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Archive for the ‘Innovation’ Category

Not One of Us

Posted by Mark Bennett on April 19, 2009


What can we do to foster Innovation? Support diverse networks that promote new, perhaps even heretical, thinking:

There’s safety in numbers
When you learn to divide
How can we be in
If there is no outside
All shades of opinion
Feed an open mind
But your values are twisted
Let us help you unwind
             – “Not One of Us,” Peter Gabriel

Although originally written with a political message, these lyrics describe a common occurrence within companies that stifles Innovation. It’s that we tend to form into groups of like-minded people and start to see things in terms of “Us and Them” (to quote Roger Waters.) These divisions in companies often follow the organizational structure, whose purpose was originally to help make things like command and control, decision rights, and resource utilization more “efficient.” Matrix organizations were introduced to try to solve some of the problems with hierarchical organizations, but there are still a lot of problems that remain, including those which are obstacles to Innovation.

As we discussed before, there isn’t a magic recipe for innovation, but there are plenty of ways to mess up the cake. To help understand how, let’s capture the problems associated with failure of innovation into two categories, as described in the excellent “Driving Results Through Social Networks” by Rob Cross and Robert J. Thomas:

  1. The inability to recognize opportunities and recombine expertise (in-house or accessible through extended networks)
  2. The inability to test and prototype ideas rapidly when people do recognize opportunities

We can imagine situations where some companies* might not experience either or both of these problems often, if at all. However, many companies do experience these problems and their ability to gain competitive advantage through innovation suffers as a result. Cross and Thomas identify three key obstacles that contribute to the problems described above:

  • Fragmentation – The kind of collaboration needed to more frequently recognize opportunities, recombine expertise, and rapidly test and prototype ideas breaks down right along organizational boundaries. This could be breakdown of integration and collaboration along functional lines, industry or product specialties, technical competencies, etc.
  • Domination – Within a given group there are likely members with a lot of expertise/credibility, which was often acquired in the past when times were good. Their voices can often drown out novel ideas and/or drive innovation along traditional paths when what’s really needed is an entirely new approach.
  • Insularity – Groups are often completely unaware of expertise outside that might very well be the key, most effective way to do something. The “Not Invented Here” syndrome is a classic example of this effect.

How can we overcome these obstacles? A good approach is to support networks that cross organizational boundaries. Those kinds of networks help encourage integration and collaboration that would otherwise be absent due to fragmentation. They also help identify expertise outside of the normal confines of an insular group. And by diversifying the sources of expertise, the ability for an entrenched way of thinking to dominate is lessened.

But it isn’t enough to simply tell everyone to sign up and “get connected.” Software that supports the formation of networks is a very useful tool, but it won’t be effective if incentives run counter to collaboration, if goals are in continuous opposition between business units, etc. In short, the culture must at least give the individuals, and the tools they use to collaborate, enough support that it’s worth their while, as well as the company’s. This requires management to not only support, but also to participate in, the use of these tools and collaboration efforts.

* They might be, for example, companies where testing and prototyping ideas rapidly is fairly easy (internet technology companies come to mind) and sure enough, you see a typically higher frequency of innovation in those companies (which is, not coincidentally, very much the whole driving force behind their businesses.)

Posted in Innovation, social network, Uncategorized | 5 Comments »

Inigo Montoya on Innovation

Posted by Mark Bennett on April 14, 2009

"I do not think it means what you think it means."

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

While often noted for his death-defying, single-minded thirst for revenge, Inigo Montoya also had a penchant for making sure that words were used in their correct meaning. Lately, much has been said about how “Innovation” will help pull us out of the current economic crisis and many companies talk about how “Innovative” they are, but while people keep using that word, how much do they really know what it means in those contexts? If they don’t know what it really means, then how can they help it happen? Like Vizzini (“Inconceivable!”), we run around and shout, “Innovation!” whether it’s a company trying to address declining sales or increasing costs, or simply in response to the sense that the competition, or a recession, (a.k.a. “Dread Pirate Roberts”) is gradually, relentlessly catching up.

What do we know? The official definition of innovation (“Something newly introduced or the act of introducing something new.”) is a bit too broad, but it does remind us that innovation is both the process as well as the outcome. We tend to focus on outcome/results and not so much on the process. We are also accustomed to thinking of innovation first in technological terms rather than social and economic terms, and that limits our thinking about where innovation can be found. We also know that innovation is key to a company’s long-term profitability and survival since it can provide a competitive advantage. But that’s still outcome-focused; we know we want it, but we’re not sure how to get it.

So for our discussion, let’s describe innovation as the process of providing a new, better way of doing something. Fine, so how do we make it happen? The Myths of Innovation“, by Scott Berkun, provides an excellent and entertaining overview of innovation (and includes a very useful annotated bibliography.) More so, he lays out chapter by chapter how much of our frustration with making innovation happen comes from many misconceptions/myths that have been taught/sold to us. Much of it boils down to a simple overall conclusion which is that there really isn’t one simple formula to make innovation happen, but there are plenty of things that stop it.

So what does this have to do with talent management? While our talent management processes and models may not be able to ensure innovation will happen, at least on demand, we can still examine how they can help or hinder the process of innovation.

One good place to start is goal management as a mechanism to communicate what problems people are working on. We’ve talked before in this blog about how problem-solving is often a source of innovation. Goals can be an excellent trigger for problem-solving and hence a possible trigger for innovation if constructed carefully. Are your goals not only SMART, but are you also looking for ways in which goals capture what problems need to be solved? For example, a typical SMART goal might state a desired outcome of 1 million new widget sales by the end of the fiscal year. That’s great and is full of all the specific, measurable, time-based goodness, but a way to help spark innovation might be to connect that goal to a desired strategic objective – say becoming market leader in that product category. That might get someone to think of the bigger picture and who knows, connect an unmet customer segment demand in widgets to a customer satisfaction with another product and come up with something that ignites sales beyond the initial target. In other words, don’t let goals limit thinking by being just about the numbers.

A related area is performance management. So often, performance management takes the form of focusing on where the employee “didn’t measure up.” Individual performance is important and measurement against goals is a key part of determining performance. However, an overweight focus on goals in measuring performance can result in “Goals Gone Wild” and detract from contribution and prudent risk-taking behaviors outside the bounds of the original goals. Why should anyone expend energy innovating outside their box if there is only downside? Once again, taking the time to communicate, recognize, and reward desired collaborative behaviors can help innovation by encouraging employees to invest time in efforts that while risky, might create new competitive advantage for the company.

That’s just a start; we’ll look at some additional ways to foster innovation while still achieving business objectives in upcoming posts. In the meantime, what are your thoughts?

Here are some other good books to check out on Innovation:

Posted in Innovation, Uncategorized | 7 Comments »

Is the bell tolling for the bell curve?

Posted by Ken Klaus on February 14, 2009


In an entry I posted last year titled, Taking the number out of the equation: Performance evaluations without performance ratings, I extolled the virtues of eliminating the performance rating.  Well actually what I said was “I am willing to accept that assigning a rating value is an easy and (mostly) objective way of evaluating worker performance.  But I can see no need to ever share the rating assessment with the worker (me) – because the rating is not meant for me, it’s just a tool for my manager.”  Assuming, as I did, that the HR department was closely following my posts, no doubt with great enthusiasm, I anticipated my proposal would be implemented that very same week.  Alas, I am still waiting.  What’s more, in a cruel twist of irony or possibly just well deserved Karma, I was recently asked to manage an internal performance review process we’re conducting within the development organization.  I’m still trying to work out the horrors I commited in a past life to have earned this privilege, but never mind – that’s not really what I wanted to write about anyway.  Getting back to the previous post, in the sentence immediately preceding the one I quoted above, I said “I think the whole bell curve model is a pile of horse manure – but that’s a topic for another day.”  Happily, that day has arrived.


Over the past year I’ve been contemplating how companies facilitate their talent review meeting.  Central to the talent review process is a box-chart analytic, generally in a 3×3 configuration, which most in the industry simply refer to as the nine-box.  For the uninitiated, here’s an example:

Nine-box Analytic

What I like, scratch that, what I love about the nine-box model is the multi-dimensional feedback it provides; helping customers not just to see what’s happening in their organization, but what they need to do to better align their talent management strategy with their business strategy.  The nine-box discussion makes the talent review meeting a true business driver and not just another dead end discussion.  Talent review meetings help companies assess worker engagement, risk of loss, organizational diversity, candidates for succession, and development gaps and they provide a starting point for addressing these challenges as well.  By comparison the bell curve analytic just feels outdated and sadly monochromatic.


In the global battle to attract and retain top talent it may turn out that the people you need to succeed are already working at your company; but if you can’t discover, motivate, challenge, develop, promote and compensate them, the battle may already be lost.  Talent reviews are one way for companies to identify, develop and reward both their best performers and their high potentials; but they also help to reveal the underlying reasons for poor performance –  workers who are in the wrong role, who need additional training, who are being poorly managed or under compensated – as well as those who simply need to be managed out of the organization.  The one dimensional feedback provided in the bell curve will never help to surface these critical path issues.  The nine-box, by contrast, offers a multi-dimensional perspective of the organization that can serve as the anchor for the talent review meeting and the cornerstone of a holistic talent management strategy.


I’d love to hear what you think about the bell curve, the nine-box, talent review meetings, or any of the other talent management challenges facing your organization.  In the mean time I’m off to lead this internal performance review and hopefully earn a little good Karma in the process.  Wish me luck!


Posted in analytics, Innovation, talent review | Tagged: , , | 9 Comments »