Category: Change Management


Employee Innovation Program Considerations

On June 14th Stockwell Day announced an Employee Innovation Program to incent public servants to find cost savings in government.  The program would see public servants with a “creative or practical idea” receive a cash award of 10% of the cost savings, up to $10,000.

Directionally, this is positive movement for the GoC.  No matter the discipline, aligning rewards to the behaviours you are seeking is a classic management approach.  Without a profit motive, and particularly given the heightened political risk of failure (see previous post Failing Forward), public servants often have little incentive to push forward ideas for improvements that might lead to cost savings.  This costs the public service dearly.  If you also layer on the fact that with a knowledge based economy it is invariably at the employees’ discretion whether or not they want to contribute their knowledge for the betterment of the organization, it is important to stack as many cards as possible in favour of the employee wanting to contribute what they know.

While the Program is directionally sound, running internal innovation programs can be very challenging.  Here are a list of issues Mr. Day and the Pilot Departments will have to consider as their Programs become operational:

Resourcing: one of the biggest challenges with internal innovation programs is how to free up the right resources to work on new initiatives.  In my experience, these programs create what I call “incremental work packages” to the organization which create a burden often seen as surplus to an individuals’ “9-5” job.  Each department will need to come up with a strategy that balances the need to free up resources from their current tasks with the need to complete what was originally planned.  Similar to aligning behaviour through incentives, ensuring the contributing to Innovation Program work is on the performance scorecards of resources, and those who own them, is one approach to finding the necessary resource support.

Intra-preneurship is not one size fits all: related to the above, not all individuals who have a great idea are fit to lead its implementation.  Conversely, not all great implementers are creative minds.  Any internal innovation program needs to take into consideration the skills required to pull the idea off.  This may mean, in some cases, that the idea submitters’ involvement in the implementation is not in a leadership capacity.

Governance: while the notion of an innovation program conjures up images of amazing ideas being submitted in terms of their quality, clarity, and alignment to organization objectives, this is often not the case.  Usually, ideas submitted have not had the benefit of time to be fully thought through, and they often miss the mark in terms of their ability to satisfy the organization’s objectives.  A Governance process that uses criteria to evaluate ideas and make portfolio decisions is important to ensure that investment dollars flow to the right kind of idea for the organization, that the organization has a good distribution of ideas, and that the ideas where possible related to one another to amplify their benefits.

Process: as I’ve said before, Innovation is both a product of a process and a process itself.  While an idea often requires random creativity, the implementation of the idea requires an innovation process that is disciplined.  Discipline doesn’t necessarily mean rigid, but structured enough to ensure that an organization can practice and habituate.  There needs to be rigor behind the execution but notional flexibility to ensure the implementation can move in the direction it needs to to realize the benefits originally sought.

The Right Incentive: given the size of government, as well as individual departments within government, the potential for large cost savings for good ideas is significant.  Capping the incentive amount protects the government, yet it could also limit the amount of creativity.  In the public sector context, the reward needs to outweigh the career risk of failure.  There is a risk that a $10K reward cap may limit the ideas to smaller improvements as the reward may not justify the risk of trying to implement larger ones.  This is where leadership in the department needs to step in and begin to change the culture to one that is more tolerant of risk.

Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat: Employee Innovation Program

Embrace the Buzz

I recently received a subscribed-to update email from the American Management Association (AMA).  The first piece of content, titled “A new leadership role model: honeybees” struck me as an interesting one so I delved a little deeper.

It turns out that professor Michael O’Malley form the Columbia Business School has written a book called The Wisdom of Bees where he aims, among other things, to demonstrate that bees have much to teach the business world about how to be productive.

As I read the abstract in the AMA newsletter and browsed other Blog articles where Michael’s work had been discussed, I couldn’t help but make the link between the lessons Bees teach us and their applicability to an organization’s attempt at being innovative.

According to Michael, bee colonies teach us 3 important organizational lessons:

1.  Protect the future

2.  Permit individuality

3.  Promote stability

Let’s consider each in turn in the context of Innovation.

Protect the future

One need only look at the graveyard of brand name companies to know that many don’t protect their future.  With the average life expectancy of a multi-national/Fortune 500 company at about 40-50 years, it’s clear that even the biggest and best don’t do it well.

An organization’s innovative capacity is critical to its longevity.  Organizations that orient themselves to their external environment and are hyper aware of, and adapt to, its changing circumstance are better equipped to protect their own futures.   There is a direct correlation between your ability to protect your future and your ability to innovate.

Permit individuality

I see two dimensions to this lesson.  The notion of permitting individuality is both about the distribution of decision making as well as the diversity of personnel.  While innovation is both a product and a process (see below), ideas themselves are usually the byproduct of individual creativity and group collaboration.  Permitting individuality at both layers in an organization increases its agility and creativity, thus boosting its innovative capacity and ability to protect its future.

Promote stability

In an earlier Blog post I talked about the barriers to innovation in the public sector – delivery pressures and administrative burdens, lack of resources, and low tolerance for risk – and how public sector organizations need to better embrace failure and ensure that the learnings from those failures are harvested and harnessed.   The lesson of promoting stability is again one that has two dimensions to it.  First, and related to the above barriers, organizations need to create stability in the minds of resources within the organization that innovation is indeed important and will be supported both politically as well as with resources.  Because innovation entails risk, particularly political risk in the public sector, psychological stability needs to be created by senior management by demonstrating a higher risk tolerance and an acceptance of failure in support of learning.  Second, organizations need to promote stability by trying to habituate innovation.  While ideas are creative, innovation itself is a process that requires practice.  Building an innovative process capability in the organization promotes stability in execution which will, over time, increase innovative capacity and once again better enable protection of the future.

 

Failing Forward

A recent article by Lee McCormack in the May 2010 issue of Government Executive Magazine discussed innovation in the context of the public sector (PS).  His key barriers to PS innovation – delivery pressures and administrative burdens, lack of resources, and low tolerance for risk – are not unfamiliar to anyone who has tried to transform or create an organization, product, or service.

What struck a chord as I read this article was the phrase “Fail Forward”.  Many practitioners, including myself, within the product or service innovation space will have used the term “fail fast” and/or “fail often” at some point in time to convey an approach to innovative work where an organization progresses initiatives at a pace that allows them to know quickly whether or not that initiative will fail so that investments are minimized.  But to Lee’s point, and to the chagrin of many within the PS who have attempted to do something with good intentions but who have failed, failure often presents negative and significant career ramifications for public servants which is one of the key reasons why the PS has had challenges innovating.  The notion of Failing Forward – accepting that sometimes innovation will fail and that it shouldn’t hamper an employee’s advancement – is critical.

As I thought about this further, I couldn’t help but equate this situation – the mandate to innovate and improve but the lack of a cushion to fail on – with the situation parents face almost every day.  With children, it is our job to facilitate our children’s development; their mental and physical growth.  If we define innovation as at-least incremental improvement to <something>, we are indeed the shepherds of our children’s innovation.  Their improvement at riding a bike, hitting a baseball, or playing piano is directly related to our practice as parents to ensure they know there is a cushion to fail on.  For mistakes made at riding a bike, hitting a baseball, or playing piano are good mistakes because they learn from them and get better because of it.  In fact, after guiding them through a few mistakes, we know they eventually won’t need us any more.  In an organizational context, this is a path to efficiencies and employee engagement.

Don't take the bike away if they fall a few times

We usually don’t take the bike away after a couple of falls.

A culture of risk intolerance can be such a disservice to an organization.  First,  it creates so much fear of failure that even the “right thing to do” is not done.  Second, when failure occurs and people are subject to negative consequences, the learning from the failure is lost and not applied to the next situation so organizational learning grinds to a halt.  While changing a culture built up over decades is a significant challenge, when approached one thought at a time it becomes more manageable.  So for PS executives and leaders, one thought exercise to engage in when facing decisions about how to deal with failures and learning in the context of an innovative/new work initiative is to picture a young child on a bike with training wheels and remember the approach you’d take to shepherding their improvement.

GTEC 2009

Systemscope returned to GTEC October 6, 2009 with a full day of open sessions focused on top-of-mind issues for public sector leaders: making appropriate and effective use of emerging technologies to support employee collaboration, citizen engagement, and government transparency; improving information management maturity in an enterprise setting; and delivering results in a time of unprecedented challenge and transition for the public sector.

Systemscope is one of Ottawa’s Top Ten Employers

Employees’ Choice Awards 2008/09

Ottawa HR Magazine
A publication of the Ottawa Business Journal
November 3, 2008

Of the 10 companies receiving Employees’ Choice Awards in 2008-09, one shines. While most of the winners impressed for one or two main reasons, it is a small consulting firm that proved to be the full package.

Systemscope is an information, management and technology consulting firm that consists of 16 full-time employees, along with various individuals that work for the company when the need arises. What people don’t realize is that they are among the best in their industry and are working hard to attract those best suited to join their team.

“We don’t just hire to a position,” says Stephen Karam, partner. “We don’t have open positions. Our philosophy since we took over is to look for top talent, go after them and get them part of a team. And that would attract more top talent, because it’s not that people necessarily want to work with Systemscope, it’s because they want to work with the people inside Systemscope, they want to work with the Systemscope team.”

And to not only attract, but keep top talent, you need to be a unique operation.

“I think in order to attract and obtain top talent, we have to have a philosophy that is flexible,” says Karam. “The mantra we like to use is that we are all big boys and girls, we know we have a job to do. So however you need to do it to accommodate your life, please do so but understand as well that you are part of a community and that’s part of what draws people here.”

Their method is certainly working. Since Karam and his partner Denis Barbeau took over Systemscope in 2004, they have only lost two employees, both of whom have gone on to become clients. In an employee survey Systemscope was rated incredibly well by its staff. All respondents felt their job gave them a sense of personal accomplishment and 93 per cent said they would recommend the organization. When it came to company management and leaders, the impressive scores continued. Overall senior leadership was rated at 97 per cent and overall immediate management was rated at 95 per cent.

But not everything is rosy at Systemscope, at least not all the time. The company is in a very competitive industry, and its sole client is the federal government. This makes for a lot of big projects and with them comes a lot of stress. Karam and Barbeau try to keep the office professional without being too stiff and feeding that stress.

“When it becomes a job, that’s when things are getting too serious. We make sure there is enough levity in the company and the culture of the company,” said Karam.

When stress does hit or someone’s hard work needs to be recognized, senior management make sure to award employees with a day at the York Street Spa or reservations at a nice restaurant.

And to ensure their team is prepared for the projects they will be working on, training is a focus at Systemscope. Time is set aside for each employee’s professional development, research material is paid for by the company for any employee looking to learn on their own time and any training requests from employees are welcomed.

“We like to stay two steps ahead of our competitors and certainly our client base,” says Barbeau.

employee's choice awards - den_steveECAlogo_