Essay

Rethinking Innovation in a Bureaucracy

About a year ago my organization embarked on journey to modernize. Recognizing that many of the best ideas for organizational improvement probably resided in the workforce not the board room, we began soliciting ideas from throughout the firm.

During a town hall meeting I appealed to newer employees who may have ideas from other organizations they have worked in, to younger employees who may have ideas based on exposure to new technology or ideas from school, and to our more experienced employees who have observed the organization over the years and probably have some insightful observations that could help us modernize. The seasoned employees also understand the bureaucratic systems and processes better than anyone and can help us avoid pitfalls as we move forward.

I got some criticism for that approach.

While I thought I was appealing to everyone to be innovative about how we do business, what some employees heard was, “the young employees are innovative and have great ideas and the older ones only know the old ways of doing things.” I have been vocally critical of many of the “old ways” as the outdated processes derived in the 1900s might need an overhaul. Unfortunately some employees interpreted my criticism of 20th Century policies as criticism of our 20th Century employees.

I can understand why some people might think that.

It’s so common to have become cliché: when leaders are looking for change agents in their workforce they often look towards younger employees, hoping a bevy of good ideas will emerge from among the most tech-savvy amongst them. Confusing a willingness to learn and employ new technology with true innovation, many senior leaders believe that the best ideas must come from the portion of the firm’s population most willing to try the latest gadget or app.

And they would be wrong.

Innovation has little to do with an ability to employ emerging technology. Digital natives (people who have grown up in the digital age) typically have a cultural propensity to adopt new technologies as they emerge. After all, new technologies have emerged regularly throughout their lives, and adopting new ones is quite natural. Digital immigrants (those of us that are acquiring skills in digital systems as adults), on the other hand, culturally have different ideas about adopting new tech.

But adopting new tech isn’t really innovation, is it? While there are dozens of different definitions for innovation, the one I like to use is this:  Innovation is combining two or more things in a new way to bring about value.

Using a new app isn’t innovative. It can be useful, but it isn’t necessarily innovative. The inverse may be a truism: the unwillingness to try a new technology will likely impede innovation. But that isn’t because of the technology: it’s about the unwillingness to try.

So innovation isn’t about age, it’s about culture. It’s about a willingness to try to implement new ideas. It’s about experimenting with new ways of doing things. It’s about being thoughtful about the world around you, and imagining how things might be better. It’s about a willingness to see more opportunities than obstacles. Most importantly, it’s about being willing to fail.

Fail? Why would I have to be willing to fail? Because when you try to bring about something new that has value there is a chance that it won’t work. If you’re not willing to take that risk, nothing new will ever emerge. Innovation is about imagining new things and having the willingness to risk failure to give them a chance to succeed.

Don’t misunderstand this tenet as a license to drive the organization off the road. Failing while innovating requires taking prudent steps to mitigate risks, and learning to fail early enough in an effort to learn from it. 

The hard part about practicing innovation in government or large organizations is that bureaucracies tend to be exceptionally risk averse. Having been burned before, these organizations don’t want to risk failures or public criticism or lawsuits by deviating from “the process.” The longer someone has been in the organization the more likely it is that they have been told to “shut up and color inside the lines” by a leader who isn’t willing to take the risk of failing.

Too often our more experienced employees have enough scar tissue from early attempts at innovation that they have simply quit trying. Process-centric bureaucracies don’t often reward non-compliance and creativity. Quite the opposite, they tend to stamp them out. I once had a boss actually tell me to “quit thinking and start doing.” He wasn’t my favorite boss. 

Interestingly, studies have shown that the average age of a majority of successful innovators is somewhere in the mid-40s or later.  See RPRN Mag, or Newsweek, or Government Executive. Research indicates that it is often the nexus of experience and the willingness to fail that brings about the best innovations in any organization. That is, of course, if their organization lets them.

If we want to modernize, we need to change our culture. Our challenge as leaders is to overcome the existing risk-averse culture, and try to instill a culture of innovation. This means seeking out change leaders and innovators throughout your organization and empowering them to make things better. It means reinforcing innovative successes and underwriting honest failures. It means identifying and exploiting talent in every part of your organization regardless of demographics, including age, rank, or longevity with the firm. 

Since we embarked on our modernization effort we have received literally hundreds of great ideas from across the organization. Unsurprisingly many of the best ideas have come from our most experienced workers. Moreover, the experienced workforce knows how these great ideas might actually work in our risk-averse organization and are taking the initiative to make things happen. I couldn’t be more impressed by the way many people have begun embracing new ideas.

It doesn’t seem to matter how young or old our innovators are, or where they are in the organization’s hierarchy. What seems to matter is how willing they are to imagine a better way to do things and a willingness implement change.

Leaders need to back these innovators, and give them a voice when the process-driven culture lashes back at them. 

By the way, Steve Jobs was well over 50 when Apple introduced the IPhone. Just saying.

Story

A Poor Sailor Blames the Wind

One of the best jobs I ever had was commanding a battalion responsible for transforming raw recruits into Soldiers. There are many great professionals involved in this very difficult mission, but the key to successfully training young men and women lies with the Drill Sergeant. This is a tough job which tends to wear out our NCOs, so the Army normally limits a Drill Sergeant’s time “on the trail” to two years. This means that every training unit experiences 50% turnover in its most critical personnel every year.

Training units responsible for Army Basic Combat Training are typically required to brief their performance and training achievements semi-annually. This consists of a series of briefings from subordinate companies which are then rolled into battalion briefings and presented to a General Officer somewhere up the chain. In typical Army fashion these briefings are most often PowerPoint marathons where staffs compile and present often-meaningless statistics that “prove” the unit is doing a great job training young recruits and managing their training cadre.

Likely the most mockable portion of these briefings is the inevitable “Red, Amber, Green” assessment (or T,P,U assessment where units report if they are “Trained, need Practice, or are Untrained”) which require some form of assessment by commanders about their own units. There is usually some magical formula behind the ratings that give the appearance of objectivity to the proceedings.

A few years ago, as a new battalion commander, I got to watch a series of these briefings where I saw nearly every company commander report themselves as Amber or “needs Practice” on the Mission Essential Task of “Train Soldiers.” The reasoning behind the Amber rating was that each unit had “lots of new Drill Sergeants who lacked the experience to get us to Green.” This was usually acknowledged with a sympathetic knod.

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Story

Saying Farewell: How we treat people who leave matters

When I was a young lieutenant I was in a really great unit. The leaders were engaged, and it seemed like everyone was truly dedicated to the Army and the mission. The culture in that unit was very pro-career, and nearly every young officer spoke of long-term career goals.

But occasionally, a young officer would show up that only planned on completing their initial obligation, typically 4-5 years. They had other career and life aspirations, and didn’t think they wanted to stay on active duty for the next 20 years.

These officers were typically looked down on and often treated as second-class citizens. Sure, most of them were as competent as the next guy, but that didn’t matter. They were quitters. They didn’t love this profession the way the rest of us did.

It was easy to adopt this kind of attitude. You were “in” and they weren’t.

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Story

Urban Legends, Myths, and the Irrational Tendency to Ignore Facts

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

A few months ago I attended a High School soccer match downtown which was scheduled to end just in time to get the spectators (who were largely from the suburbs) out into afternoon traffic. As the game wound down the usual debate began amongst the local traffic experts sitting in the stands about how to make the 25 mile drive back to our home town. “Take I-40 straight to 67 then go on up,” says one. “You’ll be stuck for an hour that way. Better to go through town and up I-30,” retorts another expert. “I never go that way at this time of day! It’s sure to be backed up,” says a third. I watched in fascination as these guys speculated as to the likelihood of traffic delays and the usual traffic patterns. No consensus was found and I was interested as to whether this was going to turn into a live experiment after the game.

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Essay

Dribbling with Your Head Down: failing to see how you impact the bigger mission

In my spare time I coach youth soccer. I never thought of myself as a coach, but when my kids were starting off in bee-hive ball the leagues were always looking for volunteers to help out. Figuring this was a great way to spend time with my kids I signed on. Eventually my kids got older (as they are wont to do) and “better” coaches showed up to train my kids. What I found, though, is that I was still coaching my kids, only this time from the sidelines. I was frustrated because the coaches weren’t coaching the way I thought they should.

That’s when I figured out that nobody was going to coach the way I wanted them to but me. If I wanted my kids to get my brand of coaching I would have to put up or shut up, regardless of how busy I am with work or other distractions. (see Work/Life balance)

Now I’m not saying I’m the best youth soccer coach out there. I’m saying coaching from the sidelines is counterproductive and if you aren’t willing to put in the time between games you haven’t earned the right to coach your kid during the game. (Note to sideline parents: read that last sentence again and either pitch in at practice or pipe down during the game. Your player can’t listen to both of us at the same time and I actually know the game plan.)

So I started to learn to coach. I read up-teen books and watched as many videos, and even attended USA Soccer’s licensing program. I got better at it.

One of the things all the professionals emphasize is the importance of individual skills. At younger ages, they teach individual skills even at the expense of team skills. Footwork, shooting, individual defending… these are primary. Tactics and moving as a team is secondary as these are advanced skills that kids can learn later, and build upon the individual skills. This is the sine qua non of youth soccer training, at least according to the experts.

It is also a problem, and explains a lot about American soccer and about the modern workforce.

Kids who are only focused on their own skills pay a lot of attention to what is happening on the ground in front of them when they have the ball, and not much else. You can watch it on any youth soccer field.

Here is what I observed last weekend. When the ball arrived at little Johnny’s feet, his head automatically dropped as his focus shifted. He knew roughly where the goal was because he was looking at it before the ball arrived, but he won’t see it again any time soon. He began to dribble towards the opponent’s goal, vaguely acknowledging the shouts from the crowd and teammates, but only seeing what was in his peripheral vision. His eyes were glued to the ball.

Despite the fact that the defense had shifted all of their players to his side of the field and he was about to be surrounded, Johnny didn’t have a clue. He also couldn’t seem to hear or see his open teammate on the other side of the field who was in a good scoring position. He was fixated on his own stuff.

Now Johnny is a pretty good dribbler, but very few kids can get through 4 or 5 defenders. Johnny isn’t one of those kids. He, predictably, lost the ball and the other team began their counter-attack.

Johnny’s coaches have failed him because he never learned to dribble with his head up. Nor was he taught to “look off the ball” to see what else is going on. When you are focused on your own stuff so intently, you don’t see what has changed on the field. How have your teammates adjusted? How has the opposing team changed? Where exactly are you on the field? These things are nearly invisible to Johnny and his ilk as they focus on themselves.

Some people never outgrow this tendency.

I have seen company commanders “solve” their problem by pushing it into someone else’s sector. I have seen battalion commanders declare victory in their own area even though their momentary success contributed nothing to the brigade’s mission. I have seen professional, senior leaders focus on the task at their feet and fail to “look off the ball” and see how their actions impact their teammates, their opponents, and the field.

I have learned that teaching soccer players at the earliest opportunity to dribble with their heads up makes a huge difference in the long run. When they see how their actions are affecting the game they can make better, more creative decisions about how to contribute to the team’s success. Teaching Lieutenants and Sergeants to lift their head to see the environment, their teammates and adversaries while accomplishing their tasks pays incalculable dividends later. Teaching junior managers and leaders throughout any organization to see where they fit into the bigger picture, and where their actions support the organization’s overall mission and vision is essential to maximizing each person’s potential. It will help people see where they need to act outside their job description to contribute to your organization’s success.

It’s very difficult to get people to look off the ball and put their individual effort (or their section’s, division’s, etc.) second to the overall mission and vision. It is nearly impossible if they are rewarded their entire careers for being great individual achievers. If team play is secondary to personal accomplishment you will have a difficult time getting teams of teams to operate as a mutually supporting organization focused on an overarching vision.

Teach your people to dribble with their heads up from the start, and you will reap the benefits for a long time to come.

Story

Potato Peelers and a Culture of Innovation

spudsIn the summer of 2013 I went to work with the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group (SSG) in DC. The group was set up to do some innovative thinking and produce some ideas of value to the CSA and the Army. The director of the SSG at the time was a retired US Army Colonel with a PhD named Dave. When my cohort first arrived at the SSG, Dave told us a story about why we were there that has stuck with me ever since.

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Story

Walking on the Grass: Abandon Outdated Constraints

As a young captain I was privileged to serve on the staff at the US Army War College at Carlisle Barracks. Carlisle is a beautiful post with a rich history, and I truly enjoyed being in that environment. Among the most impressive buildings there is Upton Hall which has an interesting history of its own. At the time I served there it housed the Military History Institute, and sported a beautiful green lawn that would be the envy of many golf courses. In the corner of this pristine lawn stood a small, obscure sign that read, “Please walk on the grass.”

The first time I saw it I did a double take. Walk on the grass? Wasn’t this an Army post? Every private and every cadet is taught from the very beginning not to walk on the grass. Why in the world would this sign be there? Continue reading