportunity.

Understanding how behavioral economics shape behavior and perception can help strengthen your talent management strategy and create a more positive employee experience.  If you'd like to read more about behavioral economics, I wrote a similar post for marketing professionals here.

Thanks for reading and comments are always welcome.

Working Girl

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Get Off the Couch: Agility, Innovation and Failure

After a three-year hiatus spent living and breathing supply chain finance and building a truly exceptional global marketing team, I am re-launching Working Girl.  This is slightly ironic as I am not currently working per se, nor looking for a job.  However, after some reflection I realized Working Girl is my brand when writing about all things talent management, organizational development or human motivation. My latest blog post is about innovation.

Fail fast, learn, try again.  Catchy, huh? 

According to experts, embracing failure makes you more agile because – amongst other things - those who fear failure hesitate to act, and it’s rare to be hesitant and agile.  It’s like you can’t be an Olympic gold medalist and a couch potato, although you can sit on your couch and watch the Olympics.  Similarly, some organizations try to implement agility without getting up off the couch.

Although the ‘agile organization’ promises a long-awaited alternative to heavy processes that erode motivation and stifle innovation, it also gets used as a rationale to introduce uncoordinated workstreams; to cherry pick projects (and avoid all that boring stuff like planning and execution); or to spin underwhelming results as success.

It seems I’m not the only one on the fence about agility because while some experts sing the praises of failure in the innovative organization, others ask why innovation rarely occurs even at companies that embrace the whole 'fail fast' thing.

In a rapidly changing and competitive world, it makes sense to strive for holocracy instead of hierarchy; collaborative networks instead of siloes; rapid experimentation instead of fear of failure; participation instead of central decision making; bottom up brainstorming instead of top down directives; and innovation instead of stagnation. 

It’s easy to get buy in, too, because no one’s going to say, ‘Let’s not try new things.  Let’s not collaborate.  Let’s not innovate.’ 

It sounds great but…

I worked for ten years at a very disruptive and successful start-up where no one ever talked about failing, let alone failing fast.  I mean, sure, if you had to fail better do it quickly but the goal was to succeed with careful planning followed by rapid, coordinated execution.  Failure was acknowledged and usually forgiven but it wasn’t in any way romanticized. 

OK, there was this one senior exec who’d get up at each all hands meeting with a self-deprecating grin and say, ‘Yeah, we should have seen that coming,’ which we all found hilarious.  Good times.

I absolutely believe huge success can happen by trying lots of things – the lucky punch - but I also believe greater success is possible with ruthless prioritization and proper planning.  You may miss the lucky punch but trying out lots of free floating ideas without a cohesive strategy has a high opportunity cost and adds complexity to a shaky foundation. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in cross-team collaboration, iterative learning and letting people make mistakes.  Simply put, since top down decision-making and fear of failure are innovation killers, if you want to innovate and move fast you need to break down siloes, decentralize decision-making and make it OK to fail.  However…

My point is that how you do it matters.  Good execution and alignment can make all the difference between spectacular and underwhelming results.  Here are a few pointers from the trenches:

  • Have a cohesive strategy: A strategy is not a vision or a statement of intent, it’s an execution plan to achieve your goals.  If there isn’t a coordinated execution plan, people will come up with their own, which is how you end up with siloes and competing priorities.
  • Find the right balance: You can’t just innovate, unless you’re Thomas Jefferson working alone with independent finances.  You still need to do the business as usual stuff to be successfully innovative.  Some innovative companies tackle this by creating dedicated teams focused on new frontiers, others by dedicating a certain amount of time to pure innovation each week. 
  • Don’t just pile more stuff on: A common mistake companies make when introducing agile processes is to introduce them on top of everything else rather than ruthlessly re-prioritizing to allow people to focus on innovation.  A good rule of thumb is that if people are too busy to think, they’re probably too busy to innovate. 
  • Make it OK to say no: When companies decentralize decision making to empower people to say yes, they sometimes forget to empower them to say no.  In lean organizations iterative experimentation tends to put the highest burden on a subset of folks – in marketing this may be the creative team, for example.  Every great idea has an opportunity cost.
  • Don’t diss the boring stuff: I’ve seen failure being celebrated as ‘learning’ while solid successes were ignored, and it wasn’t pretty.  Good people felt overlooked and upset.  The folks who keep the lights on while the innovators are off innovating also deserve to be celebrated.
  • Keep your powder dry: I remember discussing a high-ticket dinner event for decision makers in an industry we weren't even targeting.  It turned out the organizer wanted to try that venue and proposed the event as an innovative experiment.  The key takeaway here is that self-optimization isn't innovation and steals resources needed for real innovation.
  • Manage the process: I haven't yet seen an organizational model that eliminates the need for good leadership.  Someone needs to support teams, curate ideas, communicate the strategy, balance the workload, manage the budget, coordinate execution to eliminate duplication of effort, hold people accountable and ensure everyone has an opportunity to contribute.  
  • Measure things that matter: Your website traffic increased 12%.  Your industry event attracted 150 people.  Your new white paper was downloaded 800 times.  You met your 3x coverage for lead targets. Great but so what?  Will it help you provide better service and – ultimately - sell more? 
  • Listen to the naysayers:  Some naysayers are a real drag and seem to be against anything new.  Ignore them, but don’t ignore the input of people who have valid concerns about proposed changes.  Addressing these concerns – or at least considering them with an open mind – may help you avoid serious challenges down the road. 

At the end of the day, innovation has more to do with culture and mindset more than strategy or process.  If your culture isn't innovative, your outcome won't be either.

Picture courtesy of Innovation Labs.

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