“Nothing mismanaged lasts long.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Given the rapid pace of change and the intense competition that it inevitably spawns, organizations are increasingly hurried from within and harassed from without. Time has become a threat. The present is almost totally protean—the future routinely arrives prematurely. Planning has become problematic, salvageable only by short-term contingency and monitoring. Incremental gains are outclassed by leap-frogging. Unanticipated novelty compels the catch-up of acquisitions. Visions of built-to-last no longer have the power to unify and stir. Almost all professionals are overworked. Stretch goals have become such a standard organizational practice that the injunction to do whatever it takes has become the rule, not the exception. Finally, none of this is temporary. Flux is the new norm of virtually all work cultures to the point where transition management has become the key operational and training skill.
To the extent that the above profile is accurate and typical, how can such dislocations be made more manageable and tolerable? Little can be done if the emphasis is on altering or ignoring an operating reality that is, in fact, the signature of the 21st century. Indeed, initially at least, the most important step is acknowledging and describing what is going on in the present-future. Professionals need to be reassured that it is the environment that is dysfunctional—and that it is generic, affecting everyone in all industries. Above all, the temptation to engage in cheerleading and call for everyone to work harder or smarter needs to be resisted. That already is happening. If anything different is to be done, it has to begin by fusing two repositioning stances–returning to square one and stepping back to see the whole—aligning basics and holistics. If there is a magic bullet, it is conceptual and attitudinal.
The first redefinition is to subsume organizational excellence and high performance under organizational futurity because it is immediately diagnostic. It identifies not only the source of what is driving current reality, but also immediately turns the organization to what has to be its new and total focus. The future is the CEO and CLO of all. It also is non-comparative because benchmarking serves not so much to measure as to position next steps. Organizational futurity serves to designate not only an enterprise that is permanently transitional, tentative and temporary, but also that those are its new operating norms. It is thus typically and compulsively transformative, making a virtue out of a necessity, turning constraints into opportunities. Above all, it needs to embrace and elevate to the highest organizational level the absolute priority of innovation. That alone grants organizational access to the future.
To achieve centrality, innovation must be made a core competence. It cannot be an occasional preoccupation or the preserve of exceptional types. It must be company-wide. Innovation must occur every day, everywhere, by everyone. Indeed, organizational futurity requires that the company be both innovative and future-driven, each the version of the other. Vision must become mission. Finally, creativity has be elevated to and become synonymous with leadership.
Many may claim that innovation already is a major organizational commitment as well as a basic staple of learning and development. However, to be absolute, self-possessing and propelling, innovation itself must be brought to bear not only on what limits it, but also on what impedes it. In other words, the enemy may be inside the gates. Minimally, three internal obstacles regularly compromise innovation: the failures to connect, to unlearn and to process.
The first invests the horizontal with the kind of importance historically reserved for the vertical. It challenges the cherished preference of the singular specialist over the generalist. Connectedness rules the future and spurs innovation. The ultimate connector is “inter-”: international, inter-racial, inter-religious, inter-gender, intergenerational, interdisciplinary, interdivisional, etc. Productivity routinely has been greater between rather than within divisions, and crossover training has reinforced such gains. Teams tame singularity with multiple intelligence. So we know that interoperability pays off. But we have not solved the basic problem of singular expertise as an obstacle.
The classic dilemma is how not to throw out the baby with the bath water. We not only hire and value, but also reward and promote expertise. Besides, the entire educational journey has been predicated on greater and greater specialization. In fact, what is generally missing from the educational background of most professionals is precisely the experience of interdisciplinary connectedness. Indeed, those that have it enjoy a hiring and promoting edge.
In the 19th century, political economy was a key major area of study. The specialists carved this area into two empires: economics and political science. The net result was economists ignorant of the political process and political scientists who know nothing about markets. Such split thinking leaves its divisive mark even on much current legislation.
The only way organizations can redeem this major sin of omission is to make innovation and interoperability one. Interdisciplinarity has to become a new and significant part of the current training program array. Although what forms that curriculum might go beyond the scope of this article and is more a challenge of customization best left to learning design consultants, what can be suggested are at least two first steps. In fact, the first is so obvious that it is often overlooked. What is the specialized area of the company, and to what extent, if at all, is it deeply understood by non-specialist support staff? If nothing else, this should reduce the martyrdom of the insiders having to endure the philistines. The other obvious area is where the company is headed from an interdisciplinary point of view. What kinds of conceptual bridges have to be put in place to maximize or optimize the understanding and conversations associated with such new initiatives?
Inevitably, those who repair such knowledge gaps routinely encounter buried cognitive assumptions. Learning then has to be preceded by unlearning. There is no point to being exposed to integration when the learning avenues are blocked by separatist categories and when singular compartmentalization precludes exchange or bonding. Left intact, such conceptual containers behave like sieves. It also is not unlike the classic distortions when different experts sample different aspects of the same elephant. Saul Bellow put it succinctly: If your eyes are scratched, you will see scratched. In short, in order to explore connectedness, singular comfort zones and absolute dependence on favored problem-solving tool kits have to be suspended or denied exclusivity. The tried and true—even, ironically, best practices—may be the greatest obstacle to the experimental and archetypal. Above all, we may have to let go of the reassurance of measuring only what is measurable and begin to accept what is permanently unfinished. That is no easy task because it requires that we unlearn as we learn or paradoxically that unlearning may be the condition of new knowledge. For such a process to be engaging, it should not belittle or trivialize what we are, where we have been or how we have been shaped. It should not be taught by those who already may be endowed with a connectedness that is largely a generational, not an individual, achievement. The best model should feature the reluctance of old warriors.
The last obstacle is structural. Company levels operate at different speeds. The top is typically slow, the middle always fast. An enormous enterprise like a battleship cannot turn quickly on a dime. The decision requires deliberation, time and planning. Senior staffs are thus fixated not on a current but a future course. Meanwhile, all has to remain operational and ongoing. For middle-level managers, the now is insistent. It is the in-your-face, omnipresent version of the future. Cutting-edge may be abstractly contemplated or called for by the top but daily lived at the middle. But sometimes things get lost between the cracks when the two levels intersect. That is where and when treasure is buried.
The issue here is not so much how to stir innovation, but what happens when it surfaces. Who is in charge? What are the rites of passage? The challenge is not unlike locating the intervention points to sustain quality. Limiting quality control to the end of the line or to a few jeopardizes its totality. Quality, like innovation, is ubiquitous.
In many organizations the typical process for managing internal initiatives and innovations is channeling. Established procedures and sometimes incentives move initiatives along a set path. At the end is usually a senior staff member who assists a vice president—usually of marketing or R&D. Whoever is finally in charge and whatever hurdles are involved, a number of obstacles surface.
The first and most obvious is that the internal processing of innovation is usually an add-on. It is frequently the additional responsibility of a professional high enough in the chain of command to generate the halo effect of executive commitment. In addition, the process is invariably centralized as it gathers proposals and moves them up the ladder. Typically, little separate thought has been given to what kind of processing structure best suits innovation. Are the encouragement and the evaluation of innovation different enough on the one hand, and the communication of feedback to proposers urgent enough on the other hand to shape a special way of handling creative initiatives? Although the forms it could take may vary greatly and always be influenced by company culture, it needs to be shaped by a basic understanding of the innovation process itself. In short, the focus has to shift from stirring to processing innovation—from the creative to the managerial.
Creativity is minimally a three-step process: coming up with the idea, testing its feasibility and making it happen. Many firms are so beset by finding ways to stir innovation that they forget the other two parts. Then suddenly, they find ideas stillborn, and their employees resentful about what has happened or not happened to their “babies.”
The irony, however, is that most organizations that need and value innovation are not structurally innovative themselves. They employ the same old pyramids of vertical transit and transmittal. Everything funnels to the same senior vice president. He may use one or two lower-level assistants with limited expertise and even more limited authority but who clearly are outclassed. In fact, the moment an employee learns that his precious proposal has been given to one of those pigeon-holing assistants, he concludes not incorrectly that the bureaucracy is alive and well and nothing will happen. And for the most part he is correct.
Thus, there is a structural mismatch. Innovation is free-flowing—chain-of-command is static escalation. They structurally are on a collision course. Flow has to meet flow. Each innovation proposal has to not only go through triage, but also be ruled by a timetable lasting no more than three weeks.
The first review is cursory, fast and dirty. Is it innovative or incremental? A simple checklist guides whether it survives this basic cut. The second is more advanced and thorough, but still limited in terms of depth. Here is where a proposal is also fast-tracked. The third is complex and exhaustive but develops in detail the categories of the second review, now focused on trial implementation.
Many companies should consider using as internal reviewers those who have submitted their own ideas. Their understanding and further creativity undoubtedly would benefit. If the company has a happy problem—too many new or complex ideas to process at a good pace—then the process should be outsourced to a stable of external consultants. Nothing must be allowed to impede processing. In addition, these reviewers would be invaluable when an innovation involves an area that exceeds the internal expertise of the company. They also can be called upon for a second opinion when a proposal has been given a mixed or borderline rating. But innovative ideas have to meet innovative structures for the marriage to be blessed with offspring.
Making innovation an absolute imperative in turn shapes organizational futurity. The antidote to future shock is future stretch—increasing the conceptual range and difference of integrated multi-disciplinary thinking and problem-solving. Above all, the driving organizational goal is to focus all its learning and unlearning ways on welcoming and engaging the protean nature of the 21st century.
Irving H. Buchen, Ph.D., is director of international programs for IMPAC University and senior research associate of Canis Learning Systems. He can be reached at email@example.com.