Before launching my training and consulting practice, I worked for three Fortune 50 corporations, each ranked No. 1 in their respective markets.
The question that executives at those companies focused their attention on was, “How do we get employees to better support the organization’s goals?”
As we step into 2010, that question has become obsolete. Today, in the face of economic retrenchment, the question leaders need to be asking is, “How can we support creative thinking and innovation with a downsized organization?”
As more and more salespeople returned from customer meetings with smaller and fewer orders this past year, survival demanded difficult and sometimes drastic organizational cuts.
Fixed costs needed to be reduced. The first positions to be eliminated were those filled with under-performers. While their presence provided a buffer when someone called in sick, their value could not be justified. Then mid-year, as credit lines contracted and forecasts were adjusted down, a second retrenchment became necessary. This wave of cuts was more personal. Those who found themselves in job transition were employees who made a difference, but not strategically indispensable to corporate survival. By the third quarter, as hope for a year-end economic upswing dwindled, many leaders were forced to undertake another wave of layoffs. These cuts went directly to the core of the organization. Only essential team members were spared. For some companies, this meant operating as a shell of its former self, retaining only the most competent, clever and capable team members.
This dramatic retrenchment caused the former hierarchical structure to be replaced with a more circular collaborative approach where cross-functional team members now must gather together, ignoring titles and positions, to brainstorm ideas, solve problems and invent new strategies for success.
Frances Hesselbein, chairman of the board of governors for the Leader to Leader Institute, states that, “As we hurtle into the future, there is no time to negotiate with nostalgia for outmoded, irrelevant polices, procedures and assumptions. Our rapidly changing turbulent times do not accommodate the neat and tidy ways we have always done things. We must practice ‘planned abandonment’ which means keeping mission, vision and values, the soul of the organization, centered and aligned as we leave behind a past that spells irrelevance in the future. The old answers do not fit the new questions.”
Tectonic economic shifts have turned traditional business disciplines into outdated business practices: planning cycles are shrinking, forecasting trajectories are harder to predict, and business assumptions are difficult to validate as the measure of success changes. I believe these uncharted times will take us places that we can’t yet see.
It’s incumbent upon leaders to build that bridge between the present and that unknown future. Curiosity and creative thinking must be nurtured at all levels. For some companies this might be as simple as giving employees permission to speak candidly. For others this might require a new business structure and a vehicle for participating. A simple yet effective approach to help engage employees is to ask them thought-provoking and relevant questions. This will help them feel safe while they explore what it feels like to offer their ideas and suggestions. It’s best to craft questions that are specific to your business, but here are some ‘conversation starters’ to consider:
- “What one step in our (sales, etc.) process would you eliminate to improve productivity and profitability?”
- “What is the single biggest market opportunity that we are missing right now?”
- “What two market opportunities should we be preparing the company to leverage in the near future (1 – 3 years)?”
- “What one area could we improve to offer more value to our customers?”
- “What do we need to do to exceed customer expectations?”
You never know where opportunities will unfold that didn’t exist before. Innovation used to germinate within the boundaries of the corporate hierarchy. However, even A.G. Lafley, Procter & Gamble’s CEO, now says that, “Innovation is the central job of every leader regardless of the place he or she occupies on the organizational chart.”
The real opportunity that companies have today is to take control of their own destinies and begin to consciously innovate. Success belongs to those who dare to envision a not-yet-conceived future.