When the CIA tried to reduce analytical errors in its intelligence department in the 1990s, it strengthened its verification and justification processes.
Employees were forced to rigorously document and identify the probabilities of their assumptions. They became used to trusting the process more than their employees’ ideas. As a result, the new policy prevented important warnings from being passed on the authority, such as the attacks of September 2001.
According to Gary Klein in Seeing What Others Don’t, there are forces in organizations that always seek to suspect and reject new ideas brought in by junior employees.
Even though they aim to filter the flow of ideas, they also prevent the consideration of information essential for the company to evolve and innovate.
Fortunately, there are ways to get around this repressive culture by giving employees a different voice and encouraging the creation of insights.
Here’s how four companies have done it.
Reasons for a hidden mistrust
There are many reasons why organizations create a culture that is suspicious of new ideas.
First, the need for well-organized and predictable projects and strategies. In large organizations, each project is managed so that its results can be easily reported to a superior. A clear plan, budget, and team are set at the beginning of the project. Unexpected changes are avoided even though circumstances may require it. This can involve significant filtering of new and interesting ideas, under the motive of staying “in the plans”.
Another obstacle is the culture of perfection in large companies. To avoid errors in work processes, management values work that comes as close as possible to flawless. While this is understandable to prevent hazards, this effort to eliminate errors can leave aside the positive search for new solutions and ideas. This is a bit like the CIA described above.
To deal with these two ways of filtering and reducing ideas, there are 3 strategies for restoring creativity in the workplace.
The power of stories to change insight narratives
When Shawn Calahan, the best-selling author of Putting Stories to Work, led a workshop for a local company in Singapore, he asked his audience to tell the most memorable stories they had heard during their workday. One in particular caught the audience’s attention.
One employee said that every time she went into her manager’s office his attention was always focused on his screen. Yet, once he noticed her, he would immediately leave his task and give her his full attention.
She expressed how much she appreciated this attitude and that it made her feel valued. After this workshop, many superiors were inspired by this story and began to give more attention to people coming into their offices.
This type of storytelling eventually helped to bring a new idea into the heads of the employees without the HR department having to institute measures or ask the workers to change their attitude. The latter solution would certainly not have been as effective, as companies’ hierarchical systems are often reluctant to changes.
Based on this case, replace presentations in your meetings with stories heard during the week. This will encourage your employees to also find stories to tell and instill a culture of new ideas and collective inspiration.
Organizing an alternate way
In his book, Gary Klein recounts that he met a U.S. Army general worried about the lack of ideas from his collaborators. To improve their creativity again, he then tried to institute new idea channels that bypass the army’s rigid hierarchical systems.
His strategy was to ask officers two or three times lower in the hierarchy for their opinions and ideas, and to generally promote the ideas of workgroups below him. He valued the opinions of junior employees without filtering their perspective but discussing them freely with these decision groups.
In the same way, fostering insights into your organization can be achieved by creating insights groups that meet independently and give suggestions to the executive committee. This leaves room for essential information from field employees who see more concretely market and society changes.
Promoting leadership flexibility towards goals
When Kishore Sengupta, a professor at INSEAD business school, studied the attitudes of managers facing complex scenarios where the initial goal was turned upside down, he drew a clear conclusion.
Middle managers, well able to execute strategies and achieve their initial goals, found it difficult to change goals when they were no longer relevant. Trained to set objectives and stick to them, they had difficulty changing plans creatively when necessary. That’s what he called “the experience trap”.
Therefore, when these managers move up, they bring a culture that values the pursuit of primary objectives over innovative and new goals.
This is what happened to companies that embarked on the Six Sigma requirement program, which promoted operational excellence, such as General Motors, Honeywell, or 3M. These companies implemented plans to eliminate variability and errors in business processes with great effort.
But while they improve their results in the short term, in the medium term, they impacted their figures by reducing employee flexibility and innovation.
What can be learned from this is to establish a leadership that knows when to leave a project less adapted to market situations.
By learning from them, it’s your turn to invent solutions to foster insights in your organization.