When Things Get Tough, The Tough Innovate.

Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.
~Theodore Levitt

In the past five years, business leaders the world over, have been trashing has-been mission statements and un-buttoning company cultures to produce innovative thinking radically different from the heads-down; ‘yes sir; even if you’re wrong, sir’ choke-holds that grasped corporations and strangled employees throughout the 20th century. Instead, leaders today need creative ideas to ignite agile responses to this turn-on-a-dime marketplace. And they’re doing it by…’gulp’…fostering conflict.

Want a fast summation of our August 2011 Newsletter article on “Profit in Conflict”? Here goes: In order to solve problems, good conflict takes creative problem-solving which spurs innovation causing it to punch-up productivity and profit. In other words, people who know how to creatively use conflict are fattening the bottom line.  It’s kind of hilarious when you think about it. For years, conflicts between ourselves and colleagues were perceived as problems, much to the chagrin of those who dared disagree with an idea, a colleague, or with the “that’s the way we do things around here” status quo. That was before the existence of global competition which, to the vexation of status-quo risk-aversive people, has allowed those darned “trouble-makers” to morph into valued “profit-makers”.

Innovative companies do not see conflicts or problems as inherently bad. To them, the struggles between people and/or ideas are viewed as entirely natural and more importantly, essential to staying consistently on the mark. Good conflict provisos do exist: ideas support the business culture’s values; discourse and ideas align with strategic purposes; each speaker is given total attention; anger is fine but contempt or ridicule are absolute no-no’s; and disagree-ers are grudge-free when the discussion is over. Other than that, every employee is encouraged—indeed expected to express ideas, or divergence with an idea.

But hey… it’s not all peaches and cream. Three challenges await companies wishing to become innovative. The first: the current predominance of ‘box-thinking’ leaders who can’t or won’t create the open trusting atmosphere needed for productive conflict; the second: leaders who don’t know how to change and therefore can’t execute changes/new ideas; and the third: see-through processes so that employees know their ideas are valued, plus established working groups for idea assessment and filtering, so the Executive Committee receives financial models only for those deemed viable.

Solutions to the first challenge? Hire front-line and up-line people—and in particular, leaders—who are comfortable with (and skilled at) managing the emotions springing up during conflicts. That doesn’t mean hiring women simply because 80% of them have brains that think interconnectedly with emotion when making decisions, welcoming ideas, voicing dissent, or dealing with conflicts. (Patty 2010) And it doesn’t mean turfing the 80% of men whose brains are able to keep each facet of their lives separately boxed from one another…including any emotion that might lead to or resolve a conflict.

(Don’t forget that business was long a man’s world with strict rules about feelings and conflicts; a place where career seppuku—hara-kiri—was committed the moment an opinion contrary to the boss’s was voiced; where a single conflict with a highly-political colleague could dash all hopes of making it to the sweet suite. Boxing one’s emotions forestalled such disasters; allowed decisions to be made “on the facts, ma’am, just the facts”; and protected a man’s central core against the rigidity of the times.)

But as companies become more ‘real’; as they encourage productive conflict in order to innovate and profit; ‘boxers’—tasked to mesh the core of themselves into everyday interactions; tasked with creating the kind of openness that gives disagreement a voice—are deeply torn, for what enabled success in the past is proving the downfall of the present. Some attempt to talk or fake ‘openness’, however given the nose each one of us has for inauthenticity, facsimiles can’t stand in for the real thing.

To reiterate, none of the above is meant to suggest you rush out and hire a bunch of women…as they have their own challenges keeping emotions evenly keeled. Another reason not to rush out? 20% of men have brains that use the whole self, and there are plenty of ‘boxers’ who have loving, trusting, open, conflicting, turning-point interactions with their friends and family. Let them know they can bring those same dynamics to work. Or let them know you think they have a great heart and plenty of guts, and you’d like them to start showing it.

The long and short of it is: ‘conflicting’ ideas can only be leveraged when the behaviours fostering a safe and productive environment are encouraged in…and developed by both genders.

Having a CEO worth emulating—someone who genuinely walks their values and behaviour talk, can provide a great deal of reassurance and hope to those making the change. Leadership Forums are also powerful teaching platforms: ‘how-to’ by ‘how-to’, they can help conventional leaders become proficient, values-instilled, innovative profit-makers.

Solution to the second challenge. If a leader is having trouble executing a new idea, or difficulty opening up or changing, don’t pass them by; it could be they don’t know how to change, and simply require ‘how to’ coaching or training. As adult learning styles are predominantly visual, auditory, or kinesthetic, offer them a variety of aids from which to choose. i.e., a book, DVD, audio series; an in-person or on-line course or seminar; a hands-on workshop, or an experienced mentor or a coach. People who are given the opportunity to discover the change process release all kinds of hidden potential and can become terrific self-innovators.

If you give these suggestions a fair chance and the individual is still blocking forward movement, smoothly transition them into an autonomous position or package them out.

Solution to the third challenge. If you want to ensure a continued flow of ideas, you’ll need to provide an intranet gateway where employees can track the progress of their submission. If an idea doesn’t make it past the review committee’s vetting, please sit down with the submitter and encouragingly point out the merits of their thinking and what they might consider when assessing future ideas.
In our next issue, we’ll be looking at three companies who, by choosing the right fights, got and are getting that fight for marketplace right.

Written by Penny Steen for Common Outlook Consulting Inc.

*Patty, T. 2010, Men & Women in Technology, SNIA Education Services, accessed February 23, http://www.snia.org

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